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Kinship Caregivers: Finding Support in the High Country

Gift bags provided by the Women’s Fund of the Blue Ridge were given to help the grandparents of High Country Caregivers. Photo courtesy of High Country Caregivers.

By Anna Beth Adcock

Equipped with a mission to “provide advocacy, support and education for kinship caregivers and their families,” High Country Caregivers got its start in 2006 providing respite care to caregivers—with the hopes of helping them carry the responsibilities of their all-encompassing and time-consuming responsibilities.

“We want to offer support to these families,” said Jonathan Long, marketing and philanthropy specialist. “When we provide support for these people, they are able to do their jobs better and have more of a balance between their personal lives and what they’re doing—and what they’re doing is so important.”

High Country Caregivers youth visiting Grandfather Mountain. Photo courtesy of High Country Caregivers.

HCC has values to create positive change, foster respect, remain committed to its caregivers,
collaborate with other organizations and professionals, operate with integrity and provide outlets for its kinship caregivers to rest and recharge.

While the organization began with a focus on respite care, it has since morphed towards helping families whose children have been displaced from their parents and end up going into the care of grandparents, aunts or uncles (i.e. kinship care), with special attention on pouring into the children. In most cases, children are displaced from their parents due to substance abuse, a death in the family or imprisonment—with the opioid crisis in Appalachia being a significant contributing factor to the situation.

And there are lots of children and caregivers to serve. The nonprofit currently serves six counties throughout western North Carolina, including Ashe, Avery, Mitchell, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancy counties. And HCC has grown from working with 22 families to 188 families in the span of three years, now counting a total of 247 children as part of its program.

Part of “The Learning Shack” program includes opportunities for the kids to create and glaze their own pottery. Photo courtesy of High Country Caregivers.

“Our goal is to provide the resources they need to carry on with a sense of normalcy,” said Long. “Inherently they are at a disadvantage—not due to any fault of their own—but it’s an issue we feel needs to be addressed.”

To address these needs, High Country Caregivers offers myriad programs, resources and support to assist families towards emotional and physical well-being—helping keep children under the care of their family members rather than in the foster care system.

High Country Caregivers youth visit Grandfather Mountain as part of a weekend camping trip with their “Eyes in the Wild” program.

Its biggest program, titled kinship navigation, involves in-home counseling and therapy for families, essentially helping them connect the dots between needs and solutions. Think of services to solve physical needs: food insecurities, finding transportation or supplying diapers
to emotional needs: family counseling and having a social worker reach out each month for a

“The clients become our family,” said Jacob Willis, High Country Country Caregiver’s executive director. “We normally follow these children through when they graduate from their highest level of education, and we will provide everything they need from essential items to their cap and gown.”

A youth participant works on her sewing skills during a “The Learning Shack” program. Photo courtesy of High Country

A few more significant services that the organization offers are a slew of recreational programs, from sports (Coach’s Kids) to outdoor activities (Eyes in the Wild) and opportunities to learn marketable and creative skills (The Learning Shack). To boot, High Country Caregivers assists with covering legal fees since many of these families are undergoing custody battles.

“One of our priorities in working with these families is creating a sense of normalcy, belonging and friendship,” explained Long. “The intent behind our programs is to keep the kids engaged
in something other than their home and the problems they have to deal with on a daily basis.”

“Our hope is to help break the cycle of addiction,” added Willis. “And when you are 70 to 80 years old it’s hard to play football in the yard, go hiking or take the kids on overnight camping trips, and we want to provide these children an experience that is similar to growing up in a traditional home… with the hope that these children don’t repeat the same mistakes as their parents.”

In October of 2022, many of the youth got to experience the wildlife of Appalachia at Grandfather Mountain. Photo courtesy
of High Country Caregivers

High Country Caregivers is a nonprofit organization that relies on fundraising and donors to
offer these life-changing services. Find two fundraising events per year—a spring golf tournament and a dinner/auction—along with a dedicated team of donors and finding grants to fund specific programs (think recreation or substance abuse prevention).

“With our fundraising events, our goal is to try and get people in the community engaged—to meet us and learn about what we do,” said Long. And according to Willis, High Country Caregivers receives about 65% of its funding from grants, 30% from fundraisers and the rest from donors.

Looking ahead, High Country Caregivers hopes to expand its program, The Learning Shack, to
be available across all six counties it serves. Currently, the program exists solely in Yancy county; offering specific programs in an array of disciplines that encourage kids to attend and learn all types of skills: from welding and wood shopping to pottery, baking and jewelry making.

