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In 2003, Swati Patel and her husband Himanshu Karvir left Chicago for Swati's hometown of Asheville and the family’s hospitality business. They already knew that they wanted to be involved in making their city better for those who live here.




"I was pretty much raised here," Swati says. "We moved here when I was 8. I consider myself an Asheville native at this point." While moving to Asheville was a homecoming for Swati, it was a new city for Himanshu. Born in India, he immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 18. He met Swati when he was a student at Georgia Tech, and she was studying at Emory. “We got married and moved to Chicago and did the corporate thing. Then we had the opportunity to move to Asheville and join the family business, and so we moved back here in 2003. So we’ve been here a long time. We have 2 kids both born here, and they love it here, and we love it here. We love our community.”


"Being in the hospitality industry, getting involved in the community was really important," he says. "I started to listen and talk and really hear from the non-profits. I read the studies, and I was surprised to see how much hidden poverty there is. It’s invisible here."


He recalls the moment he learned that there are over 200 homeless families in the Buncombe County School system. He was shocked. "I didn't think that was possible in the U.S."


The couple has seen tremendous changes in the Asheville area since 2003, and not all of them for the better. When Swati's family moved to the city in 1981, the city was struggling with housing availability and cost-of-living issues, both of which are still ongoing problems today. Another challenge that stood out to them? “There is a k-12 disparity in learning. That’s where we can really have generational change: with kids and education.”


That’s when they decided to bring the national program Horizons to Asheville. "I had stumbled upon Horizons in a magazine article," Swati says. Horizons is a tuition-free, six-week summer academic and enrichment program for children from underserved communities. Over those 6 weeks they provide exciting and engaging academic and extracurricular experiences for students who may otherwise not have those experiences. And unlike many summer enrichment programs, Horizons goes far beyond 6 weeks in the summer by offering a year-round tutoring and mentoring component. Horizons families commit to returning each year from first grade through ninth grade. These children and their Horizons teachers and staff become a kind of extended family year after year, and at events throughout the school year. The Horizons concept seemed like a natural fit for the needs they saw in Asheville underserved communities.


From there, Swati and Himanshu began to work on establishing the partnerships that would be needed to bring the Horizons program to the Asheville area. Horizons programs are hosted on the campuses of independent schools or colleges, and Swati, an alumna of Carolina Day School, approached the school about hosting this program. They were immediately on board. "The idea of having a summer enrichment program on the campus of an independent school, where a lot of space wasn’t being utilized, really resonated with me." Other organizations were soon joining the program, including the YMCA and Buncombe County Schools.


As it turned out, the kids (and their parents) liked the concept too. It turns out that the Horizons program isn't just good for improving academic outcomes. It's also a lot of fun.


"A huge part of the Horizons program is swimming," Swati explains. "It's really important. Yes, it's a safety skill, but it's also more than that. It’s also a confidence builder that translates to the classroom."


Children from underserved communities often don't have access to swimming classes. For many, swimming may even be an entirely unfamiliar activity. They may not know how to swim and may not know anyone who does.


"It's a big commitment for the kids," Swati says. "We tell them if they're going to participate in this program, they're going to learn to swim. It’s at their comfort level, with the instructors starting with dipping their feet in the water. For some of these kids, it's their first time even touching the water. By the end of the summer, if they're able to even get into the water it can feel like such a big win. Swimming becomes a favorite part of the program for many of them."


Now in its fourth year, Horizons at Carolina Day Schools has been a tremendous success. Says Swati, “I see a connection to their teachers year-round. They feel this is someone I can reach out to if I need to. Having teachers who are available to them who they can connect with and depend on and get in touch with throughout the year is really important to them. They are with the same kids year after year, and they create strong friendships.”


COVID created some challenges for the program last year. “Last year we had to do a Zoom version of our program. We were not sure how that would go. Technology is a challenge. Having access to wireless is a challenge,” noted Swati. But this incredible team of volunteers and educators met those challenges head on.


“I’m so proud of our team- Monica (the Executive Director of Horizons at Carolina Day School) the teachers, all the volunteers, because they pulled off a really great program with technical support. The parents knew who to call. We were able to get a grant to provide devices to families that didn’t have them, to provide internet for families that didn’t have it. They worked so hard all summer long. They were delivering meals to families. They did a phenomenal job.”


Despite the hard work and success of the past year, Himanshu notes how excited the Horizons team is to be back in person. “I think everybody is excited to be back in person. The teachers who have been with this program from the start are super excited to connect with the kids again. The families are looking forward to getting back on campus.” And, of course, there’s the swimming! “Getting back into the habit of getting in the water is important.”


