By Harley Nefe
Watauga High School freshman Ellary Smith, who is 14 years old, enjoys being a musician and running on the cross country team. Ellary is also a young activist in the community who has raised over $1,155 for the homeless population in Watauga County, and this initiative all started from a single encounter.
One day in November when running alongside some of her friends on the Greenway, Ellary saw someone who had their sleeping bag and their coat and everything set up in the woods.
“They were having to sleep in the woods, and the day we saw it was when it was getting ready to have a big snow and a temperature drop,” Ellary said. “It was just really concerning to see that.”
For every person sheltered, three people remain unsheltered; In addition, 65% of the unsheltered population are families with children, according to the Northwest North Carolina Continuum of Care. The NWCOC documents annually the extent of homelessness in the High Country region, which includes Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Mitchell, Watauga, Wilkes, and Yancey counties. The poverty rate of the NWCOC service area is 23.6%. The poverty rate of Watauga County is 31.4%.
After the incident on the Greenway that bugged and inspired her, Ellary talked to some of her friends and began asking others if they knew of any resources or how to help.
“There is, of course, the Hospitality House that is really great, but obviously not everyone can be in there right now because of the pandemic,” Ellary said. “So I just thought, since there are people who are unfortunately having to sleep outside, instead of just ignoring it and pretending they’re not there, we could at least do something to hopefully make them a little warmer and safer.”
Ellary brought the idea up to the High Country Youth Activists, which is a group of students in middle school and high school that discuss topics that have to do with change, both locally and with the state and national government.
High Country Youth Activists is an Instagram account, and the admins posted asking if anyone was interested in local youth activism to let them know.
Now, the platform has adapted to being a small messaging group where they discuss topics. Ellary is a member of this group, and she reached out to the other members asking if anyone had experience fundraising or working with local shelters, as she said a lot of them are super involved and could give advice.
“It’s nice to have people who are like-minded and interested in politics and things like that,” Ellary said. “It’s just a group of people my age and older and a little bit younger who are just kind of out there wanting to see things change and also out there doing things about it, such as sharing information and just being a force for young people about political issues.”
Ellary and the High Country Youth Activists decided to create the GoFundMe fundraiser on Nov. 30.
“My daughter really did this on her own,” said Tracy Smith, Ellary’s mother. “I didn’t even know she set up the GoFundMe until after.”
When Ellary organized the fundraiser, she set the initial donation goal at $500.
“It’s funny. When I actually created it, I didn’t know if we would get anywhere close to $500, but I thought, I’ll just put it out there, and hopefully, we can reach for it,” Ellary said. “Then later that night, I was kind of second-guessing myself, like was that too high? Are we even going to get close to that?” And then within a few days, we were passed it, and it just kept coming in, and I just kept seeing people willing to step up.”
As of Dec. 30, there have been 22 donors who have raised the total amount of $1,155. There have also been three additional donations that were given outside of the GoFundMe platform, making the total of donors be 25 for the cause. Due to a few fees and taxes through GoFundMe that took a small portion of the funds, the total amount Ellary was able to use was $1,114.59.
“I have a lot of friends and fellow high schoolers who are super interested in similar kinds of activism and helping people in the community, and so I had a lot of great support by people just sharing the GoFundMe on social media,” Ellary said. “I had a lot of friends who encouraged their followers to go donate and share, and also thankfully my mom and a lot of adults were willing to share it with their followers and their friends, and it was really amazing how it took off — how I shared it with just a few people and soon, I was getting donations from names I never even heard before.”
Lonnie Webster, who is a friend of the Smith family, was one of the people who donated. Webster described Ellary as being an interesting and talented young woman who is very active about social issues.
“She’s just a really smart, and if you get into a conversation with her, she knows what’s going on in current events, and it’s almost to the point of for a teenager of her young years, it’s hard for her to process the injustice, but she’s well aware of what’s going on,” Webster said.
On the GoFundMe page, he wrote, “I donated because I believe Ellary will use the funding wisely to help those in need.”
“I set the GoFundMe up, and it was really immediate that I had a lot of friends sharing it and donating, which was super nice and super gratifying to see that people were willing to do that,” Ellary said. “But then I realized that these people were relying on me, and I needed to figure out what to do next.”
Ellary and the other members of High Country Youth Activists went through a lot of ideas of what people might need and whether they should focus on using the funds to purchase blankets, food or hygiene products.
“Eventually we thought that sleeping bags might be a good idea because it’s super important, but it’s hard for people to find high quality things and often if people are donating, they’re not going to be the quality they need to keep them safe,” Ellary said. “We thought that since we have so many people who are willing to help and to donate, we should use this opportunity to buy things that really matter and that are going to help keep people safe.”
