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Individuals, Businesses, Nonprofits Honored at Avery Chamber’s 2017 Awards Presentation

Standing with Avery Chamber Director Melynda Pepple, Jim Swinkola was named Volunteer of the Year at the chamber’s annual awards celebration on Thursday night.

By Jesse Wood

The Avery County Chamber of Commerce held its annual celebration and awards presentation on Thursday night at the Hugh Chapman Center in Linville.

Prior to the awards presentation, Jeff Davis, a board member of the Avery County Chamber, and Melynda Pepple, director of the Avery County Chamber, gave remarks.

Davis introduced the 2016 and 2017 classes of Leadership Avery, a 10-month program in its second year that works to connect local leaders and bring about positive change in Avery County.

Pepple highlighted the Woolly Worm Festival, which brings in more than 20,000 people to Banner Elk in October, and the relatively new Appalachian High Country AVA, which legitimizes the High Country as a wine grape-growing destination.

She spoke about the importance of tourism in Avery County and mentioned how it important it is to support visitors and embrace Avery County has a destination.

“Every day, we see more and more visitors coming to our cool climate, enjoying our beauty that God has blessed us with,” Pepple said, adding that Avery County has seen a $10 million increase in visitor spending over the past four years.

“$10 million. That’s huge,” Pepple said. “For us and our pocket back, that saves each household about $760 [in taxes per year].”

DeLee Scott, director of membership and marketing for Williams YMCA of Avery County, emceed the awards presentations as Pepple handed out the awards to winning individuals or organization’s representatives.

2017 Avery County Chamber Awards Winners

  • Jim Swinkola-Volunteer of the Year
  • Banner Elk Chamber- Nonprofit of the Year
  • River Willis-Student of the Year
  • Waightstill Avery-Business Person of the Year
  • Sugar Mountain Nursery- Business of the Year

Below are photos of award presentations along with nominations for those winning individuals or organizations.

Jim Swinkola-Volunteer of the Year


Jim Swinkola named Volunteer of the Year. Here Jim is hugging Avery Chamber Director Melynda Pepple.

Jim is dedicated in assisting to the growth of the community especially where it involves mentoring new leaders, organizing and implementing meetings where businesses will gain information from each other and absorb from each other.

Jim is a hands on kind of guy, works behind the scene, an encourager and his particular focus is to develop leadership skills- he pulls out the best in people. He has a gift of finding a specific need in the community and he will do what it takes to either help in the situation himself or help the individual or agency make it happen.

A retired CEO of Grandfather Home for Children and over a 33-year member of the club, Jim Swinkola has long been making a difference through the Kiwanis organization and the community.

He serves as the advisor for Avery High School’s award-winning Key Club, where he actively works to encourage service and leadership in today’s youth.

“It is my hope that a goodly number of the Key Club members will translate their leadership skills into strengthening nonprofit organizations whose mission it is to serve children,” he said. “The more skilled the agency’s staff leaders, the better the service delivery.”

In the past Swinkola was honored with the Kiwanis International Centennial Award.

“Few things in life make me feel better than being an active Kiwanian. The Centennial Award is nice, but the impact Kiwanis and Key Club makes on the children of Avery County is tremendous,” he said. “That’s where the action is, working to better the lives of children, which is what Kiwanis does.”

It is our privilege to honor Jim Swinkola tonight with the Avery Chamber 2017 Volunteer of the Year Award.

 Banner Elk Chamber- Nonprofit of the Year

Banner Elk Chamber Nonprofit of the Year. Pepple with Jo Ann Murray, Banner Elk Chamber

Banner Elk is a great place to make your vacation a destination and the Banner Elk Chamber of Commerce is ready to assist. The Chamber works strictly with fully trained professional volunteers and is able to accommodate all visitor needs. They pride themselves on providing fun for outdoor adventure with friends, a romantic getaway or an unforgettable family vacation.

Not only do they work with visitors, implement a business member base, organize monthly after hour events, the Banner Elk Chamber is involved in caring for the community and offering adventure and fun for everyone.

On many events they partner collectively with the Town of Banner Elk and implement Easter in the Park, Summer Concerts in the Park, Trunk or Treat, Art on the Greene Festivals and A Small Town Christmas.

The Avery County Chamber of Commerce is thrilled to announce the Banner Elk Chamber of Commerce as the 2017 Nonprofit Award.


– Organize and advertise a tremendous 4th of July parade.

– Delivers a great Saturday Christmas in BE with crafts, Cookie decorating, Christmas lights parade and lighting of a huge tree in the center of Town Commons.

– Easter egg hunt

– Free summer Concerts in the Park with food and drink vendors.

– Organize, promote and assist Banner Elk businesses.  Organize Monthly business Afterhours

– Help with fundraising to pay the mortgage of the Historic Banner Elk School.

– Maintain a great website.

River Willis-Student of the Year

River Willis, named Student of the Year. Here with Avery Chamber Director Melynda Pepple

Note: This award is sponsored by Isley Construction

Born (prematurely) on August 31, 2000, River had enlarged kidneys that were spotted in his mom’s first sonogram. When he arrived, a helicopter from Wake Forest Baptist Children’s Hospital was on standby, but everything was working just fine. From that point on, River was allowed to grow as much as possible until the doctors at Baptist thought he was strongest, and then performed a six hour surgery at the age of 21 months to fix his kidneys and reduce their size to fit inside him better. At that time, we were told River would lose a kidney during his childhood, but he has never had a major kidney infection.