They know coming back from this pandemic year will have its own challenges. But seeing these kids succeed makes it worth it. Swati says, “This past year has been incredibly challenging for our families. For me, success looks like really diving in the summer and this year to make sure that we work in every way possible to make sure these kids are set up for success for the long term. We want to support these kids as much as we can working with their schools and their teachers to support them throughout the school year. Whether that's through tutoring or setting up special homework diners throughout the week- whatever we can do we will.”


Swati and Himanshu credit the volunteers and staff with these successes, and also appreciate their Board of Directors. Says Himanshu, “This was just an idea. When we decided to do this, we needed to have a working Board. We really needed people that would help us. When we reached out to our initial Board members, everybody stepped up and everybody’s been really hands on.” Agrees Swati, “We have a really great Board.”


As Horizons at Carolina Day School grows, both Swati and Himanshu want to see that growth handled responsibly. According to Swati, “As the program grows year after year, we add 15 students every year. So as our program grows our needs grow. That’s our focus. We have to make sure the funding is in place. As a donor funded program, we rely on grants and donors and businesses who support the work we do. So that support determines how we can grow and support these kids.”


This summer, Horizons at Carolina Day School will be focusing on helping students recover from lost learning and the trauma caused by COVID-19. Students will be on campus for small group classes with a student: teacher ratio of at least 5:1 in predominantly outdoor classes. Like every summer, students will be engaged in project-based reading, math and science work, as well as swimming and special events.


Horizons is entirely donation funded, and their largest fundraising event happens May 12: Horizons Giving Day. An in-person fundraiser is also planned for September 9 at the Omni Grove Park Inn; both these events are essential for their ability to provide their highly effective program this summer and beyond. To learn more and to get involved as a supporter or volunteer, please go to https://www.horizonsatcarolinaday.org/


At the end of the day, this couple is dedicated to the kids Horizons is serving. Himanshu talked about one of his favorite parts of the Horizons program. “At the end of the 6 weeks, we host a talent show highlighting some of their learning. And family members are there to watch their kids or grandkids. It IS having a real impact. It is about the kids and their growth and their connections. There is real joy on their faces. There is joy for them, for us, and for our teachers who are really amazing.”


To learn more about Horizons at Carolina Day School and to get involved as a supporter or volunteer, please go to https://www.horizonsatcarolinaday.org/


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Flori Pate didn’t intend to start a food recovery revolution in Asheville. She and her husband, along with their two children, were living in Asheville, while she worked remotely as a creative director for a company based in New York in 2013. When her company decided to move all remote positions back in-house in New York, Flori decided she loved their life in Asheville too much to leave and resigned. Within 24 hours of that decision, her husband lost his Marketing Director position due to budget cuts.


With their creative backgrounds and their desire to remain in Asheville to raise their family, Flori and her husband, Ted, had to figure out what their next career move would be. A friend told them about a Startup Weekend competition being hosted by the Chamber of Commerce where contestants had 54 hours to network, brainstorm, break into teams and dream up a viable business idea to be pitched to a panel of business experts. With encouragement from Flori, Ted jumped in. His idea? Creating the “go to” app that shows where to go and what to do every day in Asheville. Their team got 5 signed contracts from local businesses that weekend based solely on the idea. Their idea, featuring Flori’s logo design, won the competition!


More and more businesses signed on and Dig Local was off and running in January of 2014.


While at a Dig Local client meeting with Pack’s Tavern (if you haven’t gone, you should! https://packstavern.com/) their Marketing Director mentioned that with the holiday season in full swing, they were throwing away huge amounts of food each evening after events in the Century Room, their event space. Flori knew from her experience with her church (Grace Covenant Presbyterian) that food insecurity was a major problem in Asheville. Their church grows tons of food each year from their Community Garden for distribution through partner agencies.


But this was a family trying to start a business of their own! They couldn't also solve the food waste problems of Asheville too. Well, nobody told Flori that. She called her church and asked them how they worked in the community to feed those in need. She was told that the church worked with several non-profits to distribute what they grow in their gardens, and if Pack’s Tavern had food to give away, they could be connected with one of those partners. They first worked with Amy Cantrell at BeLoved Asheville.


Then they had to tackle another problem. If an event is over at 10:00 at night, how would they get the food to BeLoved? So Flori called another Dig Local contact, Woody McKee, owner of AVL Ride, which had 24-hour dispatch. Her church gave the group a small starting grant to pay part of the cost incurred by AVL Ride, and the group got started.



A plan was hatched: when an event was over, Pack’s would text AVL Ride who would pick up the food and drive it the two minutes to Beloved Asheville. They would open the door, put the food in their own refrigerators and serve it the next day. They started the night of their first meeting.


