Taking flight

A few months ago, bird handler Julia Gaunt received a phone call from a woman whose friend’s son had died. The son, 37 years old, had committed suicide, and the funeral had not provided the closure her friend needed. She asked if Gaunt would be willing to come and release a few of her doves at a private graveside service.

Gaunt agreed and brought with her four white doves, releasing three from one basket and another one solo — three represented escorts (or the Trinity, in Christian tradition) and one the soul. The birds ascended together, circling around once, and then headed back to Gaunt’s home in Woodfin.

“Afterwards,” Gaunt recalls, “we all looked across the cemetery and there was a beautiful deer at the edge of the field. And we all felt that there was something very precious and symbolic about that.”

For eight years, Gaunt has answered calls like these, from those who have just lost loved ones or from couples planning their nuptials. She runs Asheville White Dove Releases, a business that does exactly what the name says: releases trained white homing pigeons, called rock doves, for weddings, funerals, memorials and other events. Gaunt speaks passionately about her business and says contributing to such significant life moments makes her job meaningful.

“I got a call from this woman a week later, and she said, ‘Julia, next to the day that I gave birth to my son, that was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had.’ Hearing that is like, woah … how meaningful it was to say goodbye to him in that way.”

Gaunt has loved birds since she was a young girl. At 9 years old, after asking for a pet bird for Christmas, a parakeet landed on her grandfather’s car just before the holiday. She kept it and named it Charlie, after her grandfather.

Gaunt has had an array of birds over the years, but had never encountered homing pigeons until she came across an ad in the Asheville IWANNA in 2005.

“Someone had an ad for a bird handler, and I answered the ad,” recounts Gaunt. “And he told me about the white dove business. In one 15-minute phone conversation, I hung up and was like, ‘Yes! This is what I’m gonna do next.’”

The man sold Gaunt her initial 15 birds, and she had a building redone in her backyard to accommodate them. The open-topped building, called a bird loft, allows the doves to fly freely to and fro, which Gaunt says keeps them healthy and well-adjusted. Gaunt joined a national group for dove handlers and embarked on an altogether new path.

“What I didn’t know about the white dove business is how incredibly helpful it would be. What I’ve come to find out, after doing some 800 funerals and memorials over eight years, is how much it helps people, particularly when they have lost loved ones,” says Gaunt. “To actually be able to help people in that transition has been a profound experience.”

Gaunt’s dove count is now at 60, and her flock can go as far as 90 air miles and back, including over the Tennessee border to Johnson City. She has different birds who are trained to fly in separate directions for varying distances.

“The training varies,” explains Gaunt. “When they’re about eight-weeks old, I can start to take them out about a quarter mile, then I work it up to a mile. Then I break it out into 5-mile increments, until I get them out to 50. Once they know that 50-mile radius, you can take them up to 100 miles, you don’t have to train them past the 50 miles.”

Gaunt has colored bands to differentiate which birds have been trained in which direction, so that way they are not overworked.

Still, the passion she brings to her business hasn’t always translated into success. Gaunt says although she has found her niche as the “dove lady” of Asheville, she still needs help getting the word out. Gaunt has had to supplement her business by continuing her hat millinery on the side. 

“What I feel very strongly is how important the marketing is. I thought that I could do this business in eight years by word of mouth. It appears what I need really is some capital, so people could see that this service exists.” She adds, “I believe that the only reason my business is not flourishing is that not enough people know that I’m doing this.”

Never one for public speaking, Gaunt says the business has helped her find her voice. She now goes to different services, plays a selection of music, recites poetry and releases her birds. Each event she attends is unique, and Gaunt often finds herself peppered with questions from people afterward about her doves.

“What they’re doing is just their nature. Often, we connect symbolism with animals and with events. Because they go up in the sky and join one another, it represents that sense of community or unity in that that we’re not alone. They all get together before they head for their destination.”

Gaunt says the feedback she gets from those she’s helped keeps her going — total strangers come up after memorial services and give her hugs. She is optimistic about the future. In fact, she’s launched a campaign to raise money on international crowd funding site Indiegogo. Gaunt’s goal is to raise about $7,000, run ads locally, redevelop her site so it shows up in search engines and just breathe new life into her business. “The whole business just needs some juice pumped into it,” Gaunt says.

