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Recipients of $5,000 'weaver' grants told

Jun 23, 2023

Recients of $5,000 “weaver grants” are, top row from left, Laura Gentry, Susan Cogdill, Ken Lyall, Ginna Staley, Luke Jarvis, Amanda Pendry, Denise Sturdivant, Matthew Dauer, Nicky Brady, Melody Johnson, Beckie Spears. On the bottom row are, from left, Deborah Beckel, Kayla McCoy, Renee Gentry, Robin Harmon, Jean Hefner, Takiyah McCathern, Olivia Walsh, Jamie Miles, Naing Win.

The Washington, D.C.-based Aspen Group and its Wilkes County advisor group last week announced recipients of 20 Weaver awards.

Each awardee will receive $5,000 to aid his or her initiative over the next year. The advisory group selected awardees from 50 applications.

The recipients range from a yoga instructor and librarian to a band director and grocery store owner, but an Aspen Group press release said they’re all trying to bring communities together to help Wilkes children be successful in school.

“These folks embody the spirit of community engagement in Wilkes County and are committed to creating lasting relationships that help our students and their families thrive academically and socially,” said Thomas Salley, director of the Wilkesboro Tourism Development Authority and one of the local advisors who helped select the awardees.

“Their innovative projects and ideas can transform lives and build a more tightly woven community fabric for our future generations.”

The Aspen Institute’s Weave: The Social Fabric Project created the Weaver Awards as part of its work to “tackle the problem of disconnection and broken trust that has left Americans divided, lonely, and unable to work together to address our shared needs and hopes,” stated a press release.

“The answer won’t come from Washington,” says Frederick Riley, Executive Director of Weave: The Social Fabric Project. “The answer lies in every neighborhood with the people who show up for others and teach us what it means to weave community. These Weaver Awardees have great projects, but, more importantly, they are an inspiration and invitation to all of us to become weavers.”

Any person in Wilkes who is inspired to “weave” can get involved in the partnership with the Aspen Institute by joining the online Weave Wilkes community. They will meet other local weavers, get invitations to gatherings, find resources to support their neighborhoods, access free community leadership training, and more. Register at

The Walton Family Foundation funded the Weave Wilkes partnership and $5,000 awards as part of its mission to provide a pathway to a secure and fulfilling life for every student. The Aspen Institute chose Wilkes to be the first rural county to host the Awards and plans to offer the Awards across the country.

The awardees and all applicants will be honored during a Weaver Awards Celebration on from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Aug. 12 at the Stone Family Center for Performing Arts in North Wilkesboro. “It will showcase the inspiring projects that are strengthening the social fabric of Wilkes County and invite conversations, networking, and the exchange of ideas among all Wilkes weavers,” the release said.

Award recipients

The awardees and their projects are:

Kayla Mounce McCoy. When McCoy was in fifth grade, she had an outdoor class that opened her eyes to the natural world. She wants all children in Wilkes to have that experience and will use her award to build a mobile soils classroom in a trailer for use by the Wilkes Soil & Water Conservation District to teach K-12 students in public, private and home schools about the earth beneath them.

Robin Harmon. As a high school teacher, Harmon noticed that students who could imagine a meaningful career were more likely to be excited about and do well in school. Harmon will use her award to organize monthly student visits with local businesspeople and professionals to connect students to the community, mentors, and their future.

Susan Cogdill. Cogdill found yoga late in life, loved the community and became an instructor. Cogdill will use her award to start a yoga group for young girls as a place for them to learn how to build relationships with each other based on respect, love, and trust. The group will also give back to the community through service projects.

Ken Lyall. Lyall learned during his thirty years as an educator that relationships are the cornerstone of any effective community work, particularly for at-risk youth. As Community Coordinator for Wilkes Circles of Care, Lyall will use his award to teach teens how to communicate effectively and build relationships as they learn to cook with a professional chef.

Jean Hefner. From her work leading Wilkes Literacy, Hefner knows many young parents in the North Wilkesboro Housing Authority want to continue their education but lack childcare and transportation to attend classes. Hefner will use her award to support tutoring and hire trained childcare workers so they can earn their high school degrees and more.

Matthew Dauer. Wilkes County has a strong history and connection to music. However, many youth are discouraged from learning an instrument due to financial and social pressures. Dauer will use his award to buy instruments so every student, regardless of life circumstances, can join a band program and have music in their lives. He is director of band in the West Wilkes district.

Luke Jarvis. After college, Jarvis worked for a non-profit supporting youth development in Boone. He loved the work and recognized that kids struggling with mental health issues in his hometown of Wilkesboro had nowhere like that to go. So, he started a youth-led, adult-supported organization, where teens empower each other to lead happier, healthier, and more meaningful lives.

