Darlena Moore – class of ’85
From UNC-A College Bound – https://stories.unca.edu/college-bound
UNC Asheville alumna Darlena Moore ’85Darlena Moore ’85, president of Mountain Girl Initiative, was born and raised in Western North Carolina. When her beloved mother — a single parent — died of leukemia, Darlena and her siblings were separated. Moore found herself in foster care as an older teen.
Dick and Mary Gilbert had a shelter in Asheville for hard-to-place youths, Moore remembers. “They generally kept kids for 30 days there, like in an emergency situation, until the social worker could find another place for them.” But Moore stayed with the Gilberts into early adulthood, and the couple helped her apply to and prepare for college.
“Later in life, as I became a marketing person and writer, I always did pro-bono work for foster care agencies,” Moore says. In 2016, she began volunteering for Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she encountered the program Fostering Bright Futures. “They bring in foster youth from the community and nurture all aspects of their life and help them through the college process,” Moore says. “It spurred all kinds of memories, and I started thinking I needed to do more.”
She settled on the idea of a scholarship in honor of the Gilberts, who are now in their 90s and live in Weaverville, North Carolina.
FUELED BY GRANOLA
More than 20,000 young adults age out of foster care each year and, tragically, one in five end up homeless, according to The National Foster Youth Institute. Statistics from the North Carolina Homeless Education Program help to fill in the picture: 84 percent of 17-18 year old foster youths say they want to go to college, but only 50 percent complete high school by age 18. Just 20 percent of foster youths can attend college and a mere 6 percent earn a bachelor’s degree.
“I think there’s a misconception that all college is paid for youth from foster care,” says Moore. But there are many stipulations around government money, including GPA requirements and age cut-offs. The Gilbert Scholarship, Inc., is less restrictive. “If you’re 30 and you have two kids and you’re married but you want to go to college,” the Gilbert Scholarship is available, Moore says. And not just once, either: students can reapply.
Moore started a nonprofit and launched the Gilbert Scholarship in 2016, funded by Mountain Girl Granola that she made and sold out of her home. Though the recipe was her own, her interest in healthy foods was sparked by the Gilberts, who ran a worker-owned restaurant in Asheville called Stone Soup from 1977 to 1994. “The people there helped take care of the [foster] kids and we worked in the restaurant, so it was a big part of my life,” Moore remembers.
‘HIGHER EDUCATION MAKES SENSE’
A move to Wilmington, N.C., and the start of COVID left Moore without a kitchen to make her granola, so she pivoted. “I decided in 2021 to go out and tell the story and raise money that way,” she says. Giving talks and applying for grants has kept the fund going and, to date, Moore has given out 43 scholarships.
Most of this financial aid goes to students in community colleges. The Gilbert Scholarship has relationships with 15 institutions, but Moore wants to include all 58 community colleges in North Carolina.
“We’re working with a couple of four-year colleges, too,” Moore says, “because if the kids transfer from a community college, of course we want to see them through onto a four-year degree.” One scholarship went to a student who attended Cape Fear Community College and earned a degree in marine biology. Another went to a young woman who was living in her car but was still determined to go to college. Moore hopes to extend a scholarship through Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College this May, as part of National Foster Care Month. For her, that would be something of a homecoming.
“I think it’s such a hard and lonely time, when you turn 20-something and you’re put out on your own and there’s no one to call,” she says. Though young adults aging out of foster care have many needs, Moore chose to focus on college scholarships “for all the reasons a higher education makes sense,” she says.
“If I can alleviate a little bit of the struggle, then I’m there. I believe in that.”