In Watauga County, where 26 percent of residents live in poverty, owning a winter coat can be a luxury for some. For children, the winter months can be especially hard.
For nearly 40 years, Appalachian State University’s Staff Senate has taken children shopping through its AppKIDS service project, which stands for “Appalachian Kindness in Donations and Service.” Staff and faculty, using funds they donated, volunteer their time one day each November to mentor and guide the children in their purchases of coats, boots, pants and other necessities.
AppKIDS is part of Appalachian’s culture of community service. Jean Pruitt, 39, knows how beneficial the program can be. A 10-year employee of Appalachian, Pruitt and her younger sister were local children helped by AppKIDS in the 1980s. 2016 will be her third year volunteering as a mentor/shopper with the program.
“There are children in this community, more than people realize, that need help,” she said.
With divorced parents and her mother working a low-paying job, “we grew up very poor,” Pruitt said. From third grade to eighth grade, she remembers looking forward to the day each year an Appalachian employee would take her shopping for underwear and shoes – “basic necessities,” she remembered.
Children for the program are selected based on family need by guidance counselors and social workers at the nine Watauga County public schools. Each year, 10 students are selected from each school for a total of 90 children. This year’s fundraising goal is $16,000, which provides $175 per child.
Shopping day begins when volunteer drivers pick up the children at their schools and bring them to Appalachian’s Plemmons Student Union, where they meet their mentors and eat breakfast together. Mentors are given an information sheet detailing each child’s most imperative clothing needs, and they take their assigned child to shop at participating businesses. Later, everyone returns to campus for lunch with Appalachian’s Chancellor Sheri N. Everts. After an ice cream treat, the children are dropped back off at school or home.
“My main goal for the kids I volunteer with now is to make sure they get everything on their list,” Pruitt said. “The first year I did it, the little girl showed up in pajama pants and flip-flops, and it broke my heart. She didn’t have a coat. The first thing we did, we bought shoes, socks and a coat. I made sure the little girl had everything on her list.”
Pruitt is employed as a utility worker in Appalachian’s Holmes Convocation Center, taking care of maintenance for the building’s arena, concourse track and exterior. A parent of two children, she said she volunteers because “I know how much it helped me – the excitement of getting new clothes, getting to experience something like that. I know how they feel. I want it to be great, you know?”
Another Appalachian employee, Andrea Mitchell ’77, has been making the day great for children since AppKIDS began 37 years ago – in fact, she took Pruitt shopping in the mid-1980s. A program director in Conference and Camp Services, Mitchell has missed only one year as a volunteer.
She said she enjoys getting to know the children and usually asks them if they’ve thought about going to college. “I tell them that they can go, that there are scholarships and grants available. If they keep up their grades or excel in something, there are ways you can go to a university or to a community college.” When time allows during the shopping day, she likes to give them a short driving tour of campus. “A lot of them have never been on campus before,” Mitchell said.
Learn more about AppKIDS.
By Linda Coutant and Elizabeth Prier ’17