Laura Gentry. For 100 years, the Kiwanis Club has been serving North Wilkesboro in many ways, including helping young people gain confidence and become leaders. Gentry will use her award to ensure kids can attend Camp Thunderbird, a leadership training camp, and help local teens launch a podcast that will interview every recipient of the Wilkesboro Weaver Awards.

Ginna Staley. Staley will use her award to weave her community together through play. As a speech pathologist working with children, she found that Legos opened kids up to connect and talk. Staley plans to create an after-school Lego club that meets once a month, where children and parents can build bonds as they play.

Amanda Pendry. Pendry works to make sure that time after school is as rich as time in school. She worked with her church in Millers Creek to build a safe, fun, and affordable place for children to come after school. They play, build relationships, do service, and get help with homework. Pendry will use her award to further enrich the students’ experience.

Takiyah McCathern. As an assistant principal at Central Wilkes Middle, McCathern has seen the power of sports to help students develop discipline, confidence and community. She will use her award to cover physicals, athletic shoes, and equipment to give every kid an opportunity, no matter their circumstances. She also wants to help families feel that their kids’ schools are a trusted partner in and out of class.

Belinda Marino. Marino knows that science should be exciting, empowering, and fun. As a fifth-grade science teacher at Mulberry Elementary, she is constantly finding new ways to teach STEM and will use her award to purchase creative tools for hands-on learning, from weather kits to magnetic marble sets, to explain how the weather impacts the local community or experiment with physics.

Olivia Walsh. Many people in Wilkes County worry that their children will not see a future in Wilkes after they graduate from school. Walsh, a teacher at Wilkes Early College High School wants to be sure those kids know what Wilkes County has to offer. She will use her award to create a series of free field trips, so students see the full range of opportunities where they live and help them grow tighter as a community while they explore.

Denise Sturdivant. Wilkes County is one of the largest counties in North Carolina and transportation is one of the biggest barriers to accessing extra-curricular activities for kids, getting healthcare, or attending school functions. As part of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Assistance Ministry, Sturdivant will use her award to support the organization’s program to provide transportation and gas vouchers for families in need.

Jamie Miles. Besides being a whiz at Sudoku puzzles, Jamie is a teacher at North Wilkes High School and coach for the school’s Science Olympiad team. She will use her award to fund the Science Olympiad team and help kids from marginalized backgrounds join the team and get excited about a career in STEM.

Nickie Brady. Brady grew up often going without dinner so her younger sisters could eat. As director of the Justice Project, she and a group of volunteers provide meals, resources, and support to people experiencing poverty or homelessness. Brady’s team will use her award to give meals to children in need through the summer, when there’s no school lunch, and help families the rest of the year.

Beckie Spears and Melody Johnson. Principal Beckie Spears and teacher Melody Johnson are colleagues at Wilkesboro Elementary and know children thrive in school when they feel welcomed, valued, and part of a community. They will use their award to create a culture of connection among fourth-grade students through projects and events, and to inspire families of second graders to feel supported by the school community.

Naing Win. As a refugee and the first person of Burmese descent to settle in Wilkesboro, Naing knows what it feels like to be an outsider. Win and his wife opened Nine Grocery Store to provide familiar foods and a meeting place for all those in need of a community, including many youth who use it as a gathering space to study and connect. Win will use his award to expand the store.

Deborah Beckel. When Beckel became manager of Traphill Branch Library, another librarian told her she didn’t need to buy children’s books, because no children ever came. Since then, Beckel has made it her priority to attract children and families through community initiatives like music night, family fun days, and partnering with schools. She will use her award to transform the library into a community hub for Traphill and nearby communities.

Renee Gentry. As a media specialist at Traphill Elementary, one of Renee’s greatest joys is inspiring students to read. She found that students get excited about books when community members come and read to them, since they serve as role models and connect school with home and community. She will use her award to get more books and bring in more readers.

The advisorswho selected them are Brittany Brady, Wilkes County Schools

Mike Cooperm Wilkes community liaison; Gia Galifianakis, Alquist 3D; Doren Tripp, The Masthead; Ariana Williamson, NC Tech Paths; Hershawna Frison, Weave: The Social Fabric Project; Nikki Morgan, artist/musician; LB Prevette, Wilkes community liaision; Thomas Salley, Wilkesboro Tourism Development Authority, Mara Lynn Tugman, Wilkes County Public Library

Rachel Minick, Wilkesboro Elementary; and Frances Kraft, Weave: The Social Fabric Project.

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