Tar Heel of the Week

Garner woman's after-school program grows in scope

Amy White launched Community of Hope, which offers after-school programs for students and a food pantry for their families.

CorrespondentOctober 13, 2012 

Amy White

COREY LOWENSTEIN — clowenst@newsobserver.com

  • Amy Bannister White Born: March 18, 1968, in Raleigh Career: Director of development, Community of Hope Ministries Family: Husband, Kyle; sons, Tyler, 18, and Bryson, 16 Education: B.A., history, economics and education; graduate coursework in education, Wake Forest University Fun fact: The room adjacent to Community of Hope’s food pantry is a cheerful, bright orange and green room where youth at the First Baptist of Garner hold their gatherings. The room has a stage and a variety of instruments, a distinct musical feel that is a nod to the church’s most famous teen, Scotty McCreery.

— Amy White ran for a seat on the Wake County school board in 2001, hoping to capture more attention for Garner’s schools, which were challenged by large proportions of students living in poverty.

Looking back now, White believes a heaven-sent side effect of her tenure has had a greater impact on her hometown: Her work on the school board led her to the federal grant she used to launch Community of Hope in 2004.

The grant, aimed at linking faith-based groups with struggling students, funded a fledgling after-school program that has since grown to include summer camps, a food pantry, a home repair program and transitional housing for homeless families.

“What I accomplished on the school board pales in comparison to the impact that Community of Hope has been able to have on local families,” she says. “I give complete credit to God for putting me in the right situation at the right time and growing my passion for making a difference for families and children in Garner.”

Community of Hope was recently awarded the Summit Award from the Garner Chamber of Commerce for its work in the community. The recipients are chosen by an independent out-of-state firm, but chamber President Neil Padgett says the nonprofit group’s impact has been very visible around town.

“We’re a better town because of the work they do,” Padgett says, “and that work just wouldn’t have been possible without Amy’s energy and what she’s put into it.”

In its eight-year history, Community of Hope’s after-school programs have served about a thousand students; the food pantry started soon after, and gave away enough food for 100,000 meals last year alone. Its “Carpenter’s Hands” program has given needy residents more than $35,000 worth of home repairs.

For the second summer in a row, White spearheaded a campaign that raised $20,000, earning a matching donation from an anonymous source. The group receives money from the town of Garner, but no longer relies on the state or federal governments – a source of pride for White.

She’s also proud of her town’s generosity in helping its neediest residents.

“The Garner community is one where the people still feel connected,” White says. “That’s a big part of why Community of Hope has been so successful.”

‘The broken record’

White, 44, grew up in Garner, where her father was in real estate and involved in many civic organizations. She watched the town change, as the first fast food restaurant, a Hardees’s, gave way to a full cadre of strip malls.

She left for a little more than a decade, during which she earned her degree from Wake Forest University, taught in Forsyth County middle and high schools, married and had two children.

She returned to the Triangle to follow her husband’s job prospects and to be closer to family. They chose to settle in Garner because White wanted her children to share her happy upbringing. The town had grown, she says, but the small-town community spirit remained.

She stayed at home with her two sons for a time and considered returning to the classroom. Instead, she sought a place on the school board, where she believed she could have a wider impact on her town’s schools.

For four years, she represented Garner, Fuquay-Varina and Holly Springs on the board, during which she often advocated for Garner, which she thought didn’t get a fair shake in county policies.

“I was the broken record,” she says, “but somebody had to do it.”

The tutoring program

She did help make changes, including bringing magnet programs to several schools, meant to draw more students in from affluent areas to reduce the schools’ high poverty rates.

She also found out about the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, a federal program aimed at helping elementary school students who were behind in reading in math.

“The idea was to get faith-based communities to partner with struggling youth,” she says. “And I knew we have plenty of both.”

She pulled together a group of supporters. Their first application failed. But the next year, with Wake County Human Services on board to administer the grant money, Community of Hope became one of three Wake County groups to earn the grant.

White’s church, First Baptist of Garner, allowed the group to use its facilities for free after-school tutoring sessions. Other churches in Garner and Southeast Raleigh also offered assistance.

Community of Hope’s share of the $1.4 million grant was about $100,000 a year for four years. At the end of that period, it was the only one of the three organizations that had devised a way to stay afloat without the grant money.

Helping families

Community of Hope also rapidly expanded its services, realizing that the children who came in for tutoring also needed food and productive activities during the summer. Future plans include a counseling center that would offer job training and other services.

“One we started touching those families, it became clear to us that these weren’t just children in need,” she says. “They were families in need.”

The group now occupies several offices in the church’s vast array of brick buildings. A group of portable classrooms house the after-school program, where a group of students got help doing their homework on a recent afternoon.

Emyah McPhail was making progress on her math homework that dealt with counting money. But she was really looking forward to continuing her lessons in the computer lab, where software aligned with North Carolina’s curriculum allows students of many ages to do individualized grade-level work.

‘The dot connector’

It’s the kind of approach that White says was learned in the program’s early years.

“The grant did exactly what it was supposed to do,” she says. “It taught us how to run a five-star after-school program.”

Without that money, White spends much of her time pulling together needed resources from a variety of sources.

Donations come from churches, businesses and individuals. One donor paid off the two buses the ministry had bought to bring kids from area schools to its after-school program. Another bought the food pantry a $5,000 freezer after hearing White talk about the ministry’s work.

Most recently, students at Garner Magnet High School gathered more than 10,000 food items for the pantry. Each Thanksgiving, Butterball donates 250 turkeys to local families.

White is one of two directors; she seeks out partnerships and secures funding, while the other manages day-to-day operations.

“I’m just the dot connector,” she says. “I hook up the resources with the needs.”

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