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Changing her community, one life at a time

Kimberlee McNeil

Changing her community, one life at a time
July 14
14:49 2021

By John Railey

Kimberlee McNeil wakes up every morning thinking of how she might bring economic improvement to her East Winston neighborhood, Castle Heights. She knows all too well the challenges her fellow residents face. Her first job begins at 7 a.m. as a clerk at the Food Lion on New Walkertown Road, the only large grocery store in East Winston. She works her second job in the afternoon, that of a resident leader for the nonprofit Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods (NBN), listening closely to people, trying to help remove the barriers to upward economic mobility.

The sad truth has been that the only way to break the chain of generational poverty is to move out of East Winston. But McNeil, 58, who lives in her childhood home with her parents, grown children and grandchildren, won’t surrender. She is determined to stay in her neighborhood. And she is determined to make it better, equipped with what she has learned from NBN and an initiative that began last year, the Ne3w Leadership Academy, which is supported by Winston-Salem State University’s Center for the Study of Economic Mobility. Alvin Atkinson, the center’s associate director and an NBN board member, said of McNeil: “Her passion and commitment for helping her family and neighbors improve the quality of their lives are clearly visible by all she has done.

McNeil said: “There’s a lot of talent here in the Northeast Ward. People have got to have an opportunity to have a better life. Sometimes, they need some guidance and direction in that and that’s not a problem. Everyone has a talent. We need to do more than survive. We need to thrive.”

McNeil comes by her commitment naturally. Her mother worked for the Winston-Salem Urban League, developing a program to help women land nontraditional jobs, such as in carpentry and construction. Her father was a unit manager for McDonald’s.

McNeil was educated at Brunson Elementary School, East Forsyth High School, N.C. Central University and Gardner-Webb University, earning a degree in counseling and human services. She earned a master’s degree in education with an emphasis on family and community services through an online program from Ashford University in California. Then she worked as a restaurant manager and as the relationship development coordinator at the Quality Education Academy. Career challenges led her to take the Food Lion job. She said she grew up middle class, but now lives in situational poverty.

In 2017, a friend who recognized McNeil’s commitment to social justice referred her to the NBN job, which is part-time. Then-Executive Director Paula McCoy nurtured McNeil’s talent for community outreach. “Kimberlee has grown as a leader and has a wealth of knowledge to contribute to the development of her neighborhood and to the greater community as a whole,” McCoy said. “She has incredible potential to help change the status quo.”

McCoy is now interim director of the Partnership for Prosperity, a convener in the fight against poverty. McNeil serves on the partnership board.

McNeill said of her job with NBN: “Engaging with the people, that’s what I really like, being able to talk to people, finding out what their needs and making sure I can supply them with resources and any information I might have to make their life a little bit easier,” McNeil said. “There’s so much need out there, especially for young mothers.

“During the pandemic, when the vaccines came out, I had a lot of seniors that were a little nervous about it. I explained it as best as I could, and helped them set up appointments to be vaccinated. One couple, I drove them to a vaccination site.”

McNeil refined her community work by participating in the Ne3w Academy, The Academy, inaugurated and operated by Antwain and Andrea Goode of Tate Consulting, was born in research commissioned in 2017 by CSEM. The program, with an emphasis on the individual, trains participants on the basics of business, including letter writing, marketing and networking, twinning that with strategies for organizing for improvements in their communities. The Goodes help participants develop their intuition and focus. McNeil said the program “helped me become more organized, professionally and personally. It’s making me a better community outreach person.”

Pecola Blackburn, a Castle Heights resident and community health coordinator with Wake Forest Baptist Health, said, “Ms. McNeil is great at what she does in the community … I will love to learn more from Ms. McNeil, because what she does will help me work better and closer with my neighbors and my community.”

McNeil said, “People, a lot of times, don’t realize there is power in their voice. I give the people the information and let them know they do have a voice. What I would like to see in East Winston is more employment opportunities and more education opportunities.  We need to find out where people are, and what they really want to do; what can we do to help you, whether it’s telling you about a community college program or helping you start your own business. A woman I used to work with at Food Lion has now started her own business making tumbler glasses and has gone full-time with that. There’s a lot of talent out there.

“I will keep doing this as long as it takes. One person at a time.”

John Railey (raileyjb@nullgmail.com) is the writer-in-residence for CSEM, www.wssu.edu/csem.

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