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Citizen Award: How Nation Hahn Turned Tragedy into a Mission

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Two-thirds of North Carolina's public school students are enrolled in free and reduced lunch programs, according to the state's Department of Public Instruction. At the last statewide point-in-time count, three thousand students were identified as being truly homeless; twenty-seven thousand lacked stable housing.

Some folks view the issues that face impoverished students in North Carolina as insurmountable. For Nation Hahn, a consultant for the education advocacy group EdNC, these problems are his purpose, and making sure the state's students have enough healthy food is his focus.

Hahn understands that when students' basic needs are met, they're able to learn better, and with learning comes leadership. Creating the state's future leaders through the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation—the organization he founded following the death of his wife, Jamie, who was murdered in 2013—is Hahn's second mission.

"If you invest in people, you are investing in change," Hahn says. "And, in some ways, if you invest in the right people, you could be investing into a large-scale system change."

The foundation invests in the state's young people in a variety of ways. For example, this summer will mark the second year of a fellowship program, in which selected applicants, who are paid for their time, develop leadership skills by traveling the state, touring low-wealth schools, working in urban gardens, and meeting with diverse groups of people.

A fellow last year devised a policy boot camp through EdNC; 120 Enloe High School students participated in skill-building and leadership-development exercises, a model that EdNC wants to use across the state.

The foundation also hosts an annual series of conversations called "Gathering for Good," in which participants talk about issues facing the state and explore ways to address them. The theme this year is how to build better relationships between rural and urban communities.

"The idea is that you bring people together across race, gender, age, socioeconomic background, and experience," Hahn says. "You make it to where everyone feels they are on an equal playing field and where everyone can share their ideas for how to improve North Carolina and their community."

Last year, the series focused on creating a twenty-first-century leadership-development model for a changing state. The group then used the model to help make communities healthier, and it came up with funding for a strategic plan to serve southeast Raleigh's food desert.

In March, the foundation will announce the winner of a $25,000 innovation grant, which will go to a group that devises the best way to deliver high-quality food to homeless or housing-insecure people. The contest, known as the Fresh Food Challenge, is being done in collaboration with the Raleigh-Wake Partnership to End Homelessness (helmed by fellow Citizen Award winner Shana Overdorf).

Hahn draws heavily on his own life experience to guide his work. Born to teenage parents in Lenoir, Hahn lived with different family members until he was adopted by his aunt and uncle. His adoptive father was a butcher, and his grandmother owned restaurants; he spent his summer vacations in the backs of restaurants and in family gardens, where he developed an interest in food and nutrition.

Jamie, Hahn says, inspired his interest in the politics of food. She volunteered at Raleigh City Farm and was an avid cook. Before her death at the age of twenty-nine, she and Nation had already discussed establishing a foundation that took a holistic view of food systems and communities.

"I dove in and just learned as much as I could and in turn became passionate about it as well," he says.

Hahn's overarching goal through the foundation, he says, is to create "an army of Jamies," groups of volunteers and leaders who embody Jamie's dedication to service and share her desire to bring people together. And through EdNC, Hahn says, he wants to ensure that every child in North Carolina has a chance to succeed.

"We are always listening and trying to always learn," says Hahn. "It's fun to be part of two different organizations in two different ways that mean a lot to me personally, and I think also, to the community. We are trying to do things differently, not the same way things have always been done."

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