Rutherford County is a basket of jewels, but few outshine The McNair Educational Foundation. With offices on the three largest high school campuses, and outreach that extends as far as local kindergarten classrooms and onto college campuses, the foundation has touched thousands of lives in its 30-plus year history.
For the past roughly eight years Ann Williamson Hutchins, a retired teacher, has been a volunteer mentor with McNair.
She has enjoyed it thoroughly.
"I like the personal contact with the students. Being able to offer them encouragement means a lot to me," she said.
"I had a student who was a freshman. She was doing pretty well. I suggested her as 'most improved' or something like that. She did pretty well. At the end of the four years, she wrote me a note thanking me for my encouragement and nominating her for that award."
She gave Hutchins a lot of credit for her success.
"All I did was talk to her," she added with a laugh.
But the talk and encouragement of McNair mentors can often make all the difference in the lives of the students they inspire.
"Most of them never think of education beyond high school because nobody in their family has ever done it," she said. "But it is so important to getting a decent-paying job."
A top priority for the foundation is getting students to think about post-high school education. "We emphasize to them that they can get their first two years of a college education at Isothermal basically for free, stay in the county and save that money before going off for their last two years."
"I'll tell you a funny one. One of my guys had been in the gym. It was to be our last meeting before he graduated. He asked me, 'Do I have to come?' There was nothing I was going to tell him that I hadn't already told him, so I let him go back to his gym class."
She says she always has candy for the students she works with and they do like getting out of class for 15 minutes to meet with their McNair volunteer.
As a home economics teacher she emphasized to her students that being part of a family, "is a job, too. It matters to understand how to treat children and a spouse."
She grew up in Cerro Gordo, N.C. population 207 according to the 2010 census. "It's Spanish for fat hill," she said. A local dignitary gave the town its name after a fight broke out at the dedication of the first railroad depot. He said, "This reminds me of the Battle of Cerro Gordo." The town lies about halfway between Wilmington and Florence, S.C.
Hutchins taught at Chase for five years, also worked in food service and at R.S. Central for 14 years. After retiring, she worked at Fireside Books and is very pleased that the county has Next Door Books on Thomas Street in Forest City.