By Joe Johnson
The Avery Chamber Annual Celebration was held at the Best Western Mountain Lodge on November 7 and was sponsored by the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.
The Avery Chamber of Commerce honored several organizations and individuals throughout Avery County during the proceedings due to their significant contributions to the community.
Guest Speaker Jeff Davis, who honored each of the night’s award recipients with an introduction describing the recipients’ accomplishments, hosted the event.
Beginning the award ceremony was the award for Nonprofit of the Year, which was given to the High Country Charitable Foundation. In the last five years, the HCCF has awarded more than $1,500,000 to nonprofits in order to benefit the people and animals of Avery County. In each of the five years, the Foundation has generated and gifted an increasing amount of money. It can be argued that in 2019 no other single Avery County entity has impacted the lives of needy people and distressed animals more than the HCCF. Of the 25 HCCF grants issued in 2019, 17 went to nonprofit members of the Avery Chamber of Commerce. Three examples are Feeding Avery Families, which are now able to expand programs because of the money, the Williams YMCA of Avery County, which is now able to provide more assistance for folks who can’t afford programs or memberships, and the Avery County Humane Society, who is now able to rebuild animal habitats; all thanks to the generosity of the High Country Charitable Foundation. “This is primarily funded from the residents of Elk River Club; they had an event this year to raise money and raised over $600,000 at a social event,” said Davis, “That’s the kind of generosity that is indicative of folks who call Avery County home or a second home.”
Lisa Jones and Jim Swinkola, a community liaison for HCCF, accepted the Nonprofit of the Year award on behalf of the foundation. “This is such an honor for the High Country Charitable Foundation; their main goal is to give back to the people and animals of Avery County,” said Jones, “I know there are a lot of people who have been touched by their work and it is my privilege to be able to work with them. Thank you so much!”
Next, Davis continued with the award ceremony by honoring three high school students in Avery County, a sophomore, junior, and senior, who have each made a substantial impact in the lives of those around them in the community.
Sophomore Student of the Year, Josie Naumowich, is the daughter of Holly and Joe Magid and a distance runner in Avery Vikings Cross Country and Outdoor Track. Naumowich recently won fifth overall at the Cross Country conference meet; she also plays clarinet in the band and is an honor student at the school. Naumowich volunteers for Autism Society, Special Olympics, fosters animals for the Human Society, and works in the child development center for the YMCA. She loves animals, especially her dogs and chickens, and takes care of her brother with special needs.
Junior Student of the Year, Noah Rosato, skipped a grade to become a 15-year-old junior at Avery County High School. Rosato plays sports while keeping his grades up as an Honor Roll Student. He loves baseball and has aspirations to play Division 1 baseball in college; several schools are currently recruiting Rosato. A team player, Rosato is kind and considerate; he has a positive attitude and is always the first to offer help. He sets an example for other students and is well loved by his coaches, teachers, and teammates alike.
Senior Student of the year, Caroline Laws is a strong leader who is involved in many activities. She has participated in Varsity Athletics, is a leader in Beta Club, and a member of the Student Government Association. Caroline excels in her academics and will be transferring a number of credits to college via dual enrollment at the high school.
Presented next was the award for Volunteer of the Year, which was given to Talia Freeman. Freeman is on the Lees-McRae College Alumni board and very active with college curriculum; she was instrumental in getting the Ski Industry Business & Instruction minor introduced at LMC. She is on the board of Boone Chamber of Commerce, Girls on the Run, Woolly Worm Committee, and Banner Elk Kiwanis. Freeman is a 2016 Leadership Avery graduate as well. She has spearheaded the Chamber’s participation in Burton Snowboards Learn to Ride program; the program introduces area youth to snow sports through a land based learning curriculum at local elementary schools. The introduction has developed into several schools coming to the facility to snowboard or ski, free of charge. Freeman has generated revenues for local entities such as Purposeful Pints and has helped organize races and opportunities for the nonprofit local ski/snowboard team as well. Furthermore, Freeman is planning an inaugural weekend with the Colon Cancer Coalition for this March. The event will be focused on raising money for Colon Cancer awareness and will become an annual event hosted through the ski area. “Coming up with a Volunteer of the Year may be one of the most difficult awards that we give,” said Davis, “There are so many people with servant hearts here in Avery County that don’t hesitate to pitch in a helping hand, to get involved when it’s not the fun thing to do, or when you need help with something that might be hard to find volunteers for. One person that stands out to me, and I think it will come as no surprise; our volunteer of the year is Talia Freeman.”
