Community Profile

Left: Blacksmithing classes are one of many Appalachian traditions passed down in THRIVE Appalachia’s nine-month class series. Right: Teens make and sell their award-winning pies.

THRIVE Appalachia: Everything Big Starts Small

By Kim S. Davis

To “thrive” is to grow mightily; to progress toward or realize goals in spite of or because of circumstances. THRIVE Appalachia, serving Yancey, Mitchell and Avery counties, is cultivating the “unique genius” of teenagers in our region “within a welcoming community of support,” and allowing the teens in the program to thrive. One obvious reason for the success of this new nonprofit is the leadership and enthusiasm of its Executive Director, Pana Columbus.

According to Columbus, “THRIVE Appalachia has a theory about teenagers. Teens are all, without exception, enthusiastic about learning, so long as two conditions are met: When teens choose what they are learning about, and when the learning methodology is hands-on and experiential.” She adds, “Based on this premise, THRIVE Appalachia is supporting an entrepreneurial renaissance of teen-led innovation, creativity and collaborative leadership.”

The organization developed a model called “The Four Pathways to Prosperity,” Columbus explains, that cultivates that unique genius of every child who participates. The First Path is Hands-on Learning, which occurs as THRIVE Appalachia provides weekly classes. Their 2024 class series includes: Pottery, First Aid/ CPR Certification, Hammered Metal Jewelry Making, Fishing, Blacksmithing, Archery, Carpentry, Fine Art Painting, Toy Making, Ice Cream Making, Graphic Design, Needle Felting, Computer Animation and Glass Blowing.

The Second Path is Apprenticeships. THRIVE Appalachia recently matched their eighth apprenticeship—a local 16-year-old, who had expressed interest in becoming a radio DJ, with Kevin Silva, retired legendary radio DJ (once featured on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine). Other recent apprenticeships have included a 17-year-old who earned enough money apprenticing with a cabinet-maker to purchase his own car; a 14-year-old who spent nearly every day of her summer vacation apprenticing at Little Blackberry Creek Pottery; a 15-year-old learning sign language from someone who is helping her become an interpreter; and a 17-year-old who is apprenticing as a glass blower at HEARTH Glass Gallery.

The Third Path involves Social Entrepreneurship, formulated when a group of youth get excited by a subject and create collaborative enterprises, such as the following:

The Jam n’ Pie Project: Last year, thirty youth, with guidance from Program Director Lori Mehnert, made and sold 102 full pies and 71 hand pies, collectively earning $2,250; the proceeds went entirely to the youth. They subsequently met with a financial coach from On Track Financial to plan their financial goals. Local fruit was purchased in partnership with TRACTOR Food and Farm, so in addition to the money this program put in the pockets of local teens, it also put $2,000 in the pockets of local farmers. For 2024, participants have expanded the pie program to include a Kids Cafe, where they host a meal serving 60-70 people monthly featuring international cuisine—the kids collectively make over $1,000 each night!

Appalachian Good Wool Project: Participants meet weekly year-round with Sewing and Fashion Design teacher L Robinson to craft upscale jackets made from local sheep and alpaca wool. This farm to fashion project, putting money into the pockets of both local fiber farmers as well as teens, will culminate in a fashion show on September 14.

Viva Appalachia is an entrepreneurship project that celebrates the local Hispanic community. Yolanda Tapia, a local Mexican cook, teaches youth how to make homemade tortillas, which are also sold on TRACTOR Food and Farms’ CSA website. Additionally, the last Tuesday of the month, Tapia teaches young people to make a complete Mexican meal, served at the Yancey Library’s “Spanish café.” All proceeds from the tortillas and the Mexican meals go to participating youth.

Ice Cream Production: This recent project emerged when a small business in Burnsville, Tulsi Rose Tea, requested assistance in expanding their store into an ice cream parlor. Beginning this summer, kids will make 10 flavors of ice cream that were determined in a collaborative decision-making process and sell them wholesale to the ice cream parlor.

