Rebuilding A Home With the Help of a Community

When the west fork of the Pigeon River rose into her family home on August 17th, Donella Pressley escaped into the darkness with her two young daughters and the clothes on their backs.

It had already been a rough summer: her marriage ended suddenly, her mother went into assisted living and her long career as a caregiver was complicated by Covid. So as her home filled with water, she fled towards Asheville and just wanted to keep going.

“I couldn’t get far enough away from Canton that day,” she said. “But now I can’t see how I’d ever leave. It’s been a very humbling experience.”

Donella and Elena (5) and Cordelia (6) eventually rolled to a stop at an Asheville hotel. The shell-shocked little family walked to the desk, and an unsuspecting clerk asked them about their day.

“Well,” said six-year-old Cordelia, “our daddy’s quit us and the river’s in the house.”

The rattled clerk didn’t know what to say, but managed to come out with the sentence that always soothes a six-year-old: “well, we have a pool you can swim in!”

And things began to shift for the Pressleys. The girls spun and chorused “Did we remember our bathing suits?” and the situation made their mother laugh. The next morning they had a dip in their underwear, and then it was home to start cleaning up.

The time since then has been a whirlwind. Their house was a mess.

“It was a tiny house when we bought it,” said Donella, “nothing special about it, just a collection of nooks and crannies, but even then it felt like home, and it’s really home now. We just hope it feels like home again.”

The house had been shoulder-deep in water throughout, and as the family began to try to deal with the inconceivable mess, people started to drop by: neighbors, the Red Cross, church friends but also strangers.

Bruce Crawford happened in. He’s a retired building inspector for the county – although Pressley didn’t know it at the time – and he helped make things happen. A team of volunteers stripped away the home’s interior, salvaging what little furniture they could.

Soon, a group from NC Baptists On Mission came in as well. With vast experience in disaster relief, they’re partnering with Mountain Projects, Haywood County and the United Way in a rapid rehab program designed to get homeowners back in their houses as soon as possible, and on the way to restarting their lives.

Volunteers from Baptists on Mission make damaged homes safe, sanitary and liveable through moisture and mold abatement, utility repair and new sheetrock and floors, among similar things. They do the work at cost, which is an average of $17,500 per house, and local charities and donors sponsor the repairs. A strict formula and series of inspections is part of the process, and county government is involved.

The Haywood County Rapid Re-Housing drive has raised money for 30 houses so far, with more in the pipeline. The original goal of 10 houses has been raised to 50 after a strong local response. The total number of houses in need isn’t yet known, but educated guesses say about 150.

And where does this leave the Pressleys? Their house is one of the first to be helped by this initiative.

In a few weeks at most, they’ll have a dry, safe place to start over, and dozens of people to thank.

“Life throws bricks and you duck,” says Donella. “I can’t explain everything that happened to us this week, but we are very, very grateful.”

If you’d like to contribute to rapid-rehousing efforts in Haywood County, we urge you to make a donation to the United Way of Haywood County, 81 Elmwood Way, Suite 140 or PO Box 1139, Waynesville, NC 28786.…

If you’d like to learn more about rapid rehousing, please call or email Executive Director, Patsy Davis at (828) 492-4124 or