Pigeon Center rebounds from COVID, carries on mission
Like a lot of Americans, Lyn Forney remembers exactly what she was doing when the whole world shut down.
“We were having a fire safety day, where community members come in and talk with the firemen about their homes. The firemen were actually going out and putting up the smoke alarms inside the homes,” said Forney, executive director of the Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center in Waynesville. “It was for the seniors, making sure they were installed properly. That was the last event we had before COVID hit.”
So much of what the Pigeon Center does is personal — in person, meeting the community where they are, providing services they can’t get anywhere else — that the Coronavirus Pandemic hit especially hard, curtailing services and leaving amongst its service population a tremendous void.
Now, nearly three years later, programming and fundraising are ramping back up. Although the Pigeon Center still has some unmet needs, staff there are preparing to return the irreplaceable institution to its pivotal position at the center of the community.
The Pigeon Center operates out of the former Pigeon Street School, which in 1957 replaced the old Rosenwald School across Oakdale Street as Haywood County’s segregated school for Black children. Located in Waynesville’s traditionally Black community, the school became an instructional materials center when North Carolina Schools were desegregated in 1963.
When the county no longer needed the building, the Pigeon Community Development Club began to utilize it, originally as part of another Haywood nonprofit called REACH. With some help from the Center for Participatory Change in Asheville, the Pigeon Center became its own nonprofit in 2009.
Forney began serving as a volunteer in 2003 and became its executive director in 2009.
Since then, Forney has spent a lot of time on the building itself, raising money, writing grants to stave off decay and making it more comfortable in both frigid winters and sweltering summers with the addition of an updated HVAC system in 2020.
“Now we have heat pumps. The boiler is no longer been used at all,” she said. “It saves us a ton of money, but it also increases the electric bill. It’s a help in that we now can come in the building and either it’s cold like it should be or it’s warm like it should be.”
With COVID restrictions in the rearview mirror and community need at an all-time high, the Pigeon Center’s programming is back to moving at full speed.
“We serve mostly the marginalized of Haywood County. We serve people that either don’t feel comfortable going to other places, or let’s just be honest, are not welcome in other places,” Forney said. “The Pigeon Center, I think, is also specific in that it’s multicultural and we cater to lots of different cultures. When you have a space where people feel welcome, they are more able to come to you with needs that they have, as opposed to just sitting back and suffering because people don’t welcome you.”
Among those program offerings is the summer enrichment program, which only serves 15 students to allow for more one-on-one attention. It’s not “child care,” according to Forney, but rather a schedule of events and activities meant to help kids in kindergarten though 9th grade sharpen their academic skills. Cost of the summer enrichment program is based on a sliding scale.
- A volunteer helps with a Pigeon Center food distribution at the Haywood Arts Regional Theatre on Feb. 15. Cory Vaillancourt photo
The after-school program is similar in that it’s also priced on a sliding scale, so up to 20 children can get a healthy meal and focus on homework with volunteers. Again, it’s not just “childcare,” but given the skyrocketing cost of childcare of any sort, the program has a tremendous impact on working parents from the county’s most vulnerable communities.
“As a parent, just knowing that your child is in a safe space would allow you to work and to be calm after 3 o’clock,” said Forney. “You can’t work after three o’clock because your mind is on your kids, what’s going on with your kids. This allows the parents an opportunity to work, to do their thing.”
Tausha Forney, Lyn’s daughter and the director of programming at the Pigeon Center, is heavily involved with the hands-on work associated with managing the children.
To Tausha, the pandemic represents almost a clean break from the Pigeon Center’s past, as many of the kids previously involved in the programs have aged out and moved along in their academic careers.
“We are just working real hard to build connections in the community and just get some new kids in, and also to kind of fight that stereotype that in order to come to the Pigeon Center, you have to be X, Y or Z,” Tausha said. “That’s not it at all. You can just come over. We’re open for any kid in the county, period, regardless of income. We’re just trying to change that message and make sure that it gets out the right way.”
An annual year-end holiday event puts the “multicultural” in the name of the “Pigeon Community Multicultural Developmental Center,” as kids and adults learn about Advent, Diwali, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Fiesta de la Griteria, Las Posadas and the Winter Solstice.
Adults aren’t overlooked at the Pigeon Center, either. Computer and internet services are available for a nominal fee and regular senior dinners connect community elders. Emergency food boxes, like those distributed at Haywood Arts Regional Theatre on Feb. 15, make an impact on the growing problem of food insecurity.
“It has gotten worse,” Lyn said. “I think that people have more opportunity and more places to get food so at our site it may seem like things have gotten better, but I don’t necessarily believe they have.”
Funding for all of the Pigeon Center’s programs and services comes from businesses and individuals in the community; aside from some appropriations from the Town of Waynesville to cover utilities, the modest annual budget of around $125,000 has to pay for everything.
And, there’s still plenty of work to be done on the building, which was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places and still serves as the heart of the Pigeon Community’s ongoing revitalization.
Lyn said the Pigeon Center recently received grants to redo the dining room floor, and to upgrade drafty, leaky windows that are nearly 70 years old, but finding contractors is a challenge.
She also thinks the roof needs some work to ensure it won’t leak any time soon, but the annual budget doesn’t have a lot of room to include major capital projects.
To that end, the Pigeon Center will host a dine-in/take-out fundraiser on Feb. 24, featuring soul food. All proceeds benefit the Pigeon Center’s programs, most of which are back to business as usual now that COVID-19 restrictions won’t impact their operations as much.
“Come play with us this year,” Tausha said. “We’re having some really fun party fundraisers. We’re having a Cinco De Mayo fundraiser, and then we’re going to have another one in the fall, farm-to-table. We’re just kind of expanding our fundraising opportunities and super excited to play with everybody, so we’re going to see everybody and play together.”
Soul food fundraiser at the Pigeon Center
Celebrate Black History Month with some savory soul food at the Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center. Take-out or eat-in meals will be served on Friday, Feb. 24 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., or until food runs out. Choose from fried chicken or fried fish, collard greens, mac and cheese, sweet potatoes, cornbread, dessert and a drink — all for just $12. Proceeds benefit the PCMDC’s after school and summer programs for children, senior fellowship opportunities, the multicultural library and more. Donations and volunteers are appreciated. The Pigeon Center is located at 450 Pigeon St. in Waynesville. For more information, call 828.452.7232 or visit pcmdc.org.