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Whole Community Connection (WCC) celebrated the progress of the four community-academic partnerships, two in Edgecombe County and two in Robeson County, who were part of the 2023 Cohort for the leadership program.

“Each of these community leaders and UNC researchers are champions,” said WCC Project Director Melissa Green. “They are co-creating solutions that build on community strengths to improve the health and wellbeing of the community. Thus far, 424 Edgecombe and Robeson County community members have been reached through these partnerships.”

HOPE Alternative Learning Program THRIVE: Focuses on a replicable model of on-site school behavioral health and resilience for students at risk of truancy, academic failure, behavioral problems, and dropping out of school.  

  • Na’im Akbar, Rural Opportunity Institute
  • Andrew Bradford, UNC Researcher at School of Nursing
  • Stacy Rosser, UNC Researcher at Gillings School of Global Public Health

Tarboro Community Garden: Aims to create a sustainable and equitable community garden in the Tarboro area for the physical and mental health benefits of the surrounding community.

  • Aerhealle Chace, Freedom Organization
  • Loretta Hilliard Draughn, ImpactOne Inc
  • Molly De Marco, UNC Professor of Nutrition
  • Danielle Purifoy, UNC Assistant Professor of Geography
  • Reverend Bill Kearney, UNC Center for Disease Prevention
  • Brett Sheppard, UNC Center for Disease Prevention

Robeson Whole Together: Focuses on rural maternal health and wellbeing and aims to identify, adapt and develop community informed interventions to reduce maternal and child health inequities related to rural maternal mental health disparities.

  • Erica Little, Healthy Start Robeson at UNC Pembroke
  • April Oxendine, Robeson County Department of Public Health
  • Brittany Gordon, Robeson Healthcare Corporation
  • Sarah E. (Betsy) Bledsoe, UNC School of Social Work
  • Anna Fetter, UNC Department of Psychology and Neuroscience

Robeson Parent 2 Parent Project: Seeks to increase the capacity of parents of young children living in Robeson County through peer-to-peer support, evidence-based training, and developing a stronger parenting network for parents of children with disabilities and special healthcare needs within the county.

  • Rhonda Dial, CDSA of the Cape Fear
  • Tina Ivins, Family Support Network of Southeastern NC
  • Selina Armstrong, UNC School of Social Work
  • Laurel Powell, UNC School of Social Work

“Takeaways are unique to each Champion,” Green said. “A common theme is a focus on enhanced self-awareness as leaders, new skills, and applying those strengths within their spheres of influence and community to leverage healthier solutions.” 

2023 WCC Champion and Robeson County native, Rhonda Dial reflected, “This journey made me realize how proud I was of our county. It made me learn more about our county.” 

Dial’s team member, and fellow 2023 WCC Champion, Selina Armstrong, shared “As a leader, I have grown by gaining a deeper understanding of team dynamics and optimal collaboration… This newfound confidence has empowered me to take on leadership roles in various professional and personal domains” 

WCC is a leadership program including grant funding through UNC Rural co-led by Giselle Corbie, MD, vice provost for faculty affairs and the director for the Center for Health Equity Research, and the Office of Interprofessional Education and Practice (IPEP) led by Meg Zomorodi, PhD, RN, associate provost for interprofessional health initiatives. Teams consist of collaborators from existing partnerships including community members from Edgecombe or Robeson County and UNC-CH faculty or staff. The awarded teams participate in one year of leadership development focused on building relationships for collective and community-led action. In addition, teams receive $45,000 in funding to support their projects to improve community health.

Whole Community Connection is supported by the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust in alignment with the strategic plan for the University, Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good. WCC supports community and academic leaders to advance health equity in rural North Carolina by increasing local power to focus on priorities by and at the community level and co-creating a model of relationship centered engagement.

The 2024 Cohort will be announced in January. Visit to learn more.