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7 North Carolina Communities Win AARP Grants

Celebrating Older American's month in Maine

For nearly 300 years, the Gullah Geechee people have influenced the history, culture and economy of southeastern North Carolina, but their contributions have long been overlooked. Al Beatty hopes to change that.

Beatty’s ancestors were enslaved Africans brought to plantations in the region to cultivate rice. The 73-year-old Navassa resident is leading an effort to restore a historic chapel built by the Gullah Geechee to help educate North Carolinians and other Americans about the group.

“The people and our story have been neglected over the years,” he says. “If you don’t tell it, it will be lost in history.”

An AARP Community Challenge grant is aiding his efforts. The nonprofit North Carolina Gullah Geechee Greenway Blueway Heritage Trail is using the $16,750 grant to build a short path at the Reaves Chapel site in Navassa, near Wilmington. The project will also include adding a bench and four educational storyboards highlighting Gullah Geechee heritage and history.

The nonprofit is one of seven North Carolina groups to receive 2023 AARP Community Challenge grants—totaling nearly $110,000. The grants fund quick-turnaround projects to improve public spaces, civic engagement, social environments, transportation and housing, among other goals. The projects must be completed by Nov. 30.

The grants can help build momentum for future improvements, says Lisa Riegel, AARP North Carolina advocacy manager.

The Reaves Chapel project represents a model for the rest of a proposed 30-mile heritage trail that aspires to connect many African American historical sites along the Cape Fear River, says Brayton Willis, the project’s executive director. It will demonstrate the potential of the heritage trail, Willis says.

A 14-mile segment of the trail is currently being studied by the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization for possible funding.

Gullah Geechee Trail

Improving accessibility

As the state officially celebrates 2023 as the “North Carolina Year of the Trail,” other AARP projects are also focusing on pathways.

The town of Matthews, located southeast of Charlotte, is using its $5,500 grant to install a mural, lighting, benches and signs along a pedestrian and bike trail to commemorate the Crestdale community, one of the state’s oldest African American neighborhoods.

The nonprofit Sustain Charlotte received a $15,700 grant to engage older adult volunteers in creating an accessibility map of Mecklenburg County’s extensive greenway system.

The map will include the location of restrooms, water fountains and benches, as well as information about greenway sections that are particularly steep or that would be hard to traverse with a wheelchair, says Meg Fencil, Sustain Charlotte’s director of engagement and impact.

“If a part of a community—whether it’s greenways or bike lanes—works for older adults, it’s probably also going to work well for younger kids and parents with children and people with disabilities,” Fencil says.

The other AARP grantees are:

  • Carolina Cross Connection, in Banner Elk, made home repairs and modifications for older residents so they can age in place.
    Carolina Cross Connections
  • El Centro, in Brevard, expanded a community garden for Hispanic families by adding a 50-foot-by-50-foot patch of tilled rows, and offered cooking, exercise and gardening classes.
    El Centro
  • Age-Friendly Forsyth, in Forsyth County, will train 100 volunteer aging-services ambassadors to provide information about local services for older adults.
  • The town of Chapel Hill will install LED lighting, signs and safety islands with garden beds on local streets to make them safer for pedestrians.

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Michelle Crouch is a Charlotte-based journalist who covers health care and consumer issues. She has written for the Bulletin for 10 years.

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