by Liza Roberts
photographs by Khristopher Williams and Robert Pettus
When Raleigh strategist Nation Hahn met a few dozen friends to plant vegetables at the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s farm last spring, he wasn’t there just to grow food for a good cause. He was there to grow something bigger: “an army of Jamies.”
Jamie Hahn was Nation’s wife, a young, up-and-coming, and already influential fundraiser for North Carolina Democratic Party candidates and nonprofits. By all accounts a tireless advocate for people in need, the founder of Sky Blue Strategies “always worked for what was right and what was just,” Nation says. That work was cut violently short when Jamie, 29, was killed in April 2013. An employee who had also served, almost exactly four years earlier, as the best man at their wedding, will face trial on murder charges in December.
“She was a terrific young woman,” says former U.S. Senate candidate Ken Lewis, a partner at the law firm Womble, Carlyle. Hahn was the first person he hired for his Senate campaign. “She was very bright, very committed to public service, and very committed to trying to create a better North Carolina, a better country, and a better world.” That commitment has now become the mission of the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation, which has emerged in less than a year as a powerhouse of fundraising prowess and philanthropic creativity.
In short order, the group has raised more than $340,000 from more than 500 donors. It has held dozens of events – from days of service to pop-up fundraisers – with more than 400 volunteers and more than 1,000 attendees. Its plan to train and mentor a new generation of people to do the kinds of good works Jamie Hahn was known for has the potential to create exponential benefits, supporters say.
“Hundreds of people have come together to shape this,” says Nation Hahn, who works as the director of engagement at Raleigh strategy and public relations firm New Kind. Those people include Millennial-generation peers as well as a slate of older folks with plenty of influence. The mourners at Hahn’s memorial service at Raleigh’s Pullen Memorial Baptist Church overflowed the pews and included U.S. Rep. David Price, former U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, former U.S. Sen. and one-time Democratic nominee for vice president John Edwards, and 2010 U.S. Senate candidate Lewis.
They cared about her as a friend and also respected the work she did. Sky Blue, which she founded in 2008, had raised more than $4 million for North Carolina causes and candidates. She had served as deputy North Carolina finance director for Edwards, and as state finance director for U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan. She had worked to help foster kids transition to stable, independent lives and to end hunger.
The idea for a foundation in Jamie Hahn’s name emerged from a group who gathered at the hospital when they’d heard the news she and Nation had both been attacked (Nation was released from the hospital the next day). Among them: Jamie’s and Nation’s parents, their college friends, Lewis, Miller, former N.C. Sen. Eric Mansfield, New Kind chairman Tom Rabon, political consultant Gary Pearce, Plexus Capital founder Kel Landis and Nina Szlosberg-Landis, and public relations executive Joyce Fitzpatrick. “The organizing started immediately,” Fitzpatrick recalls.
First, the group put together a prayer vigil, gathering 400 people on a few hours’ notice. When Jamie died early the next morning, they swooped in and helped with all manner of logistics. But they wanted to do more. Fitzpatrick recalls Damon Circosta, executive director of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, saying: “We have to do something with this energy.” Kel Landis said the same thing.
Five weeks later, a group met at the Landis home. Rabon, Pearce, former Wake County Democratic Party chair Mack Paul, his wife Julie, John and Ann Campbell, and others joined them. By August, they’d formed a 501(c)3 and made plans for an October kick-off.
“She was the most outstanding young person I had ever met,” says Fitzpatrick, who was Jamie’s mentor. “She was passionate about issues, articulate, and driven. And fun to be with.” Jamie Hahn’s long list of admirers felt the same way. Tori Taylor, who worked for Jamie, says her boss was “always this amazing base of support and advice. Always there to build me up.”
Among the group hard at work in the field last spring at the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle farm was Jamie’s mother, Debra Funderburk. “I can feel her presence here,” she said, looking around at the fleet of young people. “She always lived by service.”
In the last year of her life, Jamie Hahn had become committed to food justice and to trying to end hunger. “It was becoming a central issue, at the intersection of public education and poverty,” Nation Hahn says. She’d begun writing a blog called Our Healthy Ever After, addressing issues like the shortage of healthy food in poor areas. The subject is now a focus for the foundation, which has made a grant to the Food Shuttle and become involved in an effort called the Raleigh Food Corridor, which works to connect disparate parts of downtown through fresh, local food.
