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Annual Planting Day event recognizes philanthropic impact of WCU giving societies

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Recent Western Carolina University graduate Elliott Kerns describes to donors the impact of philanthropy on her educational journey.

By Bill Studenc

Members of Western Carolina University’s leadership giving societies gathered during an annual celebration of philanthropy Friday, June 14, and heard about the impact of their generosity directly from one of the more than 1,645 recipients of scholarships supported by their donations in the 2023-2024 academic year.

Elliott Kerns, who graduated from WCU in May with dual degrees in international studies and history, thanked the donors in attendance at the fourth annual “Planting Day” on campus for helping her and fellow scholarship recipients reach their dreams of obtaining a college education – in her case, debt-free.

Hosted by WCU’s Division of Advancement and WCU Foundation, the event is designed to thank donors who comprise the Madison Legacy Society and the Cullowhee Society and honor their record of major financial contributions to the university.

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Donors (from left) Ken Hughes, Katelan Price, Lenny Smathers and Vicky Smathers share a laugh at Western Carolina University’s annual Planting Day celebration of philanthropy.

Established in 2020, the Madison Legacy Society recognizes donors who have made planned gifts to the university or the WCU Foundation, while the Cullowhee Society acknowledges cumulative giving of gifts totaling $100,000 or more.

“Seeing hard work – in the form of late nights studying, faithfully attending classes and maintaining excellent grades – rewarded through scholarships was really encouraging,” Kerns said. “These generous gifts were messages to keep going and pursuing success. What an honor for a student such as myself to be acknowledged in such a monumental way.”

Kerns received several scholarships during her time at WCU, including the Chancellor’s Madison Scholarship and the Bill and Ruth Hice Scholarship, which she credits with encouraging her to persevere in her studies and become a student in the Brinson Honors College.

“During my freshman year, I made it a goal of mine to graduate from WCU with zero college debt. I am very pleased and proud to say that this goal was achieved. I could not have done it alone, though. I had incredibly supportive family members who assisted me in my journey. Aside from them, though, were donors like you all who so generously gave to students like me,” she said.

“Thank you for honoring me in this way. Your generous donations freed me up to continue to work hard to excel in my studies. I was not weighed down by the burden of financial debt. Your gifts were like a weight lifted off my shoulder – a voice telling me, ‘keep going’ and ‘you’ve got this.’’’

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Western Carolina University supporters (from left) Jim Wood, Mitch Treadaway and Tim Haskett chat prior to the formal program at Planting Day.

The Madison Legacy Society currently has 178 members while the Cullowhee Society consists of 272 members, with some donors included in both giving societies. The two groups recognize lifetime giving to WCU and the critical impact of private philanthropy in helping many students achieve their goals of earning a university degree, said Jamie T. Raynor, vice chancellor for advancement.

Kathy Greeley, chair of the WCU Board of Trustees, provided an update on the impact of contributions from members of the Madison Legacy Society and Cullowhee Society during remarks at the event held in the Sunset Dining Room at Brown Hall.

The 390 donors who comprise the two giving societies have made gifts totaling nearly $110 million, Greeley said – $109,873,659.27 to be exact. In addition to funding scholarships for 1,645 students last year, members of the societies also supported infrastructure priorities in athletics and academics and student engagement programs all across campus.

Greeley, a member of the Cullowhee Society, also spoke from her perspective as a donor. She and her husband recently made a $75,000 contribution to create an endowment to support WCU’s interior design program in perpetuity. Owner of the Waynesville-based firm Kathryn Greeley Designs, she is a two-time graduate of WCU, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1973 and master’s degree in 1983.

“I can’t stress enough how much WCU faculty members had a positive impact on my career and how they have shaped my life, both personally and professionally,” she said. “It would be an understatement to say that Western Carolina has had a major impact on both my professional and personal lives. I often say that ‘WCU changes lives.’ WCU certainly changed mine. It is my hope that our gift will inspire others to establish endowments in areas of their personal passions, because I am so appreciative of what this university has done for my career in interior design.”

The endowment will provide interior design students with access to opportunities to study abroad; to attend programs, conferences and seminars; and to do research in the field of interior design.

“I hope that, as a result of these opportunities, students will be able to fulfill their passions, follow their dreams, and enjoy successful and joyous design careers. The reason for this emphasis is that my own personal opportunities to travel internationally throughout my career have galvanized my passion for design and greatly influenced my design aesthetic,” Greeley said. “I hope that Western Carolina students will be similarly motivated by their exposure to the wealth of history, art and design from around the world.”

The contribution establishing the endowment for the interior design program represents Greeley’s leadership gift to WCU’s “Fill the Western Sky” comprehensive fundraising campaign, an effort to raise a minimum of $75 million for the university’s academic, student engagement and athletics programs. She reminded attendees that their involvement in the campaign will be critical to its success.

“As members of the Madison Legacy Society and the Cullowhee Society, you already have shown that you believe in the importance of philanthropy to this university and its students. I encourage you to continue to demonstrate generosity through your participation in this campaign. It is going to take each and every one of us to make sure this campaign is successful,” she said. “Together, we can meet our campaign goal – for the good of our students.”

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Chancellor Kelli R. Brown meets with (from left) Nathan Wells, Joshua Jamison, Stephen Fish and Orlando Murcia, grounds crew members responsible for planting native flora across campus in recognition of the Madison Legacy Society and Cullowhee Society.

Chancellor Kelli R. Brown welcomed this year’s new members of the Madison Legacy Society and Cullowhee Society, naming each of them individually, and thanked all members of the groups for helping provide “the margin of excellence” for WCU students.

“This event is to honor the seeds you sow for the future by investing in the education of those who will carry on our traditions and communities, and the rich rewards your plantings reap,” Brown said. “Each of you are important in the lives of our students and our university. Your support transforms lives. Your gifts make more of a difference than you’ll ever know.”

Brown also asked the giving society members to be active participants in the university’s comprehensive fundraising campaign, which is currently in a leadership phase. The public launch of the Fill the Western Sky campaign is set for the coming fall semester.

“Moving forward as we turn our philanthropic attention to the new Fill the Western Sky campaign, we need everyone, and I do mean everyone, from Catamount Nation to join us,” she said. “Western Carolina University is grateful to each and every one of you here today, and I hope that you are moved that your contributions are helping the many students who call this place home.”

In recognition of gifts from members of the Madison Legacy Society and Cullowhee Society, a variety of native flora will be planted across campus, an act symbolic of WCU’s deep roots in Western North Carolina, Raynor said.

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