Lowell Davis, Western Carolina University’s assistant vice chancellor for student success, always has had a passion for helping former foster youth, former orphans, emancipated youth and other non-traditional college students.
After helping start the Resilient Independent Student Association, a group aimed at serving and supporting that population of WCU students, Davis realized his schedule didn’t allow him to fully devote himself to the cause. But after meeting with Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina chief operating officer Keith Henry, a WCU alumnus, a solution was resolved.
Baptist Children’s Homes has entered into a partnership with WCU to form HOMEBASE College Ministry, which is operating on campus in the former Baptist Student Union building. HOMEBASE specifically focuses on aiding students who have aged out of the foster care system or are former orphans or emancipated.
“I shared with (Henry) stories of students,” Davis said. “He basically said, ‘Give me some time and let’s see what we can do.’ He’s always wanted to give back to his alma mater and always wanted to support this population.”
Henry targeted Jim Dean, founder and former pastor of Cullowhee’s Summit Church, to oversee HOMEBASE. As a licensed therapeutic foster parent, Dean welcomed the challenge.
“I found out they were starting this program, and I contacted Keith at the Children’s Home and said, `How can we help?’ The conversation turned to, `Why don’t you be the director?’ ” Dean said. “I just have a passion for that population and trying to help them succeed. I was a first-generation student myself without any real family support. I kind of get where they’re coming from. I can’t relate to all their stories, but I can sympathize and empathize with them and want to see them succeed. I see my role as trying to change the trajectory of their lives.”
HOMEBASE had a soft opening at the beginning of fall semester. Since then, Dean, his three student workers and a host of volunteers have been busy transforming the building. The space will be used as a place for the students to hang out with others who have experienced similar things and who come from similar backgrounds, Davis said.
The building consists of two living room areas with big-screen televisions, Netflix and cable for the students to relax. It was recently equipped with Wi-Fi. There is a small computer lab with a couple of computers and a printer. And there is a food pantry for students who might need food for the weekend or during a break, and a stackable washer and dryer unit. The downstairs features a small apartment with a bedroom and a bathroom that can be used for an emergency shelter.
Dean also has assisted students with getting medication, transportation to the hospital and getting a meal. In the future, he plans to offer independent living skills such as teaching them how to make meals.
“If you’re a former foster student or orphan, who do you call to help you?” Dean said. “What we’re trying to do is help students succeed. We’re really just a resource for the university for students that might need help, support, encouragement, a trip to go get groceries, a trip to go get toiletries, whatever it is.”
HOMEBASE is planning an official ribbon-cutting opening in January. The building is being leased by the Baptist Children’s Home from the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. Davis said WCU contributes funds to the program. Donors also have made contributions to help with students needing supplies for class, food and other necessities.
There are approximately 100 students that WCU has identified as fitting the criteria for HOMEBASE. Out of that group, about 10-15 have utilized the service so far, Dean said.
“It’s very hard because some of the students from this population want to be identified and supported and some of them don’t,” Davis said. “Coming to Western is a fresh start for them. We want to support them, but we also want them to feel comfortable in sharing their stories and knowing they are around other students who have had similar experiences as them.”
HOMEBASE is still in need of volunteers who would like to help with general handy work, painting, light construction or donating items such as toiletries or food, Dean said. For more information, contact Dean at 828-508-0035.
By Marlon Morgan