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Victoria Hewlett, from high school dropout to Yale graduate to Drop Collaborative community organizer

John Thompson • Dec 25, 2019 at 11:00 PM

ELIZABETHTON — Like most of her fellow 2019 Yale graduates, Victoria Hewlett saw many doors of opportunity opening wide for her.

She chose the welcoming front door of an old farmhouse in the mountains of  East Tennessee, less than five miles from her family home.

The reason that farmhouse door was open for her — and why the young Ivy League graduate chose to accept its opportunity — is the story of two visions of rural community involvement and reclamation by two people from different generations. Hewlett and John Drop both had ideas about the importance of rural life that were partially formed in two of the most-urban states in the nation.

Drop was a New Jersey policeman whose dream of an ideal retirement was to be a farmer. He acquired a farm in the Stoney Creek community, but was surprised to find a lot of the children of the area were as lacking in agriculture knowledge as the city kids back in New Jersey. He thought a great deal about that and decided it was vitally important for these children to learn about their agricultural roots and the insights they could gain from their heritage.

Drop’s idea was to mentor young children, teach agriculture and donate the harvest of the farm to charity. He talked with his niece, Pattie Meyer, a Philadelphia businesswoman, about his idea, and after his death she created the Drop Collaborative in his honor to exercise his ideas.

Hewlett grew up just a few miles from Drop’s retirement farm, and was like the kids he had in mind when he sought to help them.

She dropped out of high school at the age of 17 and went to work at the Elizabethton Pizza Hut.

But Hewlett was wise enough to realize she needed more education and enrolled at Northeast State Community College. She also planned to continue her education after she received her associate’s degree in sociology and speech communication.

She even made an application to Yale, one of the most competitive schools in the nation, even though it was not really even on her radar.

But on the night of her graduation from Northeast State, she returned home and checked her email. “I discovered that I had been accepted into Yale University to finish my bachelor’s degree with a full-ride scholarship. It was a big and exciting shock,” she said.

Hewlett knew she did not get into Yale by herself. She knew it was thanks to a whole community working for her that Yale had found she must be a worthy candidate. “The truth is, it took a lot more than my own personal hard work and dedication to get into Yale. It took a whole community of support that I found here, both at Northeast State and in the Tri-Cities at large.

“My application to Yale stood out because I had been able to engage on campus with activities like the Tennessee Intercollegiate State Legislature and the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and in local civic engagement. All of that was made possible through the financial support and mentorship that I received from the folks that I met along the way.”

She majored in ethics, politics and economics at Yale.

Hewlett may have had a full-ride scholarship, but she believes she owes a debt: “This community has time and time again supported me in ways that I do not know if I will ever be able to repay. But now that I have graduated, I intend to try.”

She said she learned at Northeast State that when people come together to collaborate and support one another, great things can be achieved.

“That is why I focused my studies and extracurricular activities at Yale on community organizing and the cooperative economy. That is also why I moved back to Elizabethton after graduating — to find a way to use my newfound knowledge to support the community that had originally provided me with these incredible opportunities in the first place.”

Hewlett plans to give back to her community were realized when she met Pattie Meyer. This month Hewlett joined the Drop Collaborative as community organizer.

“I could hardly believe my luck. I had been passionate about addressing the cultural and economic consequences in Appalachia of decades of decline in small and family farming since my years attending Northeast State. In 2015, I was involved with a team research and community advocacy project focused on community gardening as a solution for these issues. We brought together dozens of local food enthusiasts to share ideas, get funding advice from regional grant providers, and learn locally successful community gardening strategies from one another.

“Now, in 2019, as I returned home seeking to set my adult roots here in Northeast Tennessee, I had discovered the perfect opportunity to take my original project at Northeast State to the next level by working with Pattie at the Drop Collaborative.”

She will be taking on some big tasks at the very start of her career.

“I am very excited to be starting off the new year as the program’s community organizer by helping DC kick-off three big 2020 initiatives,” she said.

The mission of the first two initiatives is telling the story of the Drop Collaborative to both children and adults. She said the first initiative was a coloring book contest launched in the spring of 2019, in which local high school students were asked to help us illustrate “A Story about Farming & Community Service.”

Hewlett said winner Maria Venable, a senior at Asbury Optional High School, “created a beautiful set of images that have been bound into a coloring book which will be given to every K-2nd grader in Carter, Johnson and Washington county.”

The second initiative is to host a workshop in 2020 at the newly opened Langston Centre “to invite community residents to learn about the DC’s mission and objectives, share how others can get involved, and explain the local community economic benefits of the program.”

The third initiative will be “a new partnership with the Watauga-based Kids Like Us Community Learning Center to implement our award-winning Supervised Agricultural Experience curriculum with a new set of participants.”

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