Fire In My Belly- A Blog by Michael Lavender
Mourning The Passing of a Colleague and Friend
February 16, 2021- Given the course of the last year, none of us should be surprised when the unexpected, shocking or out-of-the-ordinary happens in our lives. It’s not that extraordinary things have never happened, because they have—they always have—but the frequency and degree to which they seem to have touched each of our lives this past year is unusual, to say the least.
For most of us, the coronavirus pandemic upended our world, realigned our educational system to a largely online learning platform, changed the way we shop for everyday necessities, and, for a while, caused shortages of food, toiletries, disinfecting supplies and so much more. At times, it brought out the worst in our natures and brought sadness to so many families; hoarding; pitting friends, neighbors and loved ones against each other in disputes over the validity or seriousness of COVID-19; dealing with the tragic loss of life and more.
But despite how much we should have learned over the past year to expect the unexpected, it still came as a shock to many of us when our friend and co-worker, Kim Ledbetter, passed away late Saturday night. Her passing was unexpected and seemingly inexplicable. That is what made it all the more shocking.
It is always devastating when we lose friends, co-workers and family members to death, but sometimes the jolt of a sudden, unexpected death feels more intense. Our heart grieves that we didn’t get to say goodbye, hug necks and show our love and affection for the person in other ways.
In those situations, it seems there is nothing left to do but hope and pray that our friend knew and felt our love in his or her lifetime. Surely, it makes us more acutely aware of the need to live our lives from day-to-day so that those who mean most to us know how much we love and care for them as we go forward.
Kim herself was a loving person. To her friends, and especially her close friends, she was a kind and gentle person with a big heart. At the college, she was always quick to volunteer to help serve meals or bag non-perishable food items for needy students from the college’s food pantry. To students who needed financial assistance to be able to afford to attend college, she made every effort to find a way to help them, whether through traditional federal aid programs, through local scholarship programs or internal presidential scholarships.
Her smile and her laugh were contagious. And even when she was frustrated and holding her head in her hand, her warm nature came through; instead of being angry and muttering unkind words under her breath, she would simply say, “Bless it,” or some similar phrase.
To be sure, Kim was also a quirky and feisty person at times. Even years after meeting her, it still seemed both odd and funny when she called certain co-workers by their initials instead of their name or nickname—LB and JP, for example.
While she would help anyone in need, only a fool would attempt to pull one over on her or take advantage of either her generosity or the college’s financial aid programs. She had a disdain for lazy scoundrels and ne’er-do-wells and had little patience for their scamming. Those who tried it once rarely tried it again, because her feisty spirit was not a force they wanted to reckon with again.
On ordinary days, however, Kim had a calm and peaceful spirit about her, and only in hindsight does it occur to some of us where that spirit originated.
You see, Kim knew that, “There’s a land that is fairer than day, and by faith (she) could see it afar.” Kim had been prepared for most of her adult life for the day she would visit that place. (From “The Sweet By And By.”)
For that reason, Kim did not worry about the future. Today, the words of another hymn made popular by Alison Krauss and the Cox family, “I Know Who Holds Tomorrow,” seem to best express the peace Kim knew in her heart. “I don’t know about tomorrow, I just live from day to day, I don’t borrow from its sunshine, for its skies may turn to gray. I don’t worry o’er the future, for I know what Jesus said; and today I’ll walk beside Him, for He knows what (lies) ahead.”
More than anything else, the chorus of that song seems to parallel the life Kim lived: “Many things about tomorrow, I don’t seem to understand; but I know who holds tomorrow, and I know who holds my hand.”
Late Saturday night, those hands welcomed her into the joy of her Lord. While we will grieve her passing, knowing that she is living pain-free in his loving arms is some level of consolation. Knowing that one day those of us who have her same level of assurance, “(Will) meet (her) on that beautiful shore, in the sweet by and by,” “And our spirits shall sorrow no more.”
Until that day, rest in peace, dear friend.
Finding Welcome at Our (Cabin) Door
As I drove down Old Fort Mountain a couple of weeks ago following a meeting in Asheville, a sea of baby clouds and pockets of fog hung low in the valleys, a remnant of the cold, heavy rain that had fallen earlier in the day. As I drove my dad to his dialysis appointment shortly after 5 a.m. the next morning, the landscape was barely visible in most areas, with a thick, thick fog blanketing nearly everything in sight.
During my meeting on Friday I had been asked about where I attended college (Wake Forest University) and what I had majored in (Religion). It was not surprising, then, that in the midst of both Friday and Saturday’s fog, I began singing a song in my head that my peers and I had sung in a musical group in college—an early version of “Carol from an Irish Cabin.”
Still, the soft, acapella words paint a picture in my mind: “The cold wind blows over the heather, The salt wind blows over the sea, The harsh wind blows down from the mountains, And blows a white Christmas to me.” Thoughts of an Irish countryside—hills, rolling meadows and moorland covered in snow, mist or fog—don’t seem so far-fetched in the cold and fog of a January morning in Appalachia.
