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Blueberry patch is on the honor system

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Bill Cline, formerly of Rutherfordton, is North Carolina's blueberry expert and started the work day with pruning lesson for all volunteers.

As a few cloudy skies hovered over the UNC Lineberger Cancer Center Blueberry Patch near Fairview/Black Mountain on a Saturday morning recently, former UNC Women's Basketball Coach Sylvia Hatchell greeted everyone with an ever-ready smile. More than one time during the morning, she thanked the group of volunteers for preparing the patch for a hearty harvest season.

The blueberry patch is in the front lawn of Hatchell's mountain home a few minutes from Chimney Rock and Bat Cave.

Each spring Hatchell hosts a contingent of volunteers from western North Carolina and surrounding areas to prune and mulch the more than 200 blueberry plants.

On March 17, boys basketball players and Coach from Montreat College, girl basketball players and Coach from Reynolds High School, UNCA athletes and coaches, friends and neighbors gathered early in the morning to begin the process of cleaning out the old and planting the new.

Among special guests for the 2021 cleaning day was Bill Cline, North Carolina's official blueberry expert. From Rutherfordton, Cline is an R-S Central graduate and the son of Dr. V.O. and Jane Cline of Rutherfordton.

Hatchell contacted Cline and asked if he could make the clean-up day and he immediately agreed, she said.

An employee of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Wilmington as the blueberry extension horticulturist, Cline graciously consented to make the trip to western North Carolina where he grew up.

"Before we got started, Bill conducted a pruning session," Hatchell proudly said. After a short lesson with the volunteers, the pruning began with Cline assisting throughout the morning. Mulch was also placed around the plants.

"These are unbelievable crops," Cline said.

"The blueberries will start coming in around July 4 and will be here for several weeks," Hatchell said.

Hatchell and her husband bought the property in 2000 and soon built their mountain house and planted the blueberries.

The blueberry patch began in 2001 with just a few bushes. Jesse Israel and Sons provided the first blueberry bushes and still today donates new plants. Lonnie Israel is a cancer survivor from the Lineberger Cancer Center.

Everyone who comes to the patch to pick blueberries are asked to make monetary donations to the UNC Linberger Cancer Center in Chapel Hill.

"It's all the honor system," she said. "We'll get from $25 to $1,000 or more," she said.

In 2013 Hatchell was diagnosed with leukemia and was admitted to Lineberger Cancer Center and was admitted to the hospital for treatment on several occasions during 2013-14.

As a patient recovering at the Lineberger Center Hatchell said saw first hand the need for exercise rooms for patients as well as staff and therapists.

"It's been proven that exercise increases cancer survival rates," she said. She also gives God the credit for her survival along with her own desire to exercise and take care of herself.

"I learned that 16 times around the hall at Lineberger is a mile," she said. "People have to exercise to get better," she said.

Some people at the work day recently had physically walked the hall with Hatchell during her recovery time.

With money from the blueberry patch two exercise rooms for all patients and the staff were added to the Center.

"Patients taking treatment can now exercise there," Hatchell said. "We have the Blueberry Room and the Seaside Room that features lighthouses," she said. Her blueberry room is named in honor of her blueberry patch.

Hatchell said in an interview a few years ago she wanted to motivate her fellow (cancer) fighters to get out of bed like she did and move instead of getting weak. Since lighthouses outshine the darkness, one exercise room has a lighthouse theme.

Both rooms include inspirational quotes. Hatchell believes that "God has a purpose for her."

Among other volunteers at Hatchell's home on April 17 was Dr. John Strader, a former physician assistant at UNC LIneberger, who retired in 2014 after 10 years in Chapel Hill. He later went to Liberia to help fight Ebola.

"He took care of me while I was in the hospital," Hatchell said of Strader.

"Out of the 16 bone marrow tests I had, he did at least 14 of them. He took care of me."

"It took a village," Strader quipped.

Strader and Cline told volunteers blueberries are the best food a person can eat for good health.

According to The National Center for Biotechnology Information, blueberries are believed to have the highest antioxidant levels of all common fruits and vegetables.

"It's the number one good food for your body," Strader said.

Add to blueberries, exercise and water and you can be healthier, he said

Hatchell shared blueberry patch stories as volunteers cleared and mulched.

She told the story of the day she arrived in New Orleans some years ago for the Final Four. She immediately received a telephone call from a friend/employee at Lineberger.

She learned a woman had checked into the cancer center as a patient who learned about LInberger because of Hatchell's Blueberry Patch.

Steve Gale of Bat Cave/Chimney Rock who battled tonsil cancer a few years ago and was a patient at Linberger, volunteered with his wife Mary Jaeger-Gale at the work day. They are regulars to the blueberry patch work day.

Former Rutherford Countain Ricky McKinney, a 1970 graduate of East Rutherford High School, is also a regular volunteer. Tonya and Emily Garrison of Rutherfordton also made the trek this year.

While dozens of volunteers worked outdoors, several others were inside preparing lunch for everyone. Lunch was served outside and social distancing was observed.

After lunch Hatchell took time to greet volunteers and thanked them for giving their time to help cancer patients at Lineberger.

As COVID-19 restrictions have been in place, Hatchell reminded everyone the Blueberry Patch is a safe place. Families can come and pick blueberries and even enjoy the creek.

"Come on," she said.

The blueberry patch is located at 143 Flat Creek Road, Fairview.

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