Tuesday, September 07, 2010

N.C. newspaper sparks community to rally around child welfare

What began as a normal crime beat assignment for Shelby Star reporter Olivia Neeley, right, quickly evolved into an ongoing series by the newspaper and eventually into a call for action among community members. Neeley reported on a shooting that left two people dead in Shelby, N.C., in August 2009, and produced a short online update and blurb for the next morning's print edition. Upon returning to the community the next day, Neeley was struck by the matter-of-fact tone several children  took toward the shooting. One girl, in a nonchalant tone, simply asked "Who got killed?" (Freedom Communications photo)

"I felt particularly uncomfortable at the scene (the night before), so I could only imagine how those children felt," Neeley told Freedom Communications, for a feature story on the company's Web site. "When the girl said it the way she did, very casually, I just couldn’t believe it." The question, "Who got killed?," became the headline for an ongoing series sparked by reader input regarding their shock at the problems facing children in the community. Star publisher Skip Foster appointed Neeley the lead reporter on the project, shifting her from the crime beat to covering children in peril.

"It would not be an easy task or pledge to live up to," reported Freedom. "People, including the children themselves, are reluctant to talk about abuse or neglect. Secondly, it was very important to protect the children’s identities while still giving a detailed account of those involved." The series produced a number of heart-breaking stories about local children, and after much reaction from readers, Neeley began pointing them to local charity organizations. A group of local community leaders announced an event, called Connect, Commit to Change, to benefit the agencies helping children.

"The Star ran ads in the paper to promote the event, and set a goal of recruiting 15 agencies to participate. They got more than 50," according to Freedom. Participants were asked to fill out "I commit to" cards that contained promises to connect specific talents, like pro bono legal help, with specific needs. The Star later published the cards to hold participants to their promise."We had no idea how many people would attend the event, and were naturally a little nervous when the day arrived," Neeley said. "But then people kept rolling in, and it was amazing to see what one quote from a little girl a year ago could do to inspire an entire community." (Read more)

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