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GWU student, former soccer coach honored for their volunteer work

A Gardner-Webb University (GWU) student and a former children's volunteer soccer coach in Cleveland County, was tapped as Youth Volunteer of the Year for 2023.

Encouraged by her GWU adjunct professor John Miller, Ashley Wilson began volunteering at HOPEWorks in Rutherford County, a free after-school program for middle and high schoolers. Soon Ashley developed a passion for HOPEWorks as students need encouragement and hope.

"HOPEWorks is unlike anything I have ever been a part of," said Ashley. "HOPEWorks is a unique experience. These kids are so strong and resilient...Our motto is meeting the kids exactly where they are, and when they are, for who they are. These kids give me so much joy and so much life," she said.

"They teach me more than I think I teach them. Being a part of this program is so rewarding and is something I feel like God has called me to do for all of the right reasons. I see so much of who I used to be in them all the time, and that helping them is like giving me the advice I wish I had."

HOPEWorks is a program under the nonprofit Blue Ridge Hope, currently offering an after-school program for middle and high schoolers who receive tutoring and mentorship within a safe space.

In addition to volunteering with HOPEWorks, Ashley also volunteered as a soccer coach for the Greater Cleveland County Soccer Association (GCCSA) for two years. She stepped away from volunteering this semester, hoping to return in the fall. A heavy class load, volunteering at HOPEWorks and other responsibilities at GWU gave her a full schedule.

"I am hoping and praying that I will be able to return in the fall," she said.

"I have had a love for soccer since I was a little kid. I always knew I needed it to be in my life in some way, so when I got here (GWU) it was one of the first things I looked for," she said.

She volunteered between six to nine hours each week and had two and half hour practices a week plus one or two games each Saturday. She coached U14, anyone from ages 11/12 to 14.

Before coming to GCCSA, she spent one year as a volunteer coach at Kernersville Soccer Association where she lived before college.

"Coaching was not only a way for me to stay in the sport, but to also provide young players with a coach," she said.

When Ashley joined GCCSA they were understaffed in coaches and needed help for the young children to be able to even have a soccer season.

Growing up playing soccer, Ashley said she had aggressive sound coaches who wanted to provide a fun-loving and technically strong environment for the kids to learn and grow not only as players but as people.

For Coach Ashley her best days of coaching was seeing the development of the players at the end of the season.

"The amount of growth I saw in so many of the kids was heartwarming. From getting better grades in school, to growing in their technique and becoming a well-rounded player. My kids will tell you that I asked them how school was every day. I asked them if they learned anything and how their classes were going," she said.

Ashley said soccer provides teamwork and interpersonal skills, but not every kid is going to get a scholarship to play soccer.

"Yes, I wanted them to be good players, as a player and as their coach, of course, I wanted them to win games. But, that does not mean anything if they are failing in school, getting detention, or getting into fights. To see the progression of the kids, to hear from their parents that they are doing better in school, and to watch them become better teammates, and to know that I had a part in that is the best thing about coaching," Ashley continued.

Ashley played soccer in middle school and three years in high school but an injury her junior and senior year of high school prevented her from playing GWU soccer.

"I was always 'eat, sleep, soccer' so coaching was a no-brainer for me"Ashley said.

Ashley loves GWU and the atmosphere and "the quiet." She said she always wanted to go to a small school and after touring the GWU campus, she was hooked.

"This place feels like a home away from home. I enjoy the professors and the small ratio of class sizes. I also love that it is a faith-based school. It was not necessarily something I was looking for in a college, but since being here I have grown in my relationship with Christ significantly. I could not be happier with my choice of school," Ashley said.

After graduation Ashley will attend Physician's Assistant school, hoping to specialize in Pediatrics/ Emergency Medicine.

"I am obviously looking at applying here at GWU and also at North-Greenville University and a few others. Being in health care is something I have had my mind set on since I was in the 8th grade," she said.

She works at Caromont Health as a night shift CNA in the Progressive Coronary Care Unit.

"I absolutely love what I do. I have always wanted to help people and practice medicine. I was always good at science and am very fortunate that the high school I went to in Winston-Salem was a STEM school that allowed me to major there in Health Sciences and learn what being in the healthcare field was all about before I went to school for it.

She said at the STEM School, she took a class to get her CNA requirements right out of high school.

"In all honesty, I was going to go full MD when I started here. After talking to my advisor and doing some research of my own, I moved to PA as a better way of fitting what I wanted my home life to look like into my work life," Ashley said.

"I am a family-oriented person and want kids and have a family. Being a doctor, a lot of your time is spent on call working long hours unless you are in a clinic which is not what I wanted my focus to be. Being a PA allows me to fulfill both of my dreams of working in health care and having a family life as well, " Ashley said.

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