Michael Lee Absher
Plans shelter for homeless youth ‘couch surfers’
Absher, 25, dressed up as Superman last year and plans to be Captain America for Halloween 2015. He has worked as a bank teller in Wells Fargo’s downtown Hendersonville branch for two years, and as Hendersonville Heights property manager for four years. He ran for school board, in the election Tuesday.
This Thor wants to hammer out local teen homelessness. He is president and CEO of non-profit Only Hope WNC. Absher started it in 2009, right after graduating from East Henderson High School. The group assists homeless youth 23 and younger who are in school.
He said Only Hope WNC helped out about 1,500 youth in five years, and many of the 314 homeless youth reported in Henderson County last year.
Eight-six of them lacked a legal guardian, Absher said. He said the typical youths are not impulsive runaways, but flee ongoing disfunction or get abandoned or in a sharp dispute such as over teen pregnancy.
Rather than sleep under the bridge, these teens most typically go “couch surfing,” he said. “They stay with one friend one night, then at another friend’s house the next night and so on.”
This Friday night, Nov. 7, Absher and nearly 30 others will camp overnight on steps of the Historic Courthouse, to symbolize the plight of the homeless. The chill is forecast below freezing.
Only Hope WNC’s main fundraiser organizes after work at 5 p.m, gets going by 6 and formally lasts 12 hours from 8 to 8 a.m. Saturday. The Etowah United Methodist Youth Group will join this “sleepout,” after the West Henderson Falcon-East Eagle “Bird Bowl” football game.
The third annual sleepout’s expected turnout is up from 10, then 17 in rain. Jim Beaver is in charge of music.
Participants each pay $25, and get the T-shirt with the motto “Sleepout: Together we can and will end youth homelessness.” The shirt sells for a $25 donation. A donation jar will be there. Absher praised that the county has “taken some ownership, and allows us to use their resources (courthouse).”
Absher’s Only Hope WNC got a Volunteer Service Award (VSA) grant from his employer, Wells Fargo. He is likely the bank’s first WNC employee to ever get such a philanthropic grant, said Wells Fargo District Manager Josh English of Zirconia. English presented Absher with the check on Halloween Friday. Absher is among merely 15 nationwide to get a $10,000 VSA grant; the top one is for $25,000.
Only Hope WNC’s nine board members are social workers and others with a “heart for homeless kids,” varying political views and shared goal of effective budgeting, Absher said. They are V.P. Christine Singleton, Treasurer/Secy. Carol Burke and members Melissa Golden, Anne Madden, Vickie “Sugar Mamma” Sanders and Sam Singleton.
The non-profit is now in the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY). Absher went to its national conference Oct. 25-28, in Kansas City, Mo.
The cause of homeless students is personal for Absher. He said he was homeless in the My Place teenage shelter, for a year and a half while an East senior. That is how long My Place lasted, before succumbing to budgetary woes. He wants to start another shelter, with stronger community backing.
“It’s very important to help homeless kids who want to be successful in life by still going to school,” the First Baptist Church lifelong member said. “They deserve the same opportunity others have. We have only a one percent dropout rate. But homeless kids tend to fight to graduate.”
He said “these kids aren’t as bad as you might think. Only two had real drug addiction problems. They weren’t in school. They weren’t making the effort,” and were dropped.
Josh English said of youth homelessness, “It’s shocking how much of a need there is in the county. It’s impressive how many kids Michael helps each year. He wants to eventually purchase a house for them.” English added that bank customers like Absher. And English admires “his desire to help the community, such as in running for the school board.”
Only Hope WNC’s mission is to “promote the value of education, honor individuality and diversity, nurture respect for self and others, and provide hope for young people in need of community.”
Specifically, Absher said, “we provide support services for basic needs such as food, clothes, school supplies and getting them to the bus stop.” Utility aid is given, as funds allow. A yearbook helps a youth “feel like a normal kid.” Fulfilled requests have included gasoline to get to work, clothes for a job interview, athletic fees and graduation expenses.
A food pantry is in Only Hope WNC’s site at 851 Case St., in the Children and Family Resource Center near Upward Road and U.S. 176.
The most basic need is “emergency housing for a night or two, if a student is left out in the cold,” Absher said. “We’ll pay for a hotel room, if we have to” and as funds allow. He learned from the NAEHCY conference “we have to start housing these kids. That’s our top priority.” Thus he said the $10,000 grant will mostly go to a relatively high-yield, non-profit savings account, to purchase a foreclosed house. He prefers a site close to Hendersonville limits, but with the county’s “fewer restrictions” on specifications and operation.
Absher’s vision is for a shelter “where homeless teens can feel safe when they have nowhere else to go, to transition them into independent living.” He foresees job/life training there, such as learning to cook.
My Place helped nearly 50 high school students, at about 10 at a time. It was crowded, with one room having 12 beds. A separate house for girls had 10 beds. If affording only one house at first, Only Hope WNC might house boys and girls at opposite ends, Absher said.
Critical is “house parents” who will monitor the shelter including at night, he said. They can track youths via cell phones, and have reasonable (i.e. 11 p.m.) curfews. There might be only one television, but a computer for each student to use to study and play video games. “It’s what we’d have in our homes,” Absher added of the comfort level. “If they’re doing well in school, they could try to get a part-time job” but grades come first. He said drug use will not be tolerated.
Wells Fargo peers and supervisors nominated Absher for the grant. Lanky Absher slightly resembles NASCAR star driver Brad Keselowski.
He has run for the school board four times, starting in 2009 as a new East grad. This time five contended for three school board seats, with Melissa Maurer’s seat open after she did not run after serving four four-year terms.
Absher and Smart Start Ex. Dir. Sonia Rollins Gironda loomed as underdogs, against incumbents Lisa Edwards and Amy Lynn Holt and GOP-endorsed Colby Coren. Election results were after the new, earlier Tribune press deadline that enables the paper to come out a day earlier — on Wednesdays.
Absher said Sunday that if he is not elected this week then he will “probably run again — for school board” or even commissioner. His dream job is president. The age requirement is 35.
His favorite president was Ronald Reagan for “his vision for young people, and philosophy of taking care of everybody such as widows. Homelessness was lower during his presidency than others since him.”
Overall politically “I’m conservative,” Absher said. He is more progressive “when it comes to kids.” His school system objectives include to “update and secure the buildings. Some schools still have multiple entrances. It’d be hard to secure” against a violent threat. He wants a student or recent grad as a school board liaison.
Absher as East Student Body vice-president was a “voice of the students,” met with then-Supt. Dr. Stephen Page nine times and got a leaky roof fixed. He led food drives. He was president of six other clubs, including Crimestoppers.
For more about Only Hope WNC efforts and how to help, call Michael Absher at 693-5499 or check www.onlyhopewnc.org.