Ultimately, Ellary and the other individuals decided to buy wool socks and waterproof sleeping bags and tarps.
Ellary and the others reached out to the Hospitality House, which is in low supply of some of those items right now because of renovations that it is having to do to keep people safe. However, by reaching out and getting in touch with organizations in the community, they managed to figure out what will make the biggest impact.
The plan is for Ellary and the others to distribute the items to the Hospitality House and possibly the Hunger and Health Coalition so that they can have the items on hand to help people who have to sleep outside, and so they can have something to help keep them warm and safe.
The items to be distributed were ordered on Dec. 29, and the sleeping bags are expected to arrive between Jan. 4-11.
In addition to their latest project, Ellary and the High Country Youth Activists are also currently planning a socially distanced gathering with a few people to write letters or cards of encouragement.
“So, if somebody comes to the Hospitality House, and they are sleeping on the streets, they might be able to offer not only a sleeping bag, and a tarp, and a pair of socks, but a note from a high schooler in the community who realizes that they are going through a lot and hopefully can offer some encouragement and a sense of friendship,” Ellary said.
Looking back at the process and her initiative, Ellary said the fundraiser definitely exceeded her expectations.
“To be honest, I don’t even know what I was expecting,” Ellary said. “I never really done something exactly like this before where I was overseeing the funds coming in, and so it was really gratifying whenever I would see a name I didn’t even know popping up and saying that they were willing to donate and they were willing to help or having people reach out and say, ‘I’m not able to donate at this time, but let me know what I can do to help or let me know how I can share this.’ In a way, I didn’t know what to expect, but it was definitely beyond my expectations the way people came through.”
Since organizing this kind of project was something Ellary has never really done before, she said there was a lot that she learned from this experience.
“I definitely learned that it’s really difficult,” Ellary said. “I think there are a ton of people out there who want to help organize things and start helping people, but honestly, the logistics are kind of what I feel like are in the way. I think I just learned that even though it may be hard to face the challenge of all the responsibilities, especially as a young person, with a team of support and a group to help you, it’s definitely possible.”
Ellary further said, “I think it also shows that there is a need for a more global or national change in how we go about these policies because there are so many people who want to help and can’t. I think there are people who want to help and aren’t able to, and I think there are policies that could change that could help people on a grander scale than I could or any individual could. And so, I think that is also what a lot of people my age are interested in, helping people individually, but also encouraging change on a more national, political level.”
Ellary’s mother, Tracy, said her and her daughter both have learned a lot in the process about doing something like this and about the community and the challenges.
Tracy is a middle grades education professor at Appalachian State University and when asked about Ellary’s project, she said, “I think it will encourage other young people to feel like the work they do is important. I feel like sometimes young people get a reputation that they don’t care about others, and this story just shows that they do.”
Ellary and the High Country Youth Activists plan on keeping the GoFundMe fundraiser open due to the great response.
“I’m really going to have to just wait and see how this round goes and see people’s response and if it’s helpful, so that we can focus on continuing to adapt it to help it do what it can to keep people safe the best way possible,” Ellary said. “If this works, I think it would be great to keep it going and if not, then we might just have to learn how to adapt and change things, but hopefully we can keep this as a continual process. Hopefully people will continue being so incredibly generous as they have, which has been just super cool to see.”
To all of the individuals who donated to the cause or reached out looking for other ways to help and get involved, Ellary said thank you.
“Thank you for stepping up for people, and I think it really shows just how many people are really out there who do want to do something about all the people struggling, and I would say continue to search for ways to help, and I would also encourage people to if they’re interested in helping the unhoused community in Watauga just to continue to look for ways to do that because sometimes I feel like in rural places, the homeless community is kind of ignored because it’s not as obvious as it might be in a more urban area, but I just want to tell people to keep acknowledging what’s going on and keep reaching out to people, and thank you for your support.”
For people who feel inclined to donate or get involved, here is the link to Ellary’s GoFundMe page, where Ellary can also be contacted through: https://www.gofundme.com/f/high-country-youth-activist-fund-for-the-unhoused.
“Even though it’s hard to reach out to people directly, I would encourage people if they see someone who is struggling to make conversation,” Ellary said. “It’s obviously super impactful to reach out and donate in a way like this, but it can also just mean a lot if you see someone and you just want to ask a few questions or just kind of reach out to them and let them know that they have people who are willing to make conversation and be friendly and everything.”
Photos submitted by Lonnie Webster: