From a bus loaded with Garner’s leaders, it was North Garner Middle School student Fernando Cervantes who first emerged, hoisting the All-America City title aloft to the cheers of dozens gathered to welcome the delegation back from Denver.
On June 16, the National Civic League named Garner one of 10 All-America Cities for 2013. The award recognizes communities that overcome obstacles through grassroots and civic-minded efforts. The league has presented the award annually since 1949. Based on a five-essay application, 20 finalists were selected to travel to Denver for a presentation and question-and-answer session.
While Garner’s group of 44 included the mayor, council members, business leadership, a school principal and various other faith, charity and arts organization leaders, Cervantes became a symbol in a competition more about overcoming civic obstacles than boasting a pristine front. His personal story – becoming an honor student thanks to help from a local charity’s after-school program for low-income kids – provided an unlikely highlight in the town’s presentation.
Participants called the weekend a positive experience that fed their pride in their town.
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“Unbelievable,” Community of Hope director and Garner Education Foundation board member Amy White said. “Diverse folks from a diverse background that all live in a hometown that may not have been connected before this. The synergy that was created by collectively working together to promote our town, it was a very unifying experience.”
Mayor Ronnie Williams spoke Monday night after most of the delegates arrived from the airport. He said, “We’ve always known Garner was an All-America City.” This award proves it, he told the welcome party of about 70 family members and other Garner residents.
“I feel like we won the lottery,” Williams said. “It’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Everyone supported everybody. Everybody was out to be a winner.”
Road to Denver
Town of Garner staff brought up the idea for applying for the award last summer and began serious efforts in the fall. Garner applied on March 8, with town manager Hardin Watkins, spokesman Rick Mercier and former management analyst Kady Doelling spearheading the effort.
On April 3 the town was named a finalist, which initiated the harder challenge, sending a delegation 1,465 miles to Denver.
Williams and council members worked the phones, and money flowed to the cause. The town paid $25,000 and hoped to match that with private donations. With more than $21,000 pledged, “American Idol” winner Scotty McCreery, whose country hit single “Water Tower Town” features a video filmed in Garner, put the delegation over the top with a $10,000 donation to his hometown. McCreery also starred in the town’s promotional video, honored as “most-viewed” in Denver.
Delegations vary in size; Southern Pines sent five when it won in 2012, Dunn sent about 70 this year to become one of three North Carolina winners. Garner kept it close to competition averages, picking a diverse array of people involved in the various programs mentioned.
Once delegates were selected, the town put together a 10-minute presentation themed “Great Things Grow in Garner.” Before the trip they gathered repeatedly to rehearse and prepare for the follow-up question-and-answer session.
The delegates made the most of their time on July 15 , singing and dancing and then taking turns reading a script by Mercier. They highlighted Garner’s community-led efforts to honor veterans, serve the needy and nurture students’ interest in the arts. Many uncelebrated citizens rotated into the spotlight. Cervantes, who attended the Community of Hope after-school program in elementary school, used his turn to announce, “Today, I am an honor-roll middle-school student,” and the room burst into applause. Others in Garner’s delegation said they didn’t hear applause interrupt any other presentations that way.
“I’m so proud of him, I’m so proud of the town. It’s a big experience,” Cervantes’ father, Jorge, said. He, too, was on the trip, and spoke before his son in the presentation, telling the judges: “This is about more than numbers; it’s about real families like mine.”
Other delegates said they had coached Fernando on emphasizing “honor roll,” as he had been shy about proclaiming it. “I couldn’t have done this without everybody who was with us,” he said. “This was the first time I’ve been applauded (like that).”
Another high point came when the judges called back Pat Ayscue, who received a standing ovation over the story of her grandson. Henry Sanchez, the inspiration for the new grassroots-funded Veterans Memorial central to Garner’s bid, earned a Bronze Star for his actions protecting his team during a fiery attack on his Humvee in Iraq in 2006. The military would present the award posthumously; he was killed a month later when his truck rolled over an explosive device.
The presentation also promoted the town’s arts program and theater group, Towne Players of Garner, started by delegate Beth Honeycutt. It mentioned the Henry Sanchez Memorial Theater Scholarship, dedicated by Honeycutt’s daughter and 2012 Miss North Carolina, Arlie Honeycutt. Sanchez participated in Towne Players theater camps as a youth.
Other parts touched on community efforts to stop the Red Route proposal of I-540 and prevent the closing of the local Wake County branch library, as well as efforts to honor Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month.
‘Tears were shed’
On Sunday, June 16, while the judges deliberated, about half the Garner group went to a Colorado Rockies baseball game. At the awards ceremony that night, Garner wouldn’t have to sweat too long. The town was the second winner announced, and Watkins said the group erupted into cheers.
“A lot of tears were shed. I certainly did,” Williams said. “Tears of joy, tears of pride.”
On Monday, the group returned to flags waving and freshly-printed Garner All-America signs. They sang and danced to the same “Go, Garner!” chant that had closed their presentation before going home.
For many participants the weekend was about community pride, working together and solving problems – the core values promoted by the award. Henry Holbrook, who volunteers at the senior center and for Meals on Wheels, said the weekend and presentation emphasized what is good about the town and country, and showed the ways the potential of both could be met.
“It reminds you of what you could be, if we continue to work together and forget about the negatives of the past,” Holbrook said in his characteristic soft-spoken tone.
“I just believe that the human spirit can overcome all negatives.”