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Above are a few of the many boxes and bags of food that were collected for the Hunger and
Health Coalition in honor of Madison Winebarger on her 16th birthday.
Photos submitted

Originally published: 2014-03-31 15:31:56
Last modified: 2014-03-31 15:36:47

Madison Winebarger's Sweet 16 party dedicated to the hungry

by Sherrie Norris

When Madison Winebarger of Vilas, a sophomore at Watauga High School, celebrated her 16th birthday earlier this month, she was surrounded by dozens of family members and friends -- and lots of food.

That's a typical scenario for a birthday party, you might imagine, but not with hundreds of pounds of food -- canned items and boxed staple goods -- to feed hundreds of people.

For months prior to her milestone celebration, Winebarger had made it clear to her mother that if she had a party, she did not want presents for herself.

Instead, the teen said she wanted guests to bring food for the Hunger and Health Coalition in Boone.

"It's the most awkward thing at a party to sit there opening presents with everyone watching, anyway," Winebarger said. "Plus, I knew that food would go a long way to help those who need things a lot more than I do."

The idea surprised no one who knows the humble, compassionate youngster. She has a generous heart, her friends and family members said, and she likes to do things for others. 

Winebarger assisted with annual food drives when she was in elementary school at Cove Creek, and has been involved in the success of various nonprofit and fundraising opportunities since then. 

After helping deliver food to the Hospitality House last fall, following a fundraiser for her cousin who had undergone open heart surgery, Winebarger began devising her plan.

"I saw what it meant to the people there that night, and I thought doing something like that would be fun," she said.

When her 16th birthday drew near and party plans began to materialize, invitations went out with one simple instruction: Instead of bringing gifts for Madison, please bring food for the Hunger Coalition.  

Neither Madison nor her family members were prepared for the results of her request.

On Saturday, March 8, approximately 100 people came to the party, bearing bags and boxes of items for the food pantry --so much so, that the family had to call for the agency's van to come pick it up.

"This was a wonderful idea and a great surprise," Compton Fortuna, executive director at the Health and Hunger Coalition, said. 

"I was touched that Madison wanted to use her birthday to help local families. To be so giving and unselfish at such a young age is truly inspirational," she said.

Initial reports indicated that more than 700 pounds of food were collected, with more coming in sporadically from those who were unable to attend the party. 

Others gave Winebarger gift cards for food, for which she and her mother shopped and delivered to the coalition, long after the party candles were extinguished. 

"At this time of year, food donations are down," Fortuna said. "The contributions made on Madison's behalf have helped make a huge difference."

Winebarger had also obtained pamphlets for her party guests about the Hunger and Health Coalition, "to increase awareness of the organization and its mission."

"I never wanted this to be about me, but about people who are hungry," she said.

The success of the project was exciting to the teen. 

"I can't deny that this has been very emotional for me," she said. "I didn't think it would bring in that much food; I thought maybe 300 pounds would be all."

It's always good to see people come together and to do something like that, she said, adding, "I can't take the credit for it. It wouldn't have happened without the help of a lot of people who came and brought food."

"The love and support of my family and friends during my birthday blew my mind. They are the reasons other families have food now," she said.

Asked if she received personal gifts for her birthday, she said, "Oh my goodness, my family gave me a car. I didn't expect it at all. They surprised me by fixing up my grandmother's car for me. She died a while back and I loved her so much. It was a nice surprise."

She also received jewelry and a few other things, she said. 

Another unexpected gift came just days after her birthday when Winebarger was notified that she is being awarded a scholarship to Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga. "It's $10,000 that's renewable annually for four years," she said. "I am very grateful for that."

Winebarger is an honor student (with a 4.1 grade point average), who loves her health occupations class and plans to pursue a career in the medical field. 

"I'd like to work maybe with the Red Cross or a similar organization to do disaster relief in places like Africa or somewhere overseas," she said. 

Regina Alford, health occupations instructor and sponsor of Health Occupations Students of America at WHS, of which Winebarger is an active member, had this to say: "Madison is a dedicated (second year) HOSA member who has not missed a single meeting. She always exceeds my expectations and is one of the very best students I have ever worked with. I could go on and on about her, but I know that she will bring compassion and a loving heart to the health care profession. She is a delight in every way."

About HOSA, Winebarger said, "It's the greatest club at the high school, in my opinion. I love Mrs. Alford and I love working the blood drives. I just like to work, period, but I don't want to be the one telling people what to do, regardless of where I am or what I am doing."

Winebarger is also a member of the Watauga County Junior Rescue Squad. "I am really just learning and observing right now, preparing for the future," she said.

She is a member of Mount Vernon Baptist Church, through which she has done volunteer mission work in Kentucky by helping to refurbish homes.  

She has also helped with the Blowing Rock Tour of Homes, a fundraiser sponsored by her friend's church.

As one who enjoys nature and being out of doors, Winebarger loves fishing, hiking and biking, "when I have time," she said. "And I like to read."

She is the daughter of Michelle Underwood of Vilas and Greg Winebarger of Meat Camp. She has one sister, Alicia Hobbs, of Lenoir.