In 2017, following decades of work as a health care administrator in both the U.S. Navy and the private sector, Tom Balestrieri retired. Having moved his family around throughout his career, Balestrieri asked his wife, Jodi, where she would like to settle. She selected Weaverville.
Within their first year, the couple fell in love with the town. “There’s a pace of life and vibe that comes with it,” Balestrieri says. “I can spend my Saturday afternoons walking five blocks from where we live to downtown, and we have a choice of three coffeehouses, several restaurants and a couple of wonderful breweries from local craftspeople.”
Never one to keep still for long, though, Balestrieri enrolled in wellness courses at UNC Asheville in 2018.
“I had no real intention of ever getting a second undergraduate degree,” he says. “I figured I didn’t need to be the old geezer coming onstage to get his diploma with a bunch of kids. I just like to learn for the sake of learning.”
At the same time, Weaverville was beginning to discuss a new community center. Balestrieri created a proposal for the project, which he presented to then-Mayor Al Root and later the Town Council. With their endorsements, Balestrieri established the nonprofit Weaverville Center for Creative and Healthy Living, which is now approaching its first anniversary in October.
“This is the great experiment in community health at its most organic level,” says Balestrieri, who continues to serve as the organization’s board chair.
Xpress sat down with Balestrieri to discuss the inspiration to launch the community health project, surprises he’s encountered since its debut and what it means to matriculate at UNCA as a nontraditional student.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
What inspired you to start WCCHL?
A moment of insanity. As a military person, we were encouraged to get involved in our communities, and I always did — coaching soccer, coaching baseball, managing a hockey team, building sets for a community theater that our oldest son was really into. We always got involved, but we also had to always be on standby, because I was reassigned often, at times even out of the country. So it was really hard to get involved with long-term projects like this one.
What has surprised you during this first year of operation?
That people don’t want to hear much about health. They want to engage in social activities that are wellness focused for either mind, body or soul. They don’t want to hear a lecture. We had Humana community nurses come out and engage people on things like cholesterol, cutting sugar out of diets and all that other kind of good, happy stuff. They’re subject matter experts, and people did not show up to talk to them. I really thought there’d be a desire for some of that, but there hasn’t been.
But you know, we’ve had people like Chuck Fink from The Asheville Storytelling Circle, and [freelance theater artist] Janice Schreiber put together performances. All of those events are standing room only. People vote with their feet, and as a board, we’re paying attention to what people are showing up for. Not everything sticks.
Speaking of popular events, what is your favorite offering at WCCHL and why?
My favorite is just knowing that we’ve hit on something that people are enjoying. Show up on any day that the ladies are playing mahjong and just stand in the lobby; you will hear a bunch of women in the multipurpose room and the click-clack of the tiles being shuffled. And then you’ll hear a bunch of laughter. … It just warms my heart. It has this visceral effect on me. Because I like to think we’re doing the right thing. People want this, and they’re showing up — every day, every week, every month.
Did you have any reservations about enrolling at UNCA as a nontraditional student?
Education has changed so much from the stone tablet days of my undergrad, you know? So I knew things were going to be current. What I experienced was very few textbooks. Much of what we read were current articles from professional journals. And, in our last class, we had a FaceTime with an author on the big screen. The topic was evolution, genetics and [gene editing method] CRISPR. It was just so incredible.
It was also very interesting to be old enough to be the parent of every single one of my professors. Every time I’d show up for a new class, I would always be the last person to leave. And I’d always approach the professor and say, “Listen, I promise you, I will never be the first person to raise my hand when you ask a question.”
I explained that, as a health care administrator for 43 years, I was just trying to stay current with topics to inform my community programming with WCCHL.
Of course, if, after 10 seconds, nobody raised their hand, I raised my hand.
What would be your advice for anyone seeking a degree in later life?
Get ready to read a lot of stuff on the computer. It’s real hard to put a Magic Marker on your computer screen.
As an undergrad or even as a graduate student in my past educational experience, I might have had one or two papers in a semester. But now, students are writing every week. It challenges you to understand the material and to be able to clearly articulate your responses.
Also, the young people that were in the classes that I was in … reminded me in many ways of my undergrad experience in Berkeley, where students were quick and willing to take up a cause and go to the streets and be heard.
You know, every generation, in writing somewhere, says that the new generation is not worth a dime. But yet, each new generation comes up with new ideas and pushes society forward, one way or another, whether it’s through science or literature or whatever. And I came away after four years at UNCA thinking that these are sensitive, wonderful, introspective people who are wanting to make a difference in a positive way. Our future is going to be OK because these people are out there fighting the good fight.