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Rebuilding a home with the help of a community: Donella’s story

When the west fork of the Pigeon River rose into her family home, Donella Pressley escaped into the darkness with her two young daughters and the clothes on their backs.

It had already been a rough summer: her marriage ended suddenly, her mother went into an assisted living facility, and her long career as a caregiver was impacted by the pandemic. So as her home filled with water, she fled towards Asheville and wanted to keep going.

“I couldn’t get far enough away from Canton that day,” she said. “But now I can’t see how I’d ever leave. It’s been a very humbling experience.”

Donella, and her daughters, Elena, 5, and Cordelia, 6, eventually rolled to a stop at an Asheville hotel. The shell-shocked little family walked to the desk, and an unsuspecting clerk asked them about their day.

“Well,” said six-year-old Cordelia, “our daddy’s quit us and the river’s in the house.”

The rattled clerk didn’t know what to say but managed to come out with the sentence that always soothes a six-year-old. “Well, we have a pool you can swim in!”

The girls spun and chorused “Did we remember our bathing suits?” and the situation made their mother laugh. The next morning, they took a dip in their underwear, and then it was back home to begin the cleaning up.

Life afterward was a whirlwind. Their house was a mess.

“It was a tiny house when we bought it,” said Donella, “nothing special about it, just a collection of nooks and crannies. But even then, it felt like home, and it’s really home now. We just hope it feels like home again.”

The house was shoulder-deep in water throughout. As the family began to try to deal with the mess, neighbors, the Red Cross, church friends, and strangers stopped by.

Bruce Crawford, a retired building inspector for the county, came and he helped make things happen. A team of volunteers stripped away the home’s interior, salvaging what little furniture they could.

Soon, a group from North Carolina Baptists On Mission came too. With vast experience in disaster relief, they partnered with Mountain Projects, Haywood County, and the United Way on a rapid rehab program designed to get homeowners back in their houses as soon as possible, and on the way to restarting their lives.

Volunteers from Baptists on Mission make damaged homes safe, sanitary and livable through moisture and mold abatement, utility repair, and new sheetrock and floors, among similar things. They do the work at cost, at an average of $17,500 per house, sponsored by local charities and donors. A strict formula and series of inspections are part of the process. The county government is also involved. The Pressleys were one of the first families to be helped by the initiative.

“Life throws bricks and you duck,” said Donella. “I can’t explain everything that happened to us, but we are very, very grateful.”

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