Reflections on CIS of Clay County by Justin Cook

30 Nov

Travel with us this month to Clay County, on the far western edges of North Carolina.  “The terrain is rugged and beautiful, the people are salt-of-the-earth and kind,” describes multimedia producer Justin Cook in his blog post below.  A well kept secret, Clay County boasts an Appalachian way of living tied to “old ways” of farming, logging and building things from scratch.  To the people of Clay County, the shop class at Hayesville High School, a project of CIS of Clay County, is critically important in preserving their heritage and in teaching vocational skills to young people.  In light of recent U.S. Census data that nearly 1-in-5 western North Carolinians live in poverty in more than half of the region’s 17 counties, this month’s “Overcoming Obstacles” video shows the value of CIS of Clay County’s efforts to tackle poverty head-on with opportunities for young people to develop a marketable skill upon graduation.  Hear what Hayesville High teacher Danny Jones, CIS of Clay County Executive Director Theresa Waldroup and Principal Keith Nuckolls each have to say about Communities In Schools and the “old ways” of doing, where communities work together to raise their children.

The people of Hayesville will tell you that Clay County is North Carolina’s best kept secret. I was convinced that North Carolina ended in Asheville but I was wrong.

The terrain is rugged and beautiful, the people are salt-of-the-earth and kind. They are proud of their Appalachian roots and have a natural storytelling ability. I discovered that many in Clay County were afraid of losing the “old ways” of farming, logging and building things with their hands. To them, the shop class at Hayesville High School is so important in preserving their heritage and in teaching marketable skills to young people.

CIS of Clay County Executive Director Theresa Waldroup glowed about how wonderful these young people are.

She told me a story about two students who, through a learn-and-serve grant, worked in Hayesville High’s Outdoor Classroom and were mentored by the U.S. Forest Service. Through their hard work they earned their first paychecks, and Theresa overheard one of them saying he was going to use his money to buy some hunting dogs, and the other an old pickup truck so he could rework the motor. He seemed confident that with the skills he learned in the Automotive Technology class at the high school, he could fix up the truck and sell it to buy a newer one.

Theresa’s brother, and Hayesville High School Construction Technology teacher, Danny Jones echoed her view of Clay’s young people. He told me that when his wife passed away almost three years ago, his students were not just sending him cards but calling to volunteer on his small farm. “These kids are great here, they have heart, they love, they care and I’d like to think America is still that way,” he told me.

Scott Penland has been the Clay County Schools Superintendent for 30 years and he told me a story about a family from Maine who called him recently. They had hired a consulting firm to scour the Southeast for the best possible school system for their child who has special needs.

“Clay met all their needs,” he said proudly.

Penland told me that Clay’s schools are typically in the top 20 schools in North Carolina with the highest graduation rates. In 2009-2010 they were 3rd, and in 2010-2011 they were 4th in rank.

He attributes much of that success to the quality teachers in Clay County, and also to the great help from Communities In Schools, which he describes as “a powerful tool in the school system.”

“There is hardly anything that they want for here that CIS hasn’t tried to make happen… and Theresa certainly makes it all happen. She is relentless. She goes out there and brings people together,” he contends.

Penland mentioned that Clay’s recent high graduation rates could be directly correlated to CIS of Clay County’s founding 14 years ago in in 1997.

He also said it could have a lot to do with the small town values, the “old ways” where communities work together to raise their children.



Justin Cook is an independent documentary photographer who lives in Durham, NC. He is the multimedia producer behind Communities In Schools of North Carolina’s “Overcoming Obstacles: CIS Success Stories.” His work has been honored by College Photographer of the Year, Pictures of the Year International, Virginia Press Association, Society of Professional Journalists and other organizations. Although Cook’s photojournalism is award-winning, he gauges his success not in trophies but in the relationships he establishes with his subjects. View his work online at

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