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Community rallies for three-day makeover of Hazelwood prison

coverIt was a scene that any fan — or casual viewer — of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” would find familiar. A crowd, ramped-up and excited, gathered together wearing matching T-shirts. A decrepit property in the background. And Ty Pennington, host of the show, running up in front of them, throwing his arms in the air yelling “Let’s flip this house!” 

SEE ALSO: An interview with Ty Pennington

Except when Pennington came to Hazelwood last week, he didn’t say “house.” Instead, he was there to flip a prison. Specifically, the old Hazelwood prison, which dates back to the 1920s and was closed in 2011. Starting Nov. 1, the facility will serve as a center for healing, housing a Christian-based halfway house, soup kitchen and homeless shelter, jointly referred to as Haywood Pathways Center.

“We’re going to tear down the fences, and we’re going to create a project and a place where we do not imprison, but we empower people,” Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown said. Brown was but the first speaker to stand on a temporary stage erected outside the prison, kicking off the remodeling project with a crowd of press, politicians and first-shift volunteers.  

Day one 

The festivities began with Brown presenting Pennington and Guaranteed Rate’s Chief Marketing Officer Bob Armour with a key to the city, a symbolic gesture to which Pennington joked, “This is going to be great, because we’d love to get in you guys’ fridges.”

It wasn’t too long before the work began. Upbeat rock tunes blared from the stage-turned-DJ-booth, and teams of volunteers began attacking old tile in the dormitories, scrubbing away at the buildings’ dirty walls and erecting the framework of a new laundry facility to adjoin the kitchen. Old paint got sanded off of chipped handrails, and fencing separating various areas of the campus came down. Grass was raked out of flowerbeds and covered over with fresh mulch. Within a 10-minute period, seven shrubs appeared in the flowerbed outside the halfway house building. 

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“This is exactly what we thought would happen,” said Nick Honerkamp, director of the homeless shelter. “A lot of people sweating, and that’s what we wanted to see, to put some equity in the place.”

There certainly was plenty of that. Clouds came and went over the course of the day Sept. 25, the intermittent sun shining over a yard full of teams of people working busily at their individual tasks. Honerkamp estimated that about 200 people were on-site, working, at any given time Thursday. 

“I would say that I was more stressed out the day before than I was the day of,” said Dale Burris, lead contractor on the renovation. “Everyone just fell into ‘This is what I know how to do. What do you want me to do?’”

By 9:45 a.m., the first sheets of plywood were going up on the sides of the laundry room. By 2 p.m., the final beams were being hammered into the roof. By 2:30 p.m., new ceiling fans had been installed in the kitchen, and the yard was full of people — including Pennington — planting shrubs and trees in the courtyard, steering wheelbarrows full of mulch to various destinations, watering just-finished plantings or just taking a break to enjoy Pennington’s celebrity presence. 

And the work wasn’t limited to inside the prison walls. About half the volunteers were stationed outside the campus, selling baked goods, donuts, T-shirts, megaphones autographed by Pennington, washing cars, wandering the neighborhood to help out with landscaping projects in Hazelwood. 

“It would be an awesome world if this feeling carried on every day,” said Lisa Nations, who manned the bake sale. Asked how much money they’d made so far, she said, “I have no idea, but they’ve emptied the money box four times.”

That’s still a true statement — as of press time Haywood Pathways is still totaling its profits from the fundraisers. 

Volunteers came from counties throughout Western North Carolina, but they also came from out of state. Haywood County native Brad Caldwell, now a golf coach at North Greenville University in South Carolina, came back with his entire golf team to put in some service hours at the prison. 

“It’s always nice to see a community come together as one,” said Washington, D.C., native AnnaLeis Dibert, a member of the team. “I’m not from a small town, so I’ve never experienced this, so it’s pretty awesome.”

When the workday closed at 6 p.m., a hunk of the work had been completed — Honerkamp estimated 1,800 man-hours were invested that day — and Pennington traveled to The Chef’s Table with a group of ticketholders for a fundraising dinner, his second fundraising meal that day. After a 6:30 a.m. television interview, Pennington had gone to The Open Door in Frog Level for a breakfast with both ticketholders and regular diners at the soup kitchen. 

But the blitz on the old prison was far from over. 

Day two

Day two of the three-day event was a bit lower-key than the first. Pennington had left Waynesville, and the golf team that had spent all day waving carwash signs was gone. There was no stage, no DJ playing pump-up music, and the prison campus was a good bit less populated than the day before. 

But the work kept going, fueled by students from Pisgah High School and Western Carolina University. WCU brought in two shifts of students, a morning and afternoon group, totaling about 100. And 61 students from Pisgah came for four hours of service in the morning, a project of the Athletic Student Community Outreach Club. 

“We’re blessed with a great group of kids, and they actually wanted to do this project for our community,” said Heidi Morgan, a physical education teacher at Pisgah and the club’s faculty sponsor. 

“When I heard about it, I thought it was a perfect fit for what we’re trying to do,” said the club’s president, Sydney Singleton. 

