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Executive Director Melissa Soto Reflects on the History of WAMY Community Action

By Tzar Wilkerson

W.A.M.Y. Community Action (named for Watauga, Avery, Mitchell, and Yancey counties) has its main office in a modest office building in Boone. In the lobby, a mural of a tree displays photos from the organization’s 56-year history. A quick inspection of these photos reveals that the bulk of WAMY’s work takes place not in offices, but in homes, businesses, and communities. In talking to Melissa Soto, WAMY’s Executive Director, I learned that, as an organization, WAMY is focused on connecting people with various needs to agencies, volunteers, and resources that can help them fulfill those needs.

The historic WAMY van making its rounds


WAMY Over The Years

“I started working at WAMY 28 years ago, back in 1992. I started as a case manager in a workforce development program, then moved up to a program director position in 1998. I’ve been Executive Director for 7 or 8 years now.” said Soto.

Having seen the photos in the lobby, I was interested in the perspective of someone who had been with WAMY for so long. How had one of the High Country’s most impactful non-profits grown from a single van serving to the broad network of communities and resources it is today?

“WAMY’s changed a lot over the years. Before I came, it was much bigger. When we first started in 1964, we were probably the first non-profit in the county. We started a lot of smaller agencies which now are state agencies – like the senior center, Appalcart, Head Start, things like that. Things have branched off and become their own organizations. We’ve been much bigger, and we’ve been smaller. We’ve done job training programs, neighborhood youth corps, a small business loan program – our programs have changed a lot, and they will continue to change as the needs change. I think that makes us stay relevant, and I love that. It’s one of the reason I’ve stayed so long!”

It was surprising to hear that so many locally renowned agencies got their start with WAMY. As Soto explained, however, not all of WAMY’s programs have been so successful. For instance, the small business loan program she mentioned – which involved WAMY taking out a loan and loaning that money out to high-risk borrowers – proved unsustainable. Although, as she also pointed out, this program did get some small businesses off the ground while it lasted.

The director went on to explain that it was not so much the needs themselves that had changed over the years as it was the priorities that had shifted.

“As far as the needs in the community, they really haven’t changed a whole lot. We do a community needs assessment every 3 years to check what the needs are, and since I’ve been here, it’s always been childcare, transportation, housing. They may change in priority, but it’s kind of always been that. I think the programs we have now are very effective, and I anticipate we’ll remain in these programs for awhile.”

These photographs demonstrate the growth of WAMY over the years


WAMY’s Current Programs

One aspect of WAMY’s work that I was particularly impressed by was the sense of scope that guided their programs.

“Our housing program is really growing right now – and it needs to. We know there’s a big problem with availability and affordability of housing, but that’s a problem that’s much bigger than WAMY can address by itself. That’s gonna be economic development, county-wide – it’s huge. So we’ve decided to focus on what we can address, and that’s the quality of housing. There’s houses here that just need some work to make them more livable. So we’ve been trying to write grants and raise money to form a coalition to get all these people together who work on housing around the same table so we can make our resources go further, be more efficient.”

This coalition that Soto described represents WAMY’s latest aspirations towards making a more convenient, efficient network. Recently, WAMY got one step closer to this goal when they were awarded the AMY Wellness Grant, which funds programs that target housing, food insecurity, education, poverty and economic stability, access to health care, interpersonal violence, toxic stress, and social cohesion.

“We were so excited when we got the AMY Wellness Grant, and hopefully we’ll continue to get it. The vision of that is that, if Ms. Jones needs work on her house, somebody will go out – a case manager and a housing person – and while the case manager is talking to the family to see if they need transportation, food, all the other needs, the housing person is looking at the house to see if they need a roof, a ramp, a stove, etc. All that is brought back to the table and all these agencies are there and WAMY will say ‘Oh, we can fix the roof and do insulation’ and Vocational Rehab will say ‘Oh, we can build a ramp,’ and Baptist Church will say, ‘Oh, well we can buy a stove’. So all these agencies are working together on that one family. We could make such a big impact. So that’s the dream! We’re just now getting started pulling people to the table in Avery, Mitchell, and Yancey.

WAMY mission statement, their slogan, their hashtag, their mantra: “Breaking the cycle of poverty”. I was curious what it entailed, and how their programs were targeting the many facets of that goal. Soto elaborated on the concise mission statement:

“Our goal is to get people above self-sufficiency. And that can be a whole lot more than just money. Self-sufficiency can be education, it can be – just the ability to take care of yourself. A lot of people think we’re just trying to help people get above the poverty line, but a lot of people are below poverty and are very self-sufficient.

With our housing program, we’re trying to help people save the money they have by making their energy costs lower. We also have a program called Family Development, which to me is the epitome of what our mission is. A lot of families have people going back to school to increase their education so they can have more earning potential. We have clients who come in below the $16,000 per-year poverty level. They stay in that program for 2 to 4 years, and when they leave they’re above self-sufficiency, which is much bigger than poverty. In Watauga County, self-sufficiency is defined as 20-some dollars an hour. We had someone come in at $12,000 and when she left she was making over $50,000 a year. That really helps to break the cycle of poverty because it changed her life, and her kids’ lives for years to come. Plus, while they’re in that program, we’re talking about goals and how to plan ahead and manage that money. It’s a pretty intense program.”

The focus on education across WAMY’s programs seemed to be an important part of breaking these cycles of poverty. As an organization and as a model for the community, planning ahead and considering the long-term are integral to WAMY’s ethos, and Soto described how that extended to their youth programs as well: “With our youth programs, we’re working with the kids teaching them about money and budgeting and helping them with school and their grades. We’re also allowing the parents to work without worrying about where their kids are during the summer and after school.”

It struck me that, in its long history, WAMY has grown steadily more efficient and effective in building programs that solve problems in our communities. Through trial and error, WAMY is an organization that sets a standard for serving the community that non-profits would do well to emulate. Having heard the director talk so enthusiastically about the direction WAMY was headed and the success of its programs, I was eager to learn more about how to get involved. I was directed to WAMY’s website https://www.wamycommunityaction.org/, which provides more information about programs, volunteer opportunities, and fundraising opportunities, such as the Mountain Adventures Summer Day Camp, which provides scholarships for kids who can’t afford to attend the camp.

“I’d direct people to our website so they can learn about everything we do and choose where they’d like their money to go, or they can just donate directly. If they’d like to come in and talk to us and learn more about what we do, we’d love that! I can talk about WAMY all day!”