Business of the Year was awarded to Stonewalls, specifically Owner Scott Garland and Co-Owner/Head Chef Tim Heschke. Garland was the first student from Avery County High School to graduate and attend the Culinary Institute in New York; he is also responsible for the Avery Chamber Annual Golf Tournament reception. Stonewalls and its proprietors give back to countless organization in Avery County, including Williams YMCA of Avery County, Avery High Culinary Class, Avery Humane Society, High Country Care Givers, Newland Elementary School, Banner Elk Elementary, Empty Bowls, Avery Chamber of Commerce, New Opportunity School for Women at Lees-McRae College, Avery Health Department, Historic Banner Elk School, Fall Creek Fire Department, Partnership for a Better Seven Devils, Play for Pink, Children’s Hope Alliance, Town of Seven Devils, Banner Elk Fire and Rescue, Linville Central Rescue Squad, Beech Mountain Police Department, and the Avery Cancer Patient Emergency Fund. Their generosity is unequaled; the quality of their product is unmatched. They purchased their business in August 2016 and have never looked back! They have renovated, taken their brand to the next level and given back to the community in such a way that benefits us all. “I would like to congratulate and recognize the hard work and dedication of Tim Heschke, co-owner and head chef, and hometown guy Scott Garland, co-owner and the man everyone wants to talk to,” said Davis, “Our 2019 Business of the Year: Stonewalls of Banner Elk.”
Lastly, the Avery Chamber of Commerce honored John Blackburn with the award for Business Person of the Year. “There is no way I could possibly list all of his involvements and contributions to the community,” said Davis, “If you have been in the YMCA, you can thank John Blackburn. If you’ve been in the Cannon Memorial Hospital, you can thank John Blackburn. Somewhere upstairs there’s a guy looking down that says ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant.’” John is a quiet leader; he does not expect or want recognition for his business acumen. He is more likely to place the recognition on those around him such as his employees. Blackburn has displayed a progressive leadership style that is respected by his staff, the board and the community at large. The longevity of the Linville Resorts full-time staff is a testament to their belief in him and the leadership that he provides. He has the ability to see beyond the “here and now” and envision what the future could hold.
Blackburn has served in various positions in the High Country and has been honored with many awards throughout his life. He served as GM of Linville Resorts from 1983-1989 and President of Linville Resorts from 1989-2019, he was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine in 2010, and he has served on the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina, Board of Trustees of the Crossnore School and Children’s Home, Co-Founder and Board Member Williams YMCA of Avery County, Board of Directors Watauga Medical Center, Board of Directors Cannon Memorial Hospital, Board of Trustees Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, Chairman of the Board-Appalachian State University, and he is the Chairman Cain Scholars Program in Avery County (raised and awarded $1.75 million to 600 students).
“I’m so honored,” said Blackburn during his acceptance speech, “I’ve been honored by many things in my life, but this is where my life began. What a testament to me. Thank you for all of my friends being here tonight; it’s a special occasion for me. I am honored as a 1969 graduate of Avery High School; it’s amazing to give back to this wonderful place and I thank God for every moment I’m here.”
The Avery Chamber Annual Celebration was rounded out by current Chamber updates presented by Melynda Martin Pepple, Executive Director of the Avery Chamber of Commerce. According to Pepple, last year, thanks to Phillip Barrier and the High Country Council of Governments, the Avery Chamber of Commerce was finally able to pass and receive a $100,000 grant through ARC to improve broadband infrastructure. So far, 350 homes have been provided with high-speed Internet with the help of NC Wireless with the ultimate goal being 900 homes.
“Avery County isn’t a place that people are haphazardly coming to; it is a destination,” said Pepple, “We’re hearing that said to us in the chamber more and more often.. My favorite comment I’ve heard recently is ‘I decided to come over the state line and pass by Pigeon Forge!’ People are excited about that; they are crossing over into North Carolina! Plus they are coming here and relocating. We thank Eagle’s Nest and so many of our businesses working diligently to bring people into Avery County.”