But the words that resonate most in my mind are the main message of the Carol: “Let wanderers lost and grown weary, Find welcome at my cabin door…Let the star guide the lost and forsaken, Safe over the moorlands to me.” The words become like a prayer to me; Amidst the cold, harsh winds and snow, may I be a safe haven for those in trouble, for those who have lost their way.
Refuge and Renewal
Each fall, spring and summer semester, I find myself thinking similar thoughts as new students find their way to McDowell Tech, seeking refuge and renewal from poverty and failed or dead-end jobs, or the hope and promise of a better life and economic security that sometimes accompanies a new career—nursing, welding, mechatronics and more.
My colleagues and I are lucky to work at an institution whose mission is to be that safe haven and place of renewal and preparation for those who are weary and lost in the midst of their journey. While it is sometimes easy to lose sight of that amidst the ordinariness of mid-semester woes—when the copier is broken and nothing seems to be going right—the beginning of new semesters, the successes celebrated in honor society inductions, graduations, and other special events are great reminders of our central mission to be an “open door” to all who need us.
It doesn’t matter where people are or where they want to go when they enter our doors, our faculty and staff stand with open arms and, hopefully, open hearts to help people get from where they are to where they want to be, academically and professionally.
My friend and colleague Linda Roth Hamrick teaches night classes in our High School Equivalency program, providing a jumpstart to adults who may have left public school before completing their diploma. She is one of several part-time instructors who stand with open arms in that chasm where many would-be students find themselves after dropping out of school.
Linda is the perfect example of what we look for when hiring an instructor—passion, enthusiasm and empathy. Linda has been where students find themselves. She was a teen mom who dropped out of high school in the 9th grade. Later, she came back to school at McDowell Tech, completing her G.E.D. (General Equivalency Diploma) and associate’s degree before going on to finish both a bachelor’s and master’s degree at other institutions. Today, she works full-time as a Life Coach for Community Action Agency, in addition to teaching for the College.
Personally and professionally, Linda has passion and enthusiasm that most cannot rival. On her personal Facebook page, she frequently posts messages like this one from earlier this week: “Just a reminder from your friendly life coach to be kind. Super proud of all the brave people that got up this morning in spite of their demons. Hope everyone has love in their hearts and something warm in (their) bellies.” “Hope everyone has love in their hearts” is her constant reminder to friends, family and others.
The High School Equivalency Program
Students’ stories are each unique, but one thing seems to be the same: “My situation has changed, and I want to further my education and prepare for a new career or a new job, but I don’t have the high school diploma many employers and colleges require to get my foot in the door. What do I do?”
The High School Equivalency program is one answer and solution to the problems these students face. Students who enter the program take a series of pre-tests in academic subjects that are equivalent to those required to graduate from today’s high schools. A student’s scores on the various academic disciplines determine what areas they may need to focus on to ultimately pass a complete high school equivalency test.
Those scores help instructors determine where a student needs to begin their studies to be successful, whether it’s in Mathematics, English, History, Biology or some other subject. Student academic plans are individualized based on where he or she find themselves when they begin, and progress through the program is based on an individual’s effort and hours of commitment to personal and classroom study in particular subject areas.
Full-time students are expected to attend class at least 16 hours per week, Monday through Thursday (day or evening), while part-time students are expected to attend at least 8 hours per week. Classes for this program are fee-waived, meaning that students do not pay tuition to take these classes. Students under age 18 must obtain special permission to enroll in the program. An orientation at the Ford Miller Employment and Training Center/ NC Works Career Center (316 Baldwin Avenue) is required before starting the program.
Once students are ready to take one of the High School Equivalency (HSE) tests, there are three state-approved test options, two of which are offered by McDowell Tech—the GED and HiSET tests. If a student happens to fail a subject on the Official HSE exam, he or she is allowed two more attempts to successfully complete one or all portions of the exam at no extra cost.
The Light of Hope
“Except for time and individual effort, the High School Equivalency program removes many of the barriers for students who are ready to prepare for this exam. There is no traditional admission requirement or tuition, and classroom books are provided by the program,” said Terry Valentino, Director of College and Career Readiness and Human Resources Development. “There is really no reason not to call today to register for orientation and to begin the program.” The only out-of-pocket costs for students who test is the Official Test fee itself. However, scholarships based on student attendance may be available for students who qualify.
“Many students view the past as a life sentence. We want help them learn to view the past as a learning experience they can use to begin building skills that will become a springboard to fulfillment of their dreams, career goals, and lifelong learning,” said Valentino.
Singer/songwriter Zach Williams’ song, “To the Table” offers lyrical encouragement for those struggling to make decisions like these. Although the song was written about Christian salvation, its words are no less true for those who may find themselves weary and in need of hope: “Hear the voice of love that's calling, There's a chair that waits for you, And a Friend who understands, Everything you're going through. But you keep standing at a distance, In the shadow of your shame, There's a light of hope that's shining, Won't you come and take your place, And bring it all to the table?”
If you’re ready to “…bring it all to the table,” call 828-659-6001, ext. 160 to register for the next class. No shame, no judgement—just open arms, “the light of hope” and a group of instructors with a lot of love in their hearts.