The Fourth Path to Prosperity is Solo Entrepreneurship. THRIVE Appalachia supports youth in starting their own businesses. One 16-year-old, after taking a hammered metal jewelry class, has made nearly $400 making and selling her gorgeous hammered metal heart necklaces. Another participant recently earned $300 with her graphic art and is currently designing a series of flashcards that will make studying for drivers’ permits more fun.

CML asked Columbus to share with our readers in greater detail how this innovative program originated, and how it is “providing teens with pathways to prosperity.”

CML: What was the spark that ignited THRIVE?

Columbus: After years of working with vulnerable communities, like teens in foster care and grandparents raising grandchildren, I noticed that poverty was central to that vulnerability. If a person has money, when the transmission in their car dies, or if they crack a tooth, they can take care of it. When a person doesn’t have money, these same everyday experiences can be a major life crisis. I realized that until we address the issue of poverty head on, those who serve the vulnerable will forever be playing whack-a-mole with all the crises that come up when families are struggling financially. Thanks to a Mountain Air Community Fund grant, I launched a pilot after school program to teach teenagers marketable skills.

CML: How do you determine the classes you offer?

Columbus: The kids choose what classes we offer. Each November, we have teen-facilitated meetings to discuss what they want to learn. Through a collaborative process, they choose what twelve classes they want us to teach (each class is three weeks long). Then we spend December, January and February finding and hiring the teachers, and planning the classes. The class series then runs March-November. The teens also choose the entrepreneurship projects we take on, usually evolving naturally from our classes. For example, the pie project started with our three-week baking class. Our jacket project evolved out of our sewing class. Other professions the kids talk about adding have to do with creating beautiful building designs. Someday, when we have our own building, it will be a living laboratory for architecture, carpentry, masonry, interior decorating, landscaping and other arts that contribute to making extraordinary buildings.

CML: How do participants hear about THRIVE Appalachia?

Columbus: Almost all of our participants learn about THRIVE Appalachia through word of mouth. One of the kids in our program tells their friends and then we get a call. Teens trust their friends. Social media also has been a great way to share what we’re doing. Nearly every time we post a story on Facebook, more families enroll online. Also, parents of our students are our greatest advocates. They tell their friends about us and they enroll their kids, too.

CML: How many students typically participate?

Columbus: We see between 30-50 students during the five sessions we hold each week. We definitely hope to build our capacity—we have waiting lists for many of our classes and it breaks our heart to tell teens they can’t participate in some of them because they are filled. Our dream is to have our own space someday and more staff so that multiple classes can be happening simultaneously. The teens are helping with this endeavor and it is another important learning opportunity that will help them in their professional lives.


THRIVE Appalachia is successful because of the extraordinary leadership of Columbus, the dedication of the instructors and volunteers, and the connections with community partners, which Columbus says resulted from “a series of miracles.” The Reconciliation House lets THRIVE Appalachia use their commercial kitchen three times a week for their culinary programs. TRACTOR Food and Farm sells what the teens make on their CSA website each week. Elk Park United Methodist Church hosts their weekly class series, and Avery Connect matches teens to paid summer apprenticeships.

“THRIVE Appalachia is a warm and welcoming community of support for young people to identify and cultivate an authentic sense of self—who they are, what they love, what they are good at,” shares Columbus. “No two kids are the same and it’s our job as caring adults to help unlock and develop their unique genius. Our philosophy of working with kids is an emergent process, meaning we follow their lead and their enthusiasm. We find teachers and create classes and projects that they feel excited about.

“At THRIVE Appalachia, kids learn by doing,” she continues. “We learn how to start a fashion line by creating one. We learn how to start an ice cream business by starting one. Anything is possible with a little imagination and a willingness to go on an adventure.”

THRIVE Appalachia works to cultivate a thriving, local economic eco-system built on authentic multigenerational relationships and is made possible through the generosity of the Mountain Air Community Fund, Resourceful Communities, The Community Fund of Western North Carolina Human Services Grant, Women for Women, The Yancey Fund, Vaya Health, The Kiwanis Club of Banner Elk, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and the countless kindnesses of individual donors, teachers, community partners and volunteers. All classes and activities are free and open to youth 12-18 and run March through November. For more information, visit and their Facebook page, or call 828-559-5840.

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