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Catamount community gives back during annual service weekend

cats give back morningstar2

Residents of Morningstar Assisted Living in Sylva enjoy a tailgate party with Western Carolina University alumni, faculty and staff as part of the "Cats Give Back" service weekend.

By Bill Studenc

Members of the Western Carolina University family from as close as the Cullowhee campus to as far away as Ohio recently took time out of their schedules to provide a helping hand to their local communities for the second annual “Cats Give Back” service weekend.

Part of February’s eighth annual “I Love WCU Month,” the weekend provided Catamounts from across North Carolina and beyond opportunities to participate in community activities designed not to benefit the university but to support nonprofit organizations and those in need. Most activities took place Feb. 16-18.

“The Catamount community – from current students, faculty and staff through alumni to longtime WCU supporters – has once again demonstrated during the second ‘Cats Give Back’ initiative that Cats do indeed give back,” said Stacey Miller, WCU’s director of alumni engagement. “They are helping expand the impact of the university beyond the boundaries of campus to benefit local nonprofits and neighbors in need.”

In Jackson County, longtime WCU supporter Jeanne McGuire organized a group of about a dozen women to help pack more than 350 treat boxes for distribution to employees and caregivers at four adult care facilities in the county in an effort called “Hugs for Care.”

The boxes included treats and messages of positive affirmation for the workers, McGuire said. “Giving back to the community is a way to show our thanks to those who add so much positivity to our community,” she said. 

“This project honestly began very small. It was through synergy that the idea of giving a box to every employee in those facilities became a reality,” McGuire said. “Working together with a diverse group of individuals who aren’t usually together brought laughter and harmony as we supported WCU. Working together on such a project makes us all realize the importance of being together as citizens, as supporters. We each have a renewed spirit of hope during this crazy time in which we live.”

On campus, the WCU Alumni Association Board of Directors partnered with the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning to throw a tailgate party for residents of Morningstar Assisted Living in Sylva featuring snacks, games, music, dancing, conversation and Catamount face tattoos.

“The volunteers and residents got to know one another and celebrated Western Carolina University,” said Theresa Cruz Paul, interim executive director of the CCESL. “Participating in activities such as this one helps residents connect and allows them to engage with activities and people they don’t normally. In the end, it helps to improve social, emotional and intellectual well-being.”

Cayela Bauknecht, former staff member in the Office of Alumni Engagement, called the activity a “wonderful opportunity” to connect with and learn from the residents, many of whom had strong connections to WCU including a retired professor and a construction worker who helped build some campus structures.

“This experience brought out a social side to the residents that even the staff commented on. Everyone was smiling and talking with our volunteers. Turning their typically quiet main area into a hub of positivity and laughter was so exciting,” said Bauknecht, now a member of WCU’s  purchasing office. “Connections are vital, especially post-pandemic, and this was such a fun way to brighten someone else's day. During the pandemic, we had to speak to my grandmother over the phone, outside her window – no hugs, no comfort, no normalcy. This was a celebration.”

The activity was especially poignant for Bauknecht, as it fell on the one-year anniversary of the passing of her grandmother, who formerly resided in an assisted living facility, she said.

cats give back samaritan feet

Alumnus Chris Everett (far right) and other alumni and friends help package shoes for the Samaritan’s Feet during the “Cats Give Back” service weekend.

In Charlotte, alumnus Chris Everett, a former WCU student-athlete on the football and track and field teams, organized an effort to help the Samaritan’s Feet organization package shoes for international distribution.

“Around the world, children are exposed to life-threatening illnesses just because they don’t have the proper footwear. It is very easy to serve this need through this partnership. Also, there are many people domestically who need shoes to support them in their everyday lives. This organization is a great partner that serves and lifts people with the simplest of gifts – shoes,” said Everett, who earned his bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship in 2012 and master’s degree in entrepreneurship in 2014 and is director of outreach campus support at Elevation Church in Charlotte.

Everett encouraged more alumni and others connected with WCU to take part in the 2025 version  of the service weekend. “I hope more people catch on to this initiative of serving and serve more next year,” he said. “There are so many needs in our world that need to be served, and all it takes is our time. You have never experienced life until you have done something for someone that they can never repay you for.”

In Ohio, Samantha Hodge Crick, a 2013 WCU graduate, and her family provided direct support in the form of donations of nonperishable food items to the local organization Westerville Area Resource Ministry.

“WARM provides compassionate, short-term assistance, educational services and spiritual support in order to encourage individuals to achieve a God-reliant, self-sufficient life while restoring dignity and hope,” said Crick, mother of children ages 2, 3 and 5. “My husband was out of town, so with three littles, it was hard to find something big service-wise to do. But this was a great reason to have the opportunity and push to get my kids involved as well.”

Elsewhere, alumni in the Raleigh and Statesville areas helped pack and distribute items for local food banks, while WCU’s “Band of Brothers” student group volunteered at a Jackson County soup kitchen.

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