Jamie Hahn was also committed to helping young people forge bright futures. Shortly before her death, she’d joined the board of the Hope Center at Pullen, which serves teenage foster children. “She was very passionate about their program,” Nation Hahn says. The Hope Center was the first recipient of a grant from the foundation, which matched a gift from Chris and Teresa Kirk to help create the Jamie Kirk Hahn Career Development Program.
Until Jamie’s death, when people came out of the woodwork to tell Funderburk about the many things her daughter had done to help them, she says she didn’t realize the impact Jamie had made in her young life. “She was so humble. We had no idea of all that she had accomplished.” Funderburk often makes the trip from the home she shares with husband Marion Funderburk in Orangeburg, S.C., to help with the work of the foundation. “I’m most at peace when I’m here in Raleigh,” she says.
Here, Funderburk is surrounded by the extraordinary number and variety of people touched by Jamie Hahn’s work – and by her friendship. Everyone says Jamie Hahn loved parties. She believed in the more the merrier, her friends all say, and an open door. “The parties we threw had a wide range of people,” Nation Hahn recalls. “From someone running for Congress to some friend she’d met two weeks before and hardly knew.”
When it came time to kick off the foundation, the date was obvious to her friends: Her own birthday, Oct. 25. It would have been her 30th, and she’d been planning a dance party to commemorate her new decade for ages – something she often did for others.
Her friends also wanted the event to do some good. “Service had to be part of it,” says Alexis Trost, the foundation’s new executive director. “It couldn’t just be a party.” All told, the party, and the weekend full of events that followed, raised more than $200,000, led by a $25,000 gift from Jamie’s father and stepmother, Chris and Teresa Kirk. This October, the foundation is putting on the event again. It’s expected to be a quick sell-out.
In fact, Trost says the group has so many people who want to be involved that the challenge is to create enough opportunities for them all. “Everyone loved Jamie and wants to give back,” she says. “We want to teach people that service can be fun, and that we can create systemic change, create a conversation.”
It’s fitting, given Jamie Hahn’s youth, that much of that conversation is taking place on social media. The foundation tweets regularly as @jamiekirkhahn, and posts photos and invitations for service days and fundraisers on Facebook for its thousands of followers.
Another day, sitting at the downtown restaurant Joule where he can be found many mornings, Nation Hahn is thoughtful, remembering his wife. He met Jamie on the John Edwards campaign in 2006. She was a staffer; he was a junior at UNC Chapel Hill and a volunteer. He became her intern for a few months, and the two became good friends. “I thought she was beautiful,” he recalls. “She was strong, and an incredibly warm personality…she had an amazing laugh. I felt close to her immediately.” She also taught him some things: “She was a real mentor to me in a lot of ways,” he says. “She taught me so much about being on time, and showing up, and not to make excuses. She was whip-smart, passionate, and dedicated to her work.”
It wasn’t until after Jamie had left to work for then-candidate Kay Hagan and Edwards dropped out of the race in January 2008 that their friendship became romantic. Jamie came to a staff thank-you party thrown by Edwards. “That was the night we kissed,” Nation says. “We were engaged four and a half months later, and married 10 months later.”
It was only 13 months after her death that Nation Hahn took the microphone to welcome guests at an elegant pop-up dinner to raise money for her foundation. The sold-out crowd – gathered in summer clothes on the stage of the Red Hat Amphitheatre in sight of Thomas Sayre’s shimmer wall – had only learned of the event’s location hours earlier, via an emailed riddle. “Look at the Raleigh skyline for lights that glimmer, and keep going until you find the wall that shimmers,” it read. That whimsy, the wafting orchestral music played by kids enrolled in the KidZnotes program that teaches music to underprivileged children, and the surprising setting all made for a very “Jamie” atmosphere, her friends said.
When Nation Hahn stood to speak, the crowd fell silent. “She made me a better person every day,” he told the crowd, his voice steady. He introduced Jamie’s mom, whose sunglasses couldn’t hide her emotion. “We are all here because of love.”
Hahn read a letter from chef Ashley Christensen, who wasn’t able to attend but donated a dinner to be auctioned at the event: “The army of Jamies will make our world a better place,” she wrote. Moments later, Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane was declared the dinner’s high bidder.
“It sounds hokey in this cynical age, but love was her guiding impulse,” Fitzpatrick says. “This foundation, with Jamie as the North Star, with her vision as an organizing principle, will grow in an organized way … to build and grow the next generation of people who will grow and build this state.”
For more information on the Jamie Kirk Hahn foundation:
jamiekirkhahnfoundation.org. Twitter: @jamiekirkhahn;