The group already has a community service project set up with Broyhill Children’s Home in Clyde, and they’re looking to expand their reach, Singleton said. So, they made sure to get over to the Hazelwood prison, painting walls, sanding rails, tearing down old shelves and cleaning up banners and balloons from Thursday. 

“We’ve been really busy,” Singleton said. 

Elsa Stiles, a Franklin native and social work major at WCU, kept occupied too. She knew she wanted to help with this project as soon as she heard about it and it didn’t hurt when she discovered she could get points toward a class grade for doing so. 

“My dad grew up in Buncombe [County], so I’ve been coming up here for a long time,” she said. “I’ve been seeing this old prison and thinking, ‘What are they doing with these old buildings?’ Now we’re getting this great conversion that will help hundreds of people.”

For Karen Farmer, assistant director of student clubs and organizations at WCU, it’s a conversion that’s happening in her own backyard. Hands blackened from sanding outdoor railings on Thursday, she talked about how excited she was to be working on a project that she’ll get to see grow, and how the benefits will be reaped in her own community. 

“This is really the first time since I’ve done service that I feel like it’s a community feel, like I’m part of the community,” she said. 

With a roof on the laundry room and dormitory walls painted warm red, beige and spring green — with sponge murals of a sunset decorating the glass windows separating the two sections of the dormitories — the difference was palpable. 

“I’m glad I can be a part of this. I really am,” said Waynesville resident Eric Lemerise, painting in the kitchen with Stiles.

Day three

Not everyone can get out of work on a Thursday or Friday, and not everyone who could got signed up before an overwhelming volume of volunteer offers caused the roster for Guaranteed Rate/Ty Pennington day to get cut off. 

So, Saturday, Sept. 27, was a y’all-come kind of day. Not a lot of hoopla, not a lot of crowds. But instead a steady stream of people trickling in and out all day. 

“Today’s been a great day,” Honerkamp said as lunchtime came and went with no lapse in the number of volunteers chipping away at the work. “With more than 700 folks on Thursday and a couple hundred folks yesterday, we probably had a hundred unique individuals here today. It was the perfect amount — not too much, not too little.”

Outside, Damion Brevard, 10, of Transylvania County, raked mulch with his cousin Alicia Reyes, 6, of Haywood County, Brevard’s mother close by wielding a hose. A quartet of painters gave the railings outside the dormitories their second coat of oil-based paint, a surprisingly painstaking process. Inside, volunteers prettied up the trim and gave some final rolls of paint to the walls. Electricians worked on the wiring in the new laundry room. 

With an estimated 3,000 man-hours invested over the three days of work, the before and after was pretty impressive. But there’s still a lot of work to be done between now and the Nov. 1 opening date. 

“It is daunting,” Honerkamp said. “It is challenging, but we believe we’re going to be able to get it done.”

Haywood Pathways will be drawing on some more volunteer help as the date gets closer, planning drop-in volunteer workdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each Saturday between now and then. They’ll also be contracting some skilled labor — installing sprinkler and fire alarm systems, putting in a heating and air conditioning system, finishing the flooring, renovating the bathrooms. 

But in just three days, about 50 percent of the work got done. 

“When I think about where we’ve arrived in such a short period of time,” said Perry Hines, director of The Open Door. “My head is spinning.”



Haywood Pathways Center in a nutshell

Once completed, Haywood Pathways Center will unite two already-existing organizations — Haywood Christian Emergency Shelter and The Open Door soup kitchen — with a new one, a halfway house called Next Step Ministries for people getting out of jail. 

Previously, the homeless shelter had operated only six months out of the year, the soup kitchen had only one campus and the halfway house was just an idea without a physical location to call home. The trio of Christian ministries seized upon the idea of leasing the abandoned Hazelwood prison, now owned by Haywood County, and using it as a joint location for all three organizations. With the support of county commissioners, local municipalities, Sheriff Greg Christopher and the community as a whole, the lease came through. 

Next came the challenge of funding the remodel. Haywood Pathways entered a nationwide voting contest sponsored by home loan company Guaranteed Rate to win $50,000 and Ty Pennington’s help for a day with the project. With votes for Haywood Pathways dwarfing those received by the other 321 entries during all three rounds of voting, the group won the grand prize and is on track to open Nov. 1. 

For now, all women, regardless of which program they are in, will be in the front building, while all men will be housed in the back. A new building will soon be constructed to serve as the joint female building for both the homeless shelter and halfway house, while the men will have separate buildings for the homeless shelter and halfway house. 

“Less than probably 5 percent of our guests over the last six years have been females,” said Nick Honerkamp, director of the homeless shelter. “With that being the case we want to be able to share the female space.”

Haywood Pathways will also include a trailer, located somewhere offsite, to house families in need of a place to stay, and they’re looking to secure another couple trailers for the same purpose. 

“We don’t want kids to get dropped off here at the homeless shelter,” Honerkamp said. “That would be traumatic.”

To round out the campus, a third building will serve as a second soup kitchen location for The Open Door, as well as a place for program participants to meet for Bible studies and devotionals. A new addition to the building will provide laundry facilities, and a separate, existing building will serve as office space. 

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