From there, Food Connection was born and grew fast. They started to enlist regular food partners- businesses who didn’t just have events every so often, but that produced a lot of food waste on a daily basis. These included UNC Asheville and Deerfield Retirement Center. These were places Flori says they could reliably pick up food to distribute two to three days every week.


I spoke with Flori on a Monday and she said that with businesses opening back up, they were out picking up food from several locations that morning, including a team of volunteers at Ridgecrest Conference Center packing up leftovers from the entire weekend.


Although “rescued food” was their business model for some time, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Food Connection too. With businesses shuttered, and partners like UNCA closing down, food was becoming more scarce. All while the need for food donations grew fast.


One of their partners, Wicked Weed, reached out to say that though they were closed, they would be interested in making meals specifically for Food Connection to deliver. An anonymous donor, who was a fan of Wicked Weed and heard about this partnership came forward with a $200,000 donation to make this work possible on all sides. “I couldn’t believe it! Because we were getting calls from our partners asking if we had food for them, and I had to say ‘I’m sorry but there’s no food to rescue’, and then we get this infusion of cash at the right time.”


Through their partnerships, Food Connection shifted into high gear, delivering 5,000 meals per week last spring with the help of the YMCA. They take meals to partner agencies like Verner Early Learning, Homeward Bound’s facilities, the Swannanoa Curbside Drive-Thru, and more every week! They also began hiring chefs they had worked with whose kitchens had closed to prepare meals for delivery through their chef meal program.


Like many of us, Food Connection also took lessons from the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. “We had to ask ourselves, are we being as equitable as a non-profit as we could be? We diversified our Board and worked with a diversified group food recipient partners, but then we had to recognize that we weren’t working with any chefs that were people of color. So we had to do better.


So we started a partnership with Chef Clarence Robinson, of Cooking with Comedy Catering. “We’ve purchased over 3,000 of his delicious meals for our partners in need. That’s really been a cash infusion for his business. So it’s a win-win.


That $200,000 donation, together with other funds raised has all gone into the local food economy during the pandemic. And Food Connection (and Flori herself) is not slowing down. “It’s not our original business model, but we really like doing the chef meals. With rescued food, you may have 2,000 pounds one week and 20 pounds the next week. You just don’t know.”


But while they will continue the Chef Meal program (which you can support by “buying a meal” for someone in need!) Food Connection remains committed to rescuing freshfood before it hits the landfill. Part of this commitment stems from a genuine care for feeding those who are hungry with healthy, high quality food, but it is also about the environmental impact of food waste.

Food waste is a huge contributor to climate change. Food waste rotting in a landfill creates methane gas. In our country, 40% of food gets thrown out. So our model really makes sense from a community standpoint, from an environmental standpoint, and from a small business standpoint because the restaurants we work with can write these donations off on their taxes.” It really took Food Connection to make these connections and be the bridge.


One of the early hurdles Flori and her team had to jump was the mindset that many restaurants and facilities had: that it is illegal to donate food or that they would face some form of potential liability by donating leftover food. It turns out this is not a concern due to a law signed in 1996. “When I say nobody knows about it, I mean nobody knows about it! It’s called the Bill Emerson Food Donation Act and it is a federal law that states that if you are donating food in good faith that the food you are donating is safe, there is no liability. And that law has never been challenged in court. But people don’t know about it, and so food waste continues.” Educating businesses on this law has been a big part of her work. Businesses also like having the comfort of Food Connection to act as a sort of a middle man between them and the non-profits they give food to. “We have never had a partner business stop donating through us once they started.”


Flori thinks part of Food Connection’s success lies in not creating red tape and obstacles to be overcome. Food is available to anyone who needs it. They have no intake form or application. The food is there, it is meant to be eaten. For example, pre-pandemic, they worked with Hall Fletcher Elementary’s MusicWorks! after school program, delivering food from UNCA. Parents could pick up heat-and-serve meals for their families when they picked up their children. Regardless of income or wealth, every working parent can appreciate a healthy, ready to serve meal on a school night! “Food is for everybody!”


Flori says, “the reason people go hungry in western North Carolina and Buncombe County isn’t because of a lack of food. It is just access and waste.” To date, Food Connection has prevented over 150 metric tons of food from going into the Buncombe County landfill.


Flori isn’t content stopping with just our area. A group of women from Charlotte reached out to her in 2019 to ask about bringing this model to Charlotte. Flori had a connection with Compass Catering (the food services provider for UNCA and Mars Hill University) and knew they provided food service to at least four colleges in the Charlotte area. Compass was immediately on board and Flori, along with her supportive Board of Directors, worked with and mentored the team of Charlotte women for over a year. This organization is now known as Feeding Charlotte. She knows her model isn’t the only one in existence, but she also knows far too few communities have a resource like Food Connection. She would love to expand throughout WNC and beyond.