River has always struggled with his grip and finger strength, and has had Occupational and Physical Therapy for this and joint contractures since Pre-K. At ten years of age, he was diagnosed with Beals-Hecht Syndrome, a form of Marfon or gigantism. This diagnosis is also called arachtadactyly, meaning spider digits. With all this, River has overcome a lot, and never really complained, except when they need his blood for genetics work!

Even though he was never able to participate in school sports as a player, he has always been involved. As the men’s basketball statistician at Avery Middle and Avery High School, River has been a part of three undefeated conference seasons and numerous conference championships. River truly has the heart of a champion.

River has spent many days volunteering for the Avery County Parks and Recreation Department. He has officiated 100’s of youth basketball contests, worked many special events, worked with the senior population in pickleball and at state games, and has coached numerous youth basketball teams during summer camp. He has also volunteered for the town of Newland Fourth of July celebration and as a Habitat for Humanity Restore worker.

River has grown to love the games of baseball and basketball from seeing them in person since a newborn. He initially learned to count backwards, reading the scoreboard clocks at basketball games when only two. He began reading the sports sections of major newspapers around the age of four, and has since become very knowledgeable in most all sports happenings worldwide. He has attended NFL, NBA, MLB, and college basketball and baseball games, as well as many NASCAR races. With this love of sports, River is interested in becoming a basketball coach, sportscaster, sports information director at a college, or sports agent. He also enjoys Anthropology, and studying the earth’s land and people’s origins. River is a Life Scout, and recently completed his Eagle Scout project, planting two Monarch Waystations at local park locations. He has been very involved in Scouting since age eight.

River has a concern for children, friends and classmates only God could instill in a young man, and he has never had an interest in being hurtful to anyone or anything, always caring for animals and plants, family and friends. 

Waightstill Avery-Business Person of the Year


Waightstill Avery -Business Person of the Year
  • Birth Avery County 
  • Living heir of Colonel Waightstill Avery, first attorney general of Avery County and reason why Avery County was named in 1911.
  • May 2017 inducted into the Western NC Hall of Fame
  • Extension Director and Agricultural Extension Agent,
  • 4-H Agent & 4 H Member
  • Past President & Charter Member Avery County
  • Christmas Tree & Nurseryman’s Association
  • Past President NC Christmas Tree Association
  • Board Member National Christmas Tree Association
  • President of Avery County Farmers Market
  • NC State Alumni and Member of AG Professionals
  • Researcher of Fraser Firs
  • Herb, Fraser Fir, Vegetable and Berry Grower

Avery Farms is located in the heart of the rugged Blue Ridge Mountains in Plumtree, North Carolina. The family has owned and farmed the same land for over 200 years. Waightstill Avery provides his customers with the freshest and best selection of trees, wreaths and garland harvested from our farm. The Fraser Fir is native to our Blue Ridge Mountains, so we have the advantage of perfect climate and soil conditions to grow a premium Christmas tree.

Avery Farms specializes in ciders, jams, jellies and vinaigrettes that are made from the farm. Christmas trees, wreaths and greenery are also a specialty.

Waightstill has been a prominent figure in our community and is duly deserving of this award as Business Person of the Year! 

Sugar Mountain Nursery- Business of the Year

Molly and Wayne Holden of Sugar Mountain Nursery, Business of the Year

Molly and Wayne Holden have been in Business in Avery County since 1977 first starting with a greenhouse and landscape company on Sugar Mountain Road #1, hence the name Sugar Mountain Nursery and Landscape.  A year later they moved to the old Lecka building In Newland and added Sugar Mountain Wreath and Garland.

In 1980, they purchased “The Paul Vance Home Place” and opened in Partnership with Case Piano Company and Newland Florist.  They later added a farm in Burke County where Wayne grew ornamental and flowering shrubbery and trees for his business.

Over the years they have employed numbers of Avery County locals and supported Local Schools and County organizations.  Wayne served on the Board of North Carolina Landscape Contractors for several terms and Molly served as the district representative for Congressman Cass Ballenger.  Over the years as their business evolved the company specialized in locating and installing large Christmas Trees. 

Some locations that local trees were provided by Sugar Mountain Nursery are The City of Tampa Bay, South Port Mall in Durham, The White House, South Park Mall, Charlotte NC  and The Carolina Panthers to mention a few.  Recently, Molly received the Women in Agriculture award.

Molly and Wayne’s family members have continued in Agriculture.  Gretchen Balckburn teaches Agriculture at Avery County High School and Son-in-law Allen Storie is Greens Manager at Hound Ears Golf Club. 

Sugar Mountain Nursery has been dedicated for over 40 years to proudly serve the region, their family and to focus on the vision to stay committed to the shrubbery industry in Avery County. We honor them tonight with the Business of the Year Award!

Photos from Thursday’s Event

The Avery Chamber Annual Celebration and Awards Presentation was held at the Hugh Chapman Center in Linville on Thursday evening.
Leadership Avery of 2016
Leadership Avery of 2017
Jim Swinkola named Volunteer of the Year. Here Jim is hugging Avery Chamber Director Melynda Pepple.
River Willis, named Student of the Year. Here with Avery Chamber Director Melynda Pepple
Waightstill Avery -Business Person of the Year
Banner Elk Chamber Nonprofit of the Year, Banner Elk Chamber Director Jo-Ann McMurray pictured with Pepple
Molly and Wayne Holden of Sugar Mountain Nursery, Business of the Year