Leadership Haywood kicks off a new year | Opinion

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Since I’ve started as the new assistant editor at The Mountaineer, one of the biggest things I’ve learned is how much I have to learn about Haywood County. I’ve been in Western North Carolina for about five years now, starting out as a reporter in the Highlands-Cashiers plateau before heading to Franklin to cover all of Macon County. While there are some parallels, I’ve quickly found that Haywood County is very much its own place, with unique businesses and people defining the community here.

Part of my introduction to the county has included enrolling in Leadership Haywood, a program put on by the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce. The idea is to help newcomers to the area and young professionals in Haywood County take the plunge and get acquainted with leaders in a wide variety of fields here.

As part of the program, I’ll be writing about my efforts to learn about everything the county has to offer, in hopes that readers will be able to share in the experience.

I met quite a few of our neighbors on Main Street last Wednesday during our first class. Hosts and hostesses at several of our great restaurants went out of their way to snap photos of a couple of new friends from my Leadership Haywood class. The owner of the kitchen store across from the police department spent about 15 minutes rummaging up things we could use for the photo scavenger hunt we’d embarked upon for the first class in the program while we thoroughly enjoyed her air conditioning; the guy working the counter at The Strand pulled a movie poster off the wall for us when we said we needed to take a picture with it out front. I even (thumb) wrestled a uniformed police officer, even though he’d clearly been asked to thumb wrestle a half dozen other sweaty-palmed class members already that afternoon.

When I first talked to CeCe Hipps at the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce about Leadership Haywood, she said it was a bit of a misnomer – the class doesn’t take Haywood’s new arrivals and turn them into leaders, she said, but it gives them the tools to become integrated into the community and the connections they need to lead in their own way.

CeCe and John Patterson told the class to march up and down Main Street and do a handful of mildly embarrassing tasks, including asking a bunch of strangers for help. With a list of items we needed to photograph or video with our team, we started flagging down business owners, employees and random passersby to help us complete the assignment.

What we found was that the community was more than willing to help. Some people were so happy to lend a hand that I thought they might hang up a closed sign and join us for the rest of the afternoon. In fact, of the 30-some-odd people our team approached for help, we only heard “no” once. To be fair, I’d challenged him to a footrace on the sidewalk before I realized he was wearing flip-flops and carrying a bank bag. He was extremely polite in declining.

Without even really intending to, I met a bunch of people who I’m sure I’ll see again around Waynesville and I learned what CeCe meant when she said the class is a “crash course” in Haywood County. We have classes coming up that look at emergency services, the environment, the healthcare services in our area and just about every other corner of life here that you could think of. If I learned this much from just walking around downtown hassling people. I can’t even imagine what we’ll all be doing by the end of the class.

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