Celesa Willett of United Way of Haywood County discusses Canton mill closing, other challenges

COMMUNITY MINDED: Celesa Willett, executive director of United Way of Haywood County, has been with the organization for 33 years. Photo courtesy of Willett

With just two full-time employees, United Way of Haywood County has met some big community needs in recent years.

In 2021, the Waynesville-based nonprofit received more than $1 million in donations to help those affected by devastating  flooding in the wake of Tropical Storm Fred. United Way funneled money to groups like WNC Communities for farmers, Mountain BizWorks for small businesses and Baptists on Mission to help repair homes damaged in the flooding. 

And this year, the group received money to support the Canton Mill Closure Emergency Response Project, which gives financial aid to workers and families affected by the closure of the Pactiv Evergreen paper mill in Canton. More than 1,000 people lost their jobs when the mill closed in June after 115 years of operation, and United Way has helped some of them fill the gaps created when they lost health insurance.

“The confidence that the Town of Canton and Haywood County have placed in United Way of Haywood County to manage the funds and get the help out to the people who need it is humbling,” says Celesa Willett, executive director. “We live in this community, we care about this community, and we’re willing to do the extra work it takes to make this happen. And this is in addition to our normal activities.”

Willett spoke with Xpress about coming to the aid of out-of-work millworkers, continuing to serve the community despite funding challenges and looking to the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How did United Way become involved in efforts to help unemployed millworkers? 

We came to it because of our recently demonstrated ability to help with the flood recovery that happened in Haywood County. The county government saw that we had done an excellent job taking care of that amount of money and they said, “The reasonable thing to do is have United Way manage the money because we know they’re going to do a good job.” And we’re making every effort to ensure that the money’s used exactly for what it’s supposed to be used for.

How is the money being used?

We received a grant from Dogwood Health Trust for $1 million and one from Haywood Health Haywood Healthcare Foundation for $110,000, and those are helping to defray the cost of COBRA insurance or other insurance that displaced workers might have enrolled in. [COBRA is a federal law that lets employees keep their group health insurance plan for a period after their job ends].

The [former] employees pay their own principals, or premiums, and then they submit the proof of payment, and we reimburse up to $500 per person in the household who was on mill insurance, through the end of the year. 

We are working with Mountain Projects, a nonprofit that runs the Get Covered WNC program. They have the expertise to help people find the right policy, and so they have done the casework. They send the spreadsheet of who to pay and how much to pay to United Way. So, it is absolutely a partnership that we have with them, and it’s worked out. 

We have helped 164 families. Many of those families have several children in the home that the insurance coverage is affecting.

Some of them, after the first couple of months, went on to find other employment, and so we only helped them through two months. And then some have come on at the end of this and said, ‘Oh, I’ve been paying my own premium. Somehow, I didn’t find out about it.’  And so, we have to go back and reimburse them from July on.

I hate that we have to do this. I’d like to have seen the mill go on for years and years and have people have good jobs. But that didn’t happen, and none of us could help it, so we just have to manage the fallout.

When the mill closed, there were a lot of needs in Canton. Why was health care insurance in particular so important?

We saw in other communities that had had a mill closure, but didn’t offer any kind of help, that people [ended up] uninsured. And when they had a medical need, they had to go to the hospital, so you either rack up a big bill for yourself or you leave it to the hospital to pay. And so, it just made sense to have people covered by health insurance, if we could at all.

Having a huge medical debt is never a good idea, especially if someone’s unemployed. 

How has the community reacted to the closing of the mill, which was so important to Canton’s identity for more than a century? 

We care about our neighbors, and so we’re going to do what we can to make sure everybody has what they need because next time it could be one of us that needs help. We know that these are the people we’ve gone to school with, we go to church with, we are in clubs with. We want to take care of our own. 

All of our United Way agencies have taken on more than they usually have had to, to meet needs, agencies like Mountain Projects, the Salvation Army, Haywood Christian Ministry.

In the past few years, funding streams have become smaller in a lot of ways, but we are very thankful to Dogwood Health Trust and the Haywood Healthcare Foundation and also the WNC Bridge Foundation, which gave us a grant to be able to put our office manager [Karen Cole] on from part time to full time. Because we needed that with the increased workload.

The county has gone through a rough stretch in the last two years or so, with the flooding and the mill closure. In your time with United Way, have you ever seen a period like this?

Not in a while. We’ve had the closures of Dayco Products [in Waynesville in 2015], Wellco [in Waynesville in 2009]. Through the years, we’ve lost our industry base in Haywood County, and that has affected our United Way giving because large employers are historically the ones who gave the most. But even in that decrease, we have continued to do everything we can to promote the well-being of Hayward County citizens.

We’ve had to rely on outside funding, grant funding for these large needs. But we do have a good giving base of individuals who just give $25 or $30 and up to thousands of dollars. And we have to be careful to give them credit also. And these are community members who see the value of what we do and are willing to give of their treasure to help us continue good work.

What are some of the day-to-day things United Way of Haywood County does outside of helping with extraordinary events like flood and mill closures?

We raise money for our 22 different agencies here in Haywood County through payroll deduction and personal gifts to our organization. A one-time gift to United Way of Haywood County supports all those different agencies. We also do Day of Caring every year, where 350 volunteers go out to work on 30-some jobs out in the community to help elderly and disabled people.

This United Way has been in business since 1955, and I’ve been with the organization for 33 years. So, we have continuity, and we plan to be here for the future to help Haywood County. 




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About Justin McGuire
Justin McGuire is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate with more than 30 years of experience as a writer and editor. His work has appeared in The Sporting News, the (Rock Hill, SC) Herald and various other publications. Follow me @jmcguireMLB

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