Faith in Rural Communities’ Connect Coaching

Cole Altizer – Maggie Valley

Maggie Valley, about 45 minutes west of Asheville, is a tight-knit community home to roughly 1,700 people, many from families that have lived in this part of the state for hundreds of years. In the summer months, the population swells with vacationers from all over the country and beyond.

At the heart of all of this activity sits Maggie Valley United Methodist Church. Pastor Cole Altizer was appointed to the church in 2020, and in that time has witnessed the seasonal ebb and flow of the population within both the town and the church. Much of the work of the church is driven by the needs of those who may not be directly connected to the congregation.

“A majority of our ministries are focused on people who will never come to the church here,” says Cole. “That just is the heart and passion of this group of folks.

“The first thing that I was told about this church was that they are lovely, amazing people. Like yeah, everybody says that about every church. The second thing they said was, ‘But it’s true here.’ They care deeply about their community.”

Altizer and Maggie Valley UMC became involved in the work of the Rural Center through the Faith in Rural Communities’ Connect Coaching. Upon acceptance into the program, people “fell into place,” explains Cole. “We had 10 folks who were excited about taking a nine-month journey, exploring what God was calling us to do. The timing was right, and Heather Kilbourne was just – I can’t say enough nice things about her – she was just so amazing.”

Dr. Kilbourne, director of Faith in Rural Communities, supported the ideas the group had, and encouraged them to avoid bringing too many preconceived ideas to the table until the more concrete needs became clearer through the coaching process. Connect Church, funded through a grant from The Duke Endowment, guides teams as they assess their resources, examine trends and opportunities in the larger population and develop a strategic plan for increasing their impact outside the walls of the church.

Through this process, the Maggie Valley UMC team identified a need for life skill classes to help folks who were trying to get out of poverty but weren’t sure how to take next steps. One of the barriers that presented itself was the need for childcare. Working with regional partners, the team developed a plan to offer life skills classes, teaming up with Haywood Community College and a number of other local experts, and at the same time, providing an enriched child care program with instruction from retired educators.

And then Covid hit.

Enrollment in life skills and GED programs dropped to zero. Partners couldn’t allocate the resources for the program. Instead of having to return the grant award from Connect, the team was encouraged to come up with a new plan for the funds and present it to the Rural Center.

While the team was aware of the need for affordable child care, and through a modified version of the coaching process, Altizer and the team identified an unmet need to provide childcare for children whose grandparents served as their primary caretakers at the deferral of their own self-care. The team revised their plan, received approval from the Rural Center for the new idea, and in September 2022, the preschool opened their doors to six students.

The preschool is open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to noon. In those three and a half hours, the kids get an exceptional experience from two incredibly qualified educators, and their caretakers are able to care for themselves – go to doctor appointments, get haircuts, shop for groceries.

“We’ve got a couple of families who are able to live a healthier life because of the preschool,” Cole explains. “This is anecdotal, I know, but folks show up with smiles on their faces when they didn’t before; folks show up looking more rested. It just feels like it’s offered a little bit of hope to families and to let them know that they’re not alone.

“What matters is that families know we care for them. These kinds of things matter.”

This ministry would not have been possible without the grant and the seed money needed to get it going. Connect kickstarted the process, and people in and around Maggie Valley have stepped up to help support the program so that it can continue to be the most affordable preschool program in Haywood County. It is the hope of the ministry that it will continue to meet these needs for many years to come.

“People in the community, especially in rural communities,” Altizer said, “need to know that you really do love them and that you really care about them. Really helping them be seen and heard.”