With the City of Asheville proclaiming April as “Stop Food Waste Month”, Food Connection is celebrating with a unique and fun fundraiser! The “Stop Food Waste Chef Dance-Off” competition goes live on April 10 featuring music by Asheville legend Ryan RnB Barber. Food Connection’s food donor partners are submitting videos of their staff dancing and we get to vote for our favorite! Anyone who shares the video (from Food Connection’s Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/foodconnection.co/) gets a free vote, and you can purchase additional votes for a $10, tax-deductible donation, where 100% of the money goes to fund Food Connection’s work.


To help Food Connection or get involved, go to https://food-connection.org/



For more information on Asheville’s “Stop Food Waste Month” CLICK HERE: https://www.ashevillenc.gov/news/city-of-asheville-raises-food-waste-awareness-invites-residents-to-join-avlfoodwastechallenge/#:~:text=to%20join%20%23AVLFoodWasteChallenge-,City%20of%20Asheville%20raises%20food%20waste,invites%20residents%20to%20join%20%23AVLFoodWasteChallenge&text=This%20week%2C%20Asheville%20Mayor%20Esther,%E2%80%9CFood%20Waste%20Reduction%20Month.%E2%80%9D

PHOTO CREDIT: Julia Lindholm - Wicked Weed Brewing


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Kate Pett, Executive Director of Thrive Asheville, loves how much our community cares. “People are passionate about this community. Even when we don’t agree, people care loudly about seeing this community thrive. I love that.”



Originally from Detroit, Kate started her career path serving with the Peace Corps in West Africa and Asia, where she was struck by the importance of education. “I was impressed with the ability of education to create community development. So I entered education as an opportunity to shape communities for greater justice and equity.”


Kate returned to the States, studied urban education at the University of Michigan. She worked both in education reform, and as a teacher in her childhood school district in Detroit. Her passion also took her outside of the classroom, where she led experiential and outdoor programs for adjudicated youth.


In the early 2000s, when Kate and her husband were living in eastern North Carolina, they decided to relocate to Asheville. “We felt this would be a great place to raise a family and be a part of a community.” As she settled in to the Asheville community, Kate began to look for ways to put her skills and experience to work.


Eventually, she found it. For 11 years, from 2008-2019, Kate was the Executive Director of the Asheville City Schools Foundation. “Leading the Asheville City Schools Foundation was what I’d always hoped to do: be a partner to education in a community-based organization where I could advocate for kids and teachers and to bring the whole support of the community behind public schools.”


Kate feels strongly about the place of education in creating a strong community. “The primary purpose of public education should be to create greater equity and access to opportunity for all of our students. I think public schools also play a critical role in helping our community know itself. When our schools become segregated, and when some students and some kinds of families don’t participate in public education, we miss the opportunity to understand what our neighbors in the community are experiencing.”


Now, Kate is bringing this holistic view of community to her work with Thrive Asheville. While serving in her role with the Asheville City Schools Foundation, it became clear to her that education by itself couldn’t overcome all of the barriers to student success. “As a result of that I became interested in how we can create cross-sector partnerships that would address all the conditions of students' lives and remove barriers to student success that had to do with neighborhoods, health conditions, employment opportunities for families. All the kinds of barriers that keep students and families locked in disadvantage and privilege other families.”


About that same time, a group of local leaders were looking at ways of bringing the community together to address some of the most complex issues facing our city. This group knew that the only way to accomplish this goal was to bring all the stakeholders together around the common purpose of nurturing growth and change in our community. This was a huge task, as it meant abandoning individual silos, and working with leaders across all sectors, including education, health, business, and economic development. Kate was invited to participate as a leader in education, in part because she was someone who understood the interconnectedness of these issues. Out of these discussions came Thrive Asheville.


Thrive Asheville was the vision of a small group of leaders who saw the need to understand complex problems and to identify innovative solutions that can be enacted across sectors. Our mission is to bring together people from diverse perspectives, build relationships, study our challenges, and then identify and enact promising solutions.”


Thrive went to work not only seeking solutions, but also digging deeper into what the causes and challenges truly are. “Our goal is to help the community come together around some shared learning. We feel like the increasing polarization that is happening in our country is also happening in our city. We need to bring a group of leaders together and learn deeply about issues so we can agree to a common set of facts. From there we can look across our country and our community and find innovative solutions. And with those we can launch pilot projects that can test out new ideas and show how collaboration can really help move the needle on these difficult problems.”


