ASHEVILLE – Every time I write a story about public housing, I get hate email. People, many of whom have never set foot in any of the city’s low-income neighborhoods, write me to say residents are lazy, unemployed by choice and scamming the system.
America’s poor face a host of challenges that most of us will never fully understand, and while Asheville’s subsidized housing may have its problems, the residents themselves certainly aren’t the ones to blame. By and large these are hard-working families trying to move out of a system that sometimes seems like it was meant to keep them down.
This week I want to tell you about how the youth of some of Asheville’s poorest neighborhoods are trying to build their communities up. It started with an email from Jamye Davis at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Western North Carolina. The agency wanted newspaper boxes, the big metal kind you find outside.
The group had partnered with the Residents Council of Asheville Housing Authority, and two literacy development nonprofits, Read to Read to Succeed and The POP Project. They wanted to put little free libraries in every subsidized housing development. If the Asheville Citizen-Times could donate the containers, the other groups would come up with the books and a plan for maintenance.
Thirty kids living in the housing communities were already taking part in a summer youth empowerment program focused on neighborhood cleanup and job readiness. They would decorate the bins and have ownership over the libraries.
So, with the help of executive editor Josh Awtry and our distribution director Chip Smith, I had a new volunteer assignment and some dusty old streetside circulation boxes had a new life.
Found in neighborhoods throughout the country, little free libraries are books put in colorful vestibules for the community to access. They are free to take, borrow, or leave for someone else.
Such programs are especially important in neighborhoods with limited access to educational materials and during the summer months when kids aren’t reading as much, Davis said. It’s called “summer slide,” she said. Kids lose their reading skills if their young minds sit idle.
With books on the brain, I spent an evening last month at Klondyke Homes, subsidized housing in the Montford neighborhood, painting newspaper bins. Kids from all different communities attended, and everyone’s hands were covered in sticky, colorful paint.
We talked about our favorite things to read. I told them I used to love the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series and they told me they liked mysteries and detective stories. We laughed at our mistakes and painted a bright yellow sun on our box.
After, as we waited in line to scrub the red and yellow paint off our hands, 15-year-old Hillcrest resident Diamond Shands told me the young kids in her neighborhood look up to her.
“We’re role models,” said Shands. “We got to show them how to live right.”
Hillcrest Apartments, subsidized housing just west of downtown, is known for its crime and Shands and her friend Tantyona Neal, 14, said violence and thieving was a problem in their neighborhood.
Asheville Citizen-Times’ Beth Walton recently wrote about the little libraries that have been placed in Asheville Housing Authorities’ developments. Read the renamed article below:
Mountain Causes: Books for Children
“Books are key, gangs are not,” said Neal. “Them gangs don’t matter. If you are in a gang, you can die from being in a gang, but with education, it’s different.”
That evening seven little free libraries were made to go in five different low-income neighborhoods. Over 300 books have been collected and various businesses have agreed to sponsor each box.
The kids are eager to make more, and with time, organizers hope to see greater diversity in the books collected.
I know there are problems with Asheville’s public housing, but to me this seems like part of the solution. This project is a wonderful example of collaboration among groups and people taking ownership over their own neighborhoods.
I’m proud to be part of it and I encourage you to get involved, but if you instead insist on writing me to talk about your disdain for the community’s poor, don’t expect much of a response. My plan is to tell you to donate some books.
This is the opinion of Beth Walton. Each week, I volunteer around Asheville and share my adventure with our readers. If you’d like me to help at your nonprofit, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-232-5851. More information at www.citizen-times.com/causes.
Books and donations are needed to fill the little free libraries. For more information, contact Jamye Davis with Big Brothers Big Sisters of WNC at 828-253-1470 or email@example.com.
Terry Bellamy at the Housing Authority for the City of Asheville can also help. She can be reached at 828-239-3550 or firstname.lastname@example.org.