Connecting with Home: How can you get involved in the community around you?

March 21, 2019

By Tris Lashea ’22

New students might find that being in a new place, surrounded by the unfamiliar, can make you feel disconnected, or like you don’t belong. But finding that feeling of home can be simple when you take part in community engagement projects here in Asheville–and you can help others while you’re at it.

One way that you can get involved with the Asheville and Buncombe County community is through K-12 education. This is a prime time in a child’s life where you can make a difference, and it’s an amazing opportunity to gain new experience.

UNC Asheville has partnered up with Asheville City Schools and United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the impact that poverty has on the lives of children, families, and communities in Asheville and Buncombe County, to improve education quality in our community.

Making a Difference in Middle School

Through a partnership called The Asheville Buncombe Middle Grades Network, Asheville City Schools, Buncombe County Schools, United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County, UNC Asheville and representatives of more than 50 health, social service, higher education and youth services community partners all work to support the middle schoolers in our area.

“As a kid that came from a working-class family and not having a lot growing up, I understand the benefit of having a mentor or someone in front of you that is currently going through something,” said Jeremy James, a UNC Asheville student and Homework Diner volunteer. “So I figure if I was a kid at their age and someone coming into after school with me talking about college, I definitely would be more prone to going to college when it was time instead of taking a semester off,” James said.

As a volunteer James teaches primarily about black culture; he comes up with lesson plans, interacts with the students and truly gets to see them learn, he said.

“The most rewarding part of working with these kids as a college student is hearing them say my lessons back to me or use them in conversation,” James said. “It’s funny to see them pick up on little things as you teach them.”

Another way United Way is helping students thrive is through Homework Diner, a weekly event where volunteers help students with homework, and the whole family is invited to enjoy a free dinner. Homework Diners take place in all United Way supported middle schools, called community schools, and help students and their families be supported with free food, tutoring, building parent-teacher relationships and connecting to community resources.

Another program specifically supporting middle school students is Discover UNCA, which is part of the In Real Life after-school program, based out of Asheville Middle School, and gets middle school students on to a college campus. This afterschool program, which will also expand to Owen Middle School in the fall of 2019, helps middle school students interact with college students and learn about college life–a life they may not have begun to imagine for themselves.

A Lasting Impact

The goal of the programs is to work towards a vision where all schools nd and partner programs are safe, welcoming and compassionate; all families and neighbors have the support and tools for healthy and successful lives; and all students graduate high school – ready for college, career and community. They various programs all work to reduce the influence of poverty on education, since 60% of students in Buncombe County are on free or reduced lunch. The objective is to turn the middle schools into hubs for services such as Homework Diners, health services, and tutoring needs. Brandy Bowman, community engagement project manager at UNC Asheville, says “the thought behind this is to alleviate the negative impacts of poverty on education.”

“During a community needs assessment, there was a realization that there was a lot of resources for high school students and a lot of resources for elementary school but middle school is where the gap is,” said Bowman. Middle school students are taught through these programs to have a goal of going to college and that there is support around them to get there. The community school strategy focuses on Asheville Middle within the Asheville City District and , Clyde A. Erwin, Enka and Charles D. Owen Middle schools in the Buncombe County District.

This strategy isn’t just beneficial for the middle school students involved but also the college students who get to help out. By volunteering, tutoring or helping as a college student you can have the opportunity to feel more connected to the community and leave a lasting impact on a child.

“Especially if you’re not from the Asheville area, getting outside of campus and truly seeing the bigger area of where you are a part of now, which is Appalachia and Western North Carolina, is extremely important,” Bowman said. “As well as understanding what’s going on around you as part of your education and your community.”

To volunteer or get more information visit or contact Brandy Bowman at