I think there is a real hunger for people to work together across sectors. I think people really recognize that this problem exists, that we are trying to tackle these tough problems with one-size-fits-all solutions very often. I think the challenge in doing that is that collaboration and cross-sector work takes time. It takes some capacity of the organization. It takes some glue. And that’s where Thrive really comes in. We can operate as the glue that connects all of these different partners.”


One of their first pilot programs, the Landlord-Tenant Partnership, is an excellent example of how this kind of collaborative innovation can work. Affordable housing has been a serious issue in Asheville for decades, and it's not an easy thing to fix. “People think that the solution to the lack of affordable housing is just to build more affordable housing. But it’s actually complex, like almost all really big problems. It has to do with not only a supply problem, but it also has to do with some of the barriers that have existed. For example, structural racism has prevented people from actually being able to increase wealth and gain access to high opportunity neighborhoods and home ownership and other opportunities that have been afforded to predominantly white people in Asheville.”


However, Asheville’s affordable housing problem needed a uniquely Asheville solution. “Our affordable housing crisis is something that we share with a lot of larger communities. Large cities are experiencing the kind of crisis that we are experiencing in Asheville, but they tend to have more resources than Asheville has. So in some ways, even though Asheville is a smaller city, we’re experiencing bigger city challenges. We needed to look for solutions that will be really cost effective.”


The Landlord-Tenant Partnership launched about 10 months ago as a partnership of the City of Asheville, Children First of Buncombe County, the Asheville Housing Authority, and Pisgah Legal. Based on a similar program in Seattle, Thrive was able to take lessons from that program and adapt it to our local circumstances. The program helps landlords better understand Housing Choice Vouchers and connects them with tenants who want to move from public housing to private rentals. “In the City of Asheville, there are tens of thousands of rentals, and yet we cannot find enough landlords to accept Housing Choice Vouchers to help our neighbors move out of unsafe neighborhoods into better neighborhoods.”


This program was helped by another partnership Thrive made in 2020: WNC Superheroes! “There’s no way to communicate with all the landlords in our community. So Thrive identified this problem, and WNC Superheroes swooped in with resources so that we could create a direct mailing to more than 4,000 landlords. As a result, we have tapped many new landlords who are excited about participating in the Landlord-Tenant Partnership.”


Did the mailing work? “As a result of the mailing, a landlord called us up who had never accepted Housing Choice Vouchers before. He has a rental that is right next door to his residence. He really wanted to find a family that could play with his grandchildren when they came to visit. We walked him through the entire process, and he matched with a mom and her two kids, and now he is super excited about having next door neighbors who have children the same age as his grandchild, and we have a mom who is overjoyed about living in a safe neighborhood with a beautiful yard and is really feeling like she can move forward in her life.”


Last Fall, Thrive also had enormous success with a voter engagement program. “Our strategy was to bring together voting advocates who had been working on this issue for a long time. When we all got together around the table it was easy to identify that there were voices missing. Black and Brown folks weren’t featured as the leaders and the faces of voting. We worked with Aisha Adams Media and created a video series that was viewed more than 30,000 times. That work was led by Black and Brown folks and energized and excited people about participating in the most recent election.”


What’s next for Thrive Asheville?

This spring, Thrive is focused on learning even more deeply about the challenges facing people around affordable housing. They have released a survey that will be used to learn more about how the affordable housing crisis is affecting families in our community. “We are going to tell their stories on video and then in May we’re going to host a virtual convening on what our city can do to better address affordable housing, and specifically to improve the path to home ownership for people who have really been locked out of that opportunity in the past.”


After that, Thrive will be tackling one of the most polarizing issues facing Asheville: tourism. “We know that tourism is a great source of economic vitality in the area, and we also know that it is putting pressure on some of the things that are essential to our quality of life. Next fall we intend to start looking at how we can create a sustainable tourism economy that can increase the resilience and equity of our community.”


How can you get involved?

Kate encourages people to get involved with Thrive Asheville by signing up for the newsletter, and following them on social media. “We really need community support in advancing new ideas and new solutions. As Thrive Asheville learns how we can solve these tough problems, we’ll be calling on the community to join us by advocating for improved policies and by implementing pilot programs. We’ll need community support to do those things. By staying informed and becoming an advocate with Thrive Asheville, the whole community can really participate in this process.”


https://www.thriveavl.org/

https://www.facebook.com/thriveavl.org

https://twitter.com/thriveasheville

https://www.instagram.com/thriveasheville/

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCCHk8NTADCHDoFubCnFSiLw?feature=emb_ch_name_e x

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