Staying the Course, Mountain Projects teacher achieves dream at 55

This story first appeared in the Sylva Herald

When Julie Keffer accepts a diploma for her bachelors degree from Western Carolina University in May, she’ll stand apart from most of her fellow graduates. For one thing she’ll have five children and 14 grandkids in the audience, cheering her on. For another, she’ll be at the end of a 27-year journey to graduation.

Keffer, 55, has taught for two decades at the Kneedler Head Start Child Development Outreach Center on the WCU campus in Cullowhee, but her path to a Bachelor of Science in Birth-Kindergarten Education began in Haywood County in 1997, and has taken her through twists, turns and painful places before leading her to the Ramsey Center stage.

It is the culmination of a dream.

“No matter what your age is, as long as you have breath in your lungs and a heartbeat, you’re not done,” Keffer said. “What I hope to show people is that you can finish your degree at any age. I encourage single moms to push for it – I was once there.”

Keffer enrolled her first son in the Clyde Head Start as a working young mother. Head Start is a federally funded child development program for preschool children from low-income families, and Mountain Projects’ Head Start program has educated Haywood and Jackson County preschoolers since 1965. 

At first, she volunteered in her son’s classroom with art projects and reading, but through encouragement from the staff she became inspired to teach. She was certified later that year, and began work as a full-time Teacher’s Assistant. 

“I see now it was my calling,” she said. “It just felt right.”

Not long after, as a single parent of two sons, she began Early Childhood Education night classes at Haywood Community College. Her father babysat the boys, Mountain Projects footed the bill, and Keffer set her sights on a four-year degree through a joint program between HCC and WCU. When she graduated from HCC, her employers were in the audience to cheer her on.

“That meant a lot to me,” Keffer said. “Not everyone’s boss comes to stuff like that.”

It wasn’t long before she was lead teacher at Kneedler, and in hot pursuit of her bachelor’s degree.

But then things got rocky. She took time off from school to care for an ill grandparent, and when she applied for readmission in 2006 she couldn’t get back into the Pre-K program. Her earlier GPA wasn’t quite high enough. For four straight years she appealed the decision, with essays and letters of recommendation in hand, but was denied despite support from Mountain Projects staff and its Executive Director, Patsy Davis. 

“Patsy told me, ‘I don’t know how you’re gonna do this – but you’re gonna do this. Just don’t give up,’” Keffer added. “I just kept hitting walls, but I kept the hope alive.”

Years passed, and a colleague, Christie Paxton, became director of Mountain Projects’ Head Start. Paxton engaged with the director of the WCU program and took up Keffer’s cause.

Things looked good, but then came the Covid-19 pandemic, and her progress stalled again. When in-person classes resumed in 2021, Keffer was admitted to the program at last.

“I was ecstatic,” she said. “I felt like I was finally going to make this happen.”

She and her family celebrated – prematurely. She contracted a debilitating case of Covid-19, followed by many months of recovery, and her return to school was delayed again until winter of 2022.

Even then, the challenges weren’t quite over. Her father fell terminally ill during her first semester, and she was his primary caregiver. Although she missed a lot of work she still managed to complete her studies. 

“I was in the hospital crying, typing, and doing homework,” Keffer said. “One of the last things my father said to me while he could still talk was, ‘Don’t give up, no matter what happens here.’ So, I just did not let anything derail me.”

Keffer is now a Dean’s List student. She credits Mountain Projects, “her second family”, for making it possible. Aside from years of support, the organization helped her earn a full scholarship through the T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood North Carolina Scholarship Program.

And in May her journey will end at last.