By Bill Studenc
Members of the extended Western Carolina University community took time throughout February to express their affection for WCU through activities ranging from heartfelt student video testimonials and a faculty-staff appreciation lunch to a service weekend involving alumni from across North Carolina – and other states including South Carolina, Ohio, New Hampshire and Washington.
It was all part of the seventh annual “I Love WCU Month,” an opportunity for students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends to show their fondness for WCU through a series of special events, public declarations of their feelings through messages on oversized heart-shaped cards and sentiments shared on social media, and financial gifts to help the university support students and serve the surrounding region.
New for the 2023 edition of “I Love WCU Month” was a “Cats Give Back” service weekend in which Catamounts both past and present and near and far participated in community service activities designed not to benefit the university, but to lend a helping hand to nonprofit organizations and those in need. Most activities took place Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 11 and 12.
On the local level, alumni from 11 WCU fraternities and sororities contributed more than 10,000 gifts of food, toiletries and other items to the Homebase college ministry, a university partnership with Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina that focuses on providing aid to students who have aged out of the foster care system or are former orphans or emancipated.
Members of the campus community also participated in an effort sponsored by Sylva’s First United Methodist Church to build wheelchair ramps for disabled and elderly residents of the county identified by the Jackson County Department on Aging, while alumni and students, including members of the women’s soccer team, spread mulch on the playground of the on-campus Kneedler Child Development Center as part of a new partnership with Mountain Projects.
Downstate, alumnus Chris Everett, a former WCU student-athlete on the football and track-and-field teams, helped spearhead service projects providing weekend meals for students dealing with food insecurity in the Lake Norman area and preparing a new shelter for victims of domestic violence in Anson County.
In his role as director of outreach campus support at Elevation Church in Charlotte, Everett, who earned his bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship in 2012 and master’s degree in entrepreneurship in 2014, reached out to fellow alumni Jamie Hawkins Friday and Kam McDonald to help coordinate the two local efforts.
Friday, a 1999 graduate of WCU’s parks and recreation management program, led a packing party to help fill meal bags for students at 26 schools in the Lake Norman area through the Bags of Hope program, which supplies free weekend food items to children in need.
McDonald, a 2001 graduate of WCU with a degree in social work, organized a group of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority alumnae to prepare a new homeless shelter through Anson County Homes of Hope, planting flowers, cleaning an apartment designated for domestic violence survivors and collecting and donating supplies.
And, up in New Hampshire, husband-and-wife team Whit and Abi France-Kelly donated gently used clothing and winter items to LISTEN Community Services, a local organization that provides support for residents in the Upper Valley in New Hampshire and Vermont, and delivered baby wipes and newborn diapers to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Women’s Health Resource Center.
Whit France-Kelly earned his master’s degree in college student personnel at WCU in 2011 and Abi France-Kelly earned her master’s degree, also in college student personnel, in 2012. He is assistant director of alumni engagement at Dartmouth College, where she is associate dean and director of residential education.
Other alumni service activities included a coat drive for Head Start students in Jackson and Haywood counties, a fundraising event for Haywood County Waterways, assistance with a Habitat for Humanity construction project in Charlotte, helping the Salvation Army serve meals to people in need in the Ballantyne community of Mecklenburg County and donations of everyday essentials including canned food, diapers, personal hygiene items and other nonperishable items for “blessing boxes” in the Raleigh and Durham areas.
“I am incredibly proud of the response of the Catamount community to our first-ever ‘Cats Give Back’ weekend of service,” said Stacey Miller, director of alumni engagement. “I look forward to growing this program and extending the reach of the Western Carolina University family to help their neighbors in need not only in Western North Carolina but also across the state and beyond.”
More than 60 students also are showing their love for WCU through signing up for membership in the 1889 Club and making a philanthropic gift during the month of February. That represents a dramatic increase in the number of student members of the giving society compared to last fiscal year when only three students made gifts and joined the club, said Tenisea Higgins, assistant director of annual giving for student and young alumni engagement.
Named after the year of the university’s founding, the 1889 Club recognizes donors for gifts made to the Fund for WCU on an annual basis. Students can join the society for contributions as small as $18.89 a year. Student members of the 1889 Club are invited to take part in a senior toast before commencement and receive special philanthropy cords to wear at the graduation ceremony.
Many of those new 1889 Club members joined the giving society as part of an “I Love WCU Month” kickoff event on Feb. 7, where students enjoyed complimentary refreshments, filmed videos and filled out more than 220 cards stating what they liked the best about the university and paused for photos with Paws, the Catamount mascot.
The month closed with the annual “I Love WCU” lunch for faculty and staff from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. Wednesday, March 1, in the Grandroom of A.K. Hinds University Center. Members of WCU’s Shetland Society, which celebrates faculty and staff annual donors at all levels, were recognized at the event.
Named in honor of Shetland ponies purchased by the university in 1912 to haul supplies by cart from Sylva to campus, the giving society has nearly 400 members consisting of faculty and staff donors from the current fiscal year.
“Our faculty and staff go above and beyond each and every day, and for that I am very grateful,” said Chancellor Kelli R. Brown. “I’m so proud that we have so many hardworking people who are willing to turn around and give back to our campus community.”
Faculty and staff interested in joining the Shetland Society can find more information online, said Jamie T. Raynor, vice chancellor for advancement.
“If you are wondering what this Shetland Society thing is all about, and if you want to go further beyond what you do every single day to support our students philanthropically, there are hundreds of funds within the WCU Foundation. You can choose whatever your passion is,” Raynor said. “I promise you, it’s not about the size of the gift, it’s about the collective impact.”