This is a sentiment shared not only by Gaunt, but by many women who transform their passions into a small business. Just ask Olufemi Lewis, another local woman who pursued her interests.

Ujamaa Freedom Market

Lewis is the 32-year-old worker-owner of Ujamaa Freedom Market, a pop-up produce stand that aims to bring healthier food choices to low-income, underserved areas of Asheville. Lewis’ startup received press from both the Asheville Citizen-Times and Xpress [“Shared Creation,” April 2013].

Since June, Lewis has run the market on Depot Street every Thursday from 2-6 p.m., and Monday at the old Department of Social Services from 2-5 p.m. Like Gaunt, Lewis speaks ardently about Ujamaa — which means “cooperative economics” in Swahili — and its mission.

“We're looking to educate the community on what cooperative economics could look like,” says Lewis. “Giving them a model of self-sufficiency to inspire them to have relationships with their community along with having a relationship with their food.

She and her business partner, Calvin Allen, try to source their produce from organically certified growers or those who maintain organic practices — those include Mountain Foods, Pisgah View Community Peace Garden and Hillcrest Unity Garden. This summer has proved challenging due to the heavy rains that diminished crop yields and inflated prices. Still, she and Allen have heard over and over from people in their 40s and 50s who remember a time when the produce man would come around and deliver and sell produce. Many tell her that they miss having that in their community. “There’s a need for it, and I’m not giving up.”

Lewis still intends to take the market mobile, but that will first require a vehicle — which will require more capital. She estimates they need $20,000 to $30,000 to purchase a bus, renovate its interior and retrofit it to run on biodiesel to offset their carbon footprint.

“I envision us being mobile and really being able to go out and do it anywhere and everywhere,” says Lewis. “The most complicated thing has been the business plan. Doing a business plan and understanding markups and margins. Time management has been a real challenge for me, but it's all been a very beautiful, growing experience.”

Lewis says she’s encountered a mountain of red tape in trying to get her market mobile, but acknowledges that she’s come a long way since April. She describes how she felt seeing her picture on the front of the paper this summer and receiving her articles of organization.

“I cried. It's just those little monumental moments. I'm not just doing this for myself, I'm being a model for other individuals to step out there,” says Lewis.

Lewis is also turning to crowd funding to raise additional capital. The idea to pool money from the community rather than acquire debt and loans is one that has gained popularity since the inception of sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, which allow individuals to donate to projects and business ideas. The catch is, the business has to reach their fundraising goal in order to keep all the donations pledged. Lewis says she wants other people to get involved with Ujamaa, too.

“It’s a cooperative, so we don’t just work for this business but we own it. That’s how we want everybody that comes in with us to think; we want them to own it as well. Because we know that if a person knows that they own something, and that their voice is just as equal as anyone else’s voice, then it’s going to make them want to stay. It’s going to make them put in the work — because they feel valued as a human being. They’re not just clocking in and clocking out.”

The mother of two says she feels the pressure to succeed, not only for her own sake but to serve as a positive role model for her community.

“It's important for me to uplift other African-American women here in Asheville. It's hard as hell. … Due to the fact that we are at the bottom toll here in Asheville, statistically … it's a big percentage of us who are heads of household, it's a large percentage of us that live in public housing, that's the only place that we can live that we can afford — yeah, it's important for me to be a success.”

Both Gaunt and Lewis understand the triumphs and tribulations of running a business. Lewis has learned that she is never off the clock.

“[The biggest lesson] I have learned is having patience. … So what I'm learning is that I'm never off the job. I'm always talking about Ujamaa or Ujamaa-related things, no matter what time of the day it is. I'm living it.” Adds Lewis: “It’s nothing I could learn in a classroom. It's only from experience. I'm grateful.”

Gaunt, too, says she wouldn’t trade her experiences with dove releases for anything. “I’m not going to quit doing this, regardless of if it makes money. I’m going to continue to be available to do this because I can see what a difference it makes. We all want to make a difference. I’ve found something that is really a passion.”

For more information on Gaunt’s business, visit ashevillewhitedovereleases.com. For info on Ujamaa Freedom Market, visit avl.mx/00f.

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