An important aspect of “The Learning Shack” program is giving kids the opportunity to learn marketable skills for a positive route into adulthood. Photo courtesy of High Country Caregivers.

“The goal of this is to give kids the opportunity to find a spark with something that they will really enjoy and feel passionate about,” said Long. The Learning Shack is scheduled to expand into Avery and Watauga counties within the year with the hope of reaching all six counties by 2026.

According to Willis, the organization has another goal to add two more social workers to the team (currently, the team touts four full-time and three part-time employees). And the organization hopes to continue growing its team from there by involving members of the community and expanding its volunteer base.

“We get the job done around here, but we will not complain about more hands,” he said. “We want to establish a healthy volunteer base.”

Want to lend a hand? HCC always needs volunteers for its two annual fundraisers and around the holiday season—and people helping out around Christmas might get the fun job of wrapping and organizing tons of gifts. In addition, the nonprofit is always seeking people willing to help move essential items from one place to another on a whim and mentors who will show up and build relationships with the kids—especially male volunteers.

And all the time, effort, fundraising and care that the staff at HCC pours into its families is not lost on them. Donna Miller, a grandmother raising her four grandchildren, has been involved for about eight years and she cannot recommend the nonprofit enough. Miller and her husband have been raising her oldest two grandchildren for almost 17 years and the youngest for about eight years.

“It’s a fantastic organization,” Miller said. “They came in and helped us when we needed it the most—it’s very hard when you’re older and you think your life is ready to slow down, then here you are with these children that you love with all your heart and want to take care of… it’s hard financially and it’s hard emotionally.”

<br/><span style="color: #800000;"> April 18, 2023 </span> On any given day, it’s not unusual to see Revolution Clothiers & Co. owner Barone strolling in front of his store while engaging with tourists walking along Main Street in downtown Blowing Rock. Dressed in a distinctive outfit and carrying one of his trademark walking sticks, his
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High Country Caregivers youth on nature adventures with Tal Gaton for the “Eyes in the Wild” program. Photos courtesy of High Country Caregivers.

Miller emphasized the emotional support that HCC offers to both child and caregiver—and how beneficial it is to create relationships with other people in the program who have gone through similar experiences, to encourage each other and to share resources.

“My daughter was on drugs and her kids came to live with my husband and me,” explained Miller. “And we went to court and got custody because we could not leave them in that situation.”

Since Miller and her family have gotten involved, she has seen how the organization has changed and evolved “for the better.” And something that has meant a lot to her and her children is the sense of comradery coming from HCC.

“My kids see that we are not alone,” she said. “There are others like us and they don’t have to
feel different. They make friendships that last and they feel like they fit in—and that’s been such
a huge encouragement to me.”

Janie Barnwell is now the legal guardian of her 14-month-old grandson, who she got custody
of when he was only three weeks old when her daughter was unable to care for him—and HCC
helped her pay the lawyer fee when the family went to court for custody.

Employees from HCC and Hunger & Health Coalition take part in the yearly
Christmas present drop-off. Photo courtesy of High Country Caregivers

“The organization has just been a godsend,” said Barnwell. “When you get custody of your
grandchild—especially when it’s unexpected—you’re starting over from scratch. High Country
Caregivers has supported me in the little things and the bigger things, from finding a crib to
navigating legal things, and they are just the sweetest community of people who truly want to

During a visit to Mayland Community College, kids got to explore career
opportunities and programs that they provide. Photo courtesy of High Country Caregivers.

Amy Barker, a caregiver who got started with HCC within the last year, echoed the sentiments.

“High Country Caregivers is amazing!” she said. Barker has two kids, a ten-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl.

“We adopted our kids six years ago,” Barker explained. “I was a foster parent to their biological mother and I also watched her grow up. One day she called me up to babysit and she never came back.”

Thanks to HCC, Barker’s daughter is able to be involved in gymnastics, and the family has participated in tubing trips, picnics and other gatherings.

Kids with High Country Caregivers learn many valuable life skills through its
various programs. Photo courtesy of High Country Caregivers

“This year was the best Christmas we’ve had in a very long time,” Barker said. “I’m just shocked that there is a program out there for families like us. HCC makes things possible—and I don’t know how they do it!”

Want to get involved or learn more about HCC? Visit highcountrycaregivers.com for more