Friendship Builds Bridges

Through ABCCM Circles’ Program

By: Rachael Bliss


The Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, ABCCM Circles program is a ministry for volunteers to build closer rapport with those we serve.  Based on a national program of the same name, ABCCM began planning for this innovative outreach about four years ago.  A year later the first training was held.  The Circles program is designed to build understanding and new friendships across socio-economic and racial lines which not only helps reduce poverty, but also works to strengthen the community.  This successful program has now grown to help young parents with children.


Traditionally most of us tend to develop friendships with those from the same socioeconomic and racial background.  In contrast, Lawson Hebb, 81, and Danny Reese, 51, were matched as friends through ABCCM Circles in a different manner.  Their match was about building friendships across economic lines, which is helping both to diversify their social networks, and to thus be individually transformed.   A lot of water has rushed under the bridge since these two Western Carolinians were “matched” as friends about a year ago.


Hebb’s pastor, Rev. David Eck of Abiding Savior Lutheran Church in Fairview, volunteered Hebb in response to former Circles Coordinator Jimmy Vestal’s request for volunteers.  Hebb was later matched with Reese, and they’ve been friends now for about a year.


Reese is a veteran who had been homeless for three years after having served as a soldier in Lebanon during the Reagan Administration back in the 1980s.  “I had planned on going to warrant officer’s school, but I was young and got tired of being in the military back then.  I had taken leadership and heavy equipment training while enlisted.  When I got out, I worked for ArvinMeritor in Weaverville.”


After being laid off he soon realized that he was about to be homeless.  And he didn’t want to be on the streets in Asheville.


“So I moved up to Norfolk, Virginia.”


But that didn’t work out either.  One of the reasons Reese came back to Asheville was because the ABCCM Veterans’ Restoration Quarters (VRQ) was here.


“This place is geared toward vets and getting us off the streets,” he says.


Eventually Reese was approved for HUD Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH), which made it possible for him to at last have his own place again.   Vestal, now managing the ABCCM Veterans Employment and Training Services (VETS) himself, convinced Reese that the ABCCM Circles Program was right for him.


Reese attributes the Circle program, along with the support of Hebb, Professor Lloyd Weinburg of AB-Tech, ABCCM VRQ, and Matthew Rosky of the local Outward Bound Veterans Program for his turnaround.


“I don’t make friends well,” Reese explains.  “I need my space.  This is why the Outward Bound Everglades experience was so good for me.  They put us into small units of about 10 people each.  Together, we had to get from Point A to Point B daily, preparing meals together and so on.  I can do okay in those types of situations.  It wasn’t all fun and games… a little like the military.  When I came home from serving my country, I certainly didn’t get a ticker-tape parade.  I spent three years… too long of a time in anyone’s life… homeless.  But for me, I chose to be homeless, away from others, because I didn’t make friends well.”


“Circles has made me a better person,” says Reese.  “It has given me an opportunity to cultivate relationships.  One thing I’ve learned through Circles and other programs I’ve been in recently is that I am capable of making friends.  I’m learning how to apply what I learn to my other relationships.”


He is now an AB-Tech student, majoring in digital cartooning.  “I so far have more than a 3.0 grade point average,” says Reese.  “I’m working on getting my Associate’s Degree in 2014, and hopefully, transferring to East Tennessee State University.”


But not everything has been rosy for Reese lately.  “This has been the worst injury I’ve ever endured,” He insists as he leans into his crutches and resumes his story.


“On March 24th, after just getting back from the Outward Bound experience in the Everglades, I had my accident that resulted in two broken legs,” he notes.  “Now I can’t even walk in my house.  It’s absolutely killing me.”


While Reese hobbles on his crutches around the former ABCCM Veterans’ Restoration Quarters building where he stayed before getting his own place, Hebb describes how a vehicle pulled out in front of Reese from a side road on that March day, causing Reese to divert himself into a ditch instead of being hit.  His scooter somehow landed on and broke both of his legs.  Since the accident he has had two surgeries on his left leg, while his right leg seems to be healing well.


Ironically Hebb helped Reese secure his scooter so he would be able to have more dependable transportation to and from classes at AB-Tech.  And even though Reese sustained two broken legs from the accident, the scooter is still usable for transportation when Reese’s legs are once again in shape.


It is in time like these that we see how truly valuable a loyal friendship is.  And in every sense a friend is what Hebb has been to Reese.  After interviewing for this story, the two were on their way to the doctor’s office where Reese would have his legs examined again to see how the healing process was going.


Hebb, meanwhile, has his own story to tell.  “I also lived there in Norfolk when I was in the Navy,” he says.  A man who also served his country, Hebb is a Korean era veteran, and until just recently, was among veterans who received no recognition for their service. Reese agrees that many veterans are too often disregarded by their hometowns when they return from serving their country.


“I thought from the beginning that this was a real good program.  My wife and I liked it so well that she too became a friend to a young lady, which also has worked out well.”


As the interview concludes, Reese looks around the room we’re in.  “This was once the library and computer room for the old ABCCM Men’s Shelter,” he says.


ABCCM now serves our returning veterans at the Veteran Restoration Quarters on Tunnel Road in east Asheville, near the V.A.  The room Reece was referring to has been transformed into a small classroom for today’s Our Circle Young Parents Program, which focuses on assisting young parents by using the same process of matching Circle Leaders and Allies.


Our Circle Coach, Sara Varnado, says, “In order to envision a more peaceful world, we must first learn to accept others for who they are and learn how to focus on similarities rather than differences. This program allows people from a variety of backgrounds to learn from each other, share experiences, and build supportive friendships.”


The goal today is to pair caring individuals from our community, Allies (friends), with Circle Leaders (young parents), in order to build new friendships across economic, class, and racial lines, therefore strengthening our community and erasing poverty.


Our young parent participants are ages 16-24, (mothers, fathers, or both), who have custody of their child[ren]) and are living at 200% of the poverty level or below. The goal of the program is to help the parents further their education and training in order to get better paying jobs. The hope is that with further education and help from the ABCCM Our Circle Staff, Allies, and the Asheville-Buncombe community, they will then be able to better provide for their families without having to rely on public assistance.


Allies are vital to our program because they act as friends, and more importantly, support systems for our participants. They are there to encourage and support young parents. There is no expectation that they there to “fix” any problems, act as social workers, or provide any monetary assistance. Allies only support the Circle Leaders (parents) through friendship, encouragement, prayer, and offering any networking opportunities (if those arise).


For information about Our Circle, call 398-6995; e-mail; or just visit the program’s offices at 207 Coxe Ave. in downtown Asheville.  Staff is also happy to visit your church or civic group to tell you more about this rewarding program.  An overview of Our Circle can be found at


Rachael Bliss is in her third year helping local non-profit organizations build capacity while serving those living in poverty.  Bliss is the mother of five children and grandmother of four.  In her spare time, she is widening her “circle” by writing, and providing doula, photography, and celebrant services for important times in people’s lives.


She can be reached at:
Americorps/VISTA Volunteer
Our Circle / Young Parents Program
207 Coxe Avenue
Asheville, NC  28801
Phone:  (828) 398-6995



Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker