McDowell County October 2023

Population
44,753

County Seat
Marion

Median Income
$50,615

Population Density Designation
Rural

The setting for the Extra Miles Tour’s first stop in McDowell County seemed symbolic: The town of Marion’s historic train depot, which has been repurposed into a meticulously detailed community center. The location underscored how, even though times might have changed, Marion and McDowell County are still on the move.

After mingling over lunch, Kim Effler, president and CEO of the McDowell Chamber of Commerce, began to share highlights of the county’s story with us. In some ways, McDowell County is moving in the right direction: It’s home to 1,500 businesses, and one-third of the workforce is in industry (that makes it second best in the state in terms of industry workforce, per capita).

But McDowell County also faces some challenges, all of which impact the area’s capacity to expand the workforce: lack of housing, lack of affordable childcare, mental health challenges and substance use. Ms. Effler described how, after she surveyed these and other challenges, she thought to herself: Where can I move the needle? Where can I help change the narrative? That’s when she began to focus on pulling together county resources to address childcare.

Following that introduction, Dr. Karey Dulaney, director of McDowell County Head Start and Early Start, talked about the county’s implementation of a universal pre-K policy. Families complete a universal application and then Head Start works with each family to determine the best “fit” to meet the needs of the family and the child (for example, the county specifically offers a faith-based option for families who want that).

Danielle Stilwell, recruitment manager for Columbia Forest Products, has created an onsite daycare – at first serving employees, but later opened to the community. She explained how it’s not just paid labor that impacts the quality of their product: “Think about all the hands that touch the product at the end of the mill line. It’s not just employees. It’s their families.” The company’s childcare initiative is an effort to ensure quality by supporting everyone who contributes.

Next up was Ryan Garrison, interim president of McDowell Technical Community College, who described the college’s early childhood development program, funded in part through a grant from the Dogwood Health Trust. One of the unique features of the program is a lab school for pre-K children, which serves as an incubator for innovative “best practices” and can serve between 40-50 children of college faculty and staff. To further accelerate workforce development, the college offers free tuition to anyone studying in the childhood development program and offers lateral entry options for working adults who want to get into the field. The college is also exploring other strategies for lowering barriers to education for diverse students interested in working in the field.

Ms. Effler underscored that these important steps were only the beginning of the county’s work to expand childcare options. The county is active in the NC Chamber Coalition on Child Care, and she continues to bring stakeholders across the county together to find ways to address the shortage of childcare providers.

From the train depot, we headed a few blocks away to visit the operations hub for Centro Unido Latino-Americano (CULA). After meeting the staff (and taking advantage of a joyful photo op!), we were welcomed by Executive Director Margarita Ramirez. She and her team provided sweets, coffee and a detailed overview of how the organization works across several strategic focus areas to make resources and opportunities more readily available to members of the Hispanic community in McDowell County: arts and culture; professional development; health; advocacy; education; and leadership. These initiatives are just a fraction of the services the organization provides:

  • Support for students interested in getting certified in computer skills, thanks to a partnership with McDowell Technical Community College
  • Support through the home buying process and building credit scores
  • Tutoring and STEM-focused learning
  • Social skills development

One of CULA’s programs, VAMOS (an acronym standing for values, acceptance, motivation, opportunity, success … but also Spanish for “let’s go!”) intentionally engages the county’s “opportunity youth” – those who have lost interest in school and aren’t in the workforce. Carlos Lopez, coordinator for youth engagement, explained how the program uses a variety of activities (group hikes, summer programs, recreational activities and more) to improve social skills, civic engagement, health and well-being and academic and career ambitions.

“A few years ago,” he added poignantly, “this was me. I was a disengaged youth. And thanks to Margarita, I’m here.”

As a supporter of CULA’s Healthy Minds initiative, the Blue Cross NC team was particularly interested to learn more about the organization’s commitment to nurturing community well-being. The organization serves as a pathway to bilingual mental health care, through Sanarai, a virtual platform. CULA hosts monthly mental health awareness programs and offers “cooking to heal.” They’ve also pushed hard to train area youth in mental health first aid and QPR (question, persuade, refer) suicide prevention – building a robust peer support network is critical when so many young people feel pressure to play parental roles and adults “just don’t get it.”

There were lots of lessons to be learned from the Extra Miles Tour stop in McDowell County, but one theme emerged above all else: Just as the movement of a train depends on each car maintaining a connection to the next, the leaders who spoke with us in Marion emphasized collaboration as the key ingredient to the area’s forward momentum.

Meet Dr. Algie Gatewood

Dr. Algie Gatewood is only the fourth President to lead Alamance Community College (ACC) since it opened in 1958. During Dr. Gatewood’s tenure at ACC, the college won its largest ever bond referendum – nearly $40 million – in 2018 to fund a number of major capital projects and expansions. The college also secured $16 million in county funding in 2014 to build the Advanced Applied Technology Center. Other notable accomplishments include creating a Biotechnology Center of Excellence, introducing an Early College, facilitating an apprenticeship program, and introducing nearly two dozen new academic programs and articulation agreements with state universities.

U39702, 12/23