The inaugural Unsung Hero Awards ceremony took nearly a year to plan, according to Rasheeda McDaniels of the Buncombe County Department of Health and Human Services, one of three sponsors. The others were UNC Asheville and Date My City.
“It was worth every minute,” McDaniels said as the nearly three-hour program ended Sunday evening.
The event was developed to honor people whose efforts help others, mostly in the African-American and Latin communities in Buncombe County. It was the final event in the three-day African-Americans in Western North Carolina Conference. The program was presented, in English by Miss Asheville 2016, Kahlani Jackson, and in Spanish by Alejandro Padron.
The event, which included music and dance by local artists, was attended by more than 200 people.
The biggest honors – the Community Legacy Awards – went to Elder John Hayes, longtime president of the Asheville chapter of the NAACP, advocate for children and youth in the Hillcrest community and a founder of WRES radio. And to Lucia Hinojosa Hernandez, founder of the RAICES program in the Emma community. She has filled the role of mother and grandmother to many whose families were split from their elders by migration to the United States.
“We both have much in common,” Hayes said in accepting the award. “Our communities have much in common, and we need to sit down at the same table. I’m sure we would see that we are truly in the same boat.”
The awards aim to recognize small organizations and individuals that don’t get funding from government or from foundations that larger nonprofits and agencies get.
“These people and organizations are undercapitalized and we’re hoping the recognition will get them the attention they need to get more funding and continue their good work in the community,” McDaniels said.
The effort is funded by the Health Federation of Philadelphia through their Mobilizing Action for Resilient Communities Grant, a $300,000 grant distributed over two years to help small organizations and individuals get on their feet.
Among the recipients was Priscilla Ndiaye, a historian who has researched the effects of urban renewal in Asheville. Ndiaye interviewed community elders whose property was taken and came to realize how harmful the effort had been to the community it was supposed to bolster.
“There was no conversation with the people this affected,” she said. “People were so in touch with building the city that they forgot about the people in the community.”
Another recipient was the Dulce Lomita Mobile Home Cooperative, a group of people who own and govern their mobile home park in the Emma community. Patricia Guerra spoke through a translator about how she had been abused at other mobile home parks by landlords who charged whatever they could get away with for water, who evicted people without cause. She finally feels safe from such abuses, she said.
Journalist and Asheville Blade founder David Forbes also received an award and spoke about the need for more diversity in the news media.
“When I speak to my colleagues in the media now, in Asheville, in 2016, I am still speaking to a disproportionately white group,” Forbes said. “That must change.”