Alleghany County August 2022

Population
11,494

County Seat
Sparta

Median Income
$37,830

Population Density Designation
Rural

Our drive to Alleghany County led us through many winding roads that were covered by dense, early morning fog. Wilkes Community College (WCC) president Jeff Cox greeted us. Cox’s college serves Alleghany County, and he was born and raised in Alleghany County before later serving the county as Superintendent of the K-12 schools prior to taking the helm of WCC.

At the Alleghany Center, a multipurpose building that includes space for WCC, we were greeted by a dozen community residents and leaders who introduced us to Alleghany County’s opportunities and challenges.

Bryan Edwards, President of the Alleghany County Chamber of Commerce, noted the entire “High Country” region of North Carolina we were visiting was once known as the “Lost Provinces” of North Carolina because it was so remote from Raleigh, Charlotte and other centers of commerce. Cox noted, “Because of the remoteness of our location, self-reliance became core to our DNA.”

This self-reliance created a spirit of entrepreneurship, strong family ties and a commitment to community. The overarching challenge for the county, according to Cox, is a need to create the opportunity for social mobility for more residents.

“Two out of every three kids who are born poor in Alleghany, Ashe and Wilkes Counties remain poor,” continued Cox. This sobering data point sparked a conversation around the need to move the needle on educational attainment for the entire community. 422 out of 1,000 kids who graduated from high school in 2020 in Alleghany, Ashe and Wilkes did not continue on to a post-secondary education according to data shared by WCC, and over 80% of residents with a high school diploma or less earn under $20 an hour.

Educational attainment contributes to long-term social mobility, and all of these issues are tied to the long-term health and wellness of residents according to Jennifer Greene. Greene serves as the Health Director of the Appalachian District Health Department (AppHealthCare), which hosts the Alleghany Wellness Coalition. The Wellness Coalition brings together a unified approach to behavioral, environmental and dental health. They also work on oral health care, substance use and farmworker health.

“We work to bring a community voice into all of our work,” said Greene. The goal is for folks to feel like they have agency when it comes to their health care and the broader efforts across the community. Greene pointed out that solving systemic health issues in counties is best conducted on a person-by-person basis due to the need to build trust and grow awareness in a way that feels non-judgmental to residents.

Another core element of the work of AppHealthCare is bringing trauma-informed practices into their approach. Greene noted that Alleghany County has a significant farmworker population — particularly during peak season for harvesting Christmas trees. Greene shared that while farmworkers may often face urgent health issues due to work-based injuries, one core challenge to providing care is pre-existing trauma the workers have brought to the table.

Our wide-ranging conversation with community members eventually landed on childcare as Maggie Murphy, the Instructional Coach for Alleghany County Schools, walked us through their work to provide expanded childcare and early childhood education. Murphy pointed out the county only has one childcare facility rated a five-star facility by the state, and only one year-round facility that presently has a 30-kid-strong waiting list. According to Murphy, the key to moving the needle for a county like Alleghany is to create a “ladder” for economic and educational opportunities that would allow families and communities to invest more into childcare and early childhood education.

We continued our conversation in downtown Sparta at Muddy Creek Cafe & Music Hall. The owners of Muddy Creek provided us with delicious sandwiches and salads featuring local ingredients as the conversation continued. Mechelle Luffman, an Alleghany County Commissioner, welcomed us by sharing details on the earthquakes that hit the county in August 2020. The earthquakes were the strongest recorded in the state in more than a century, and yet Luffman shared that many people outside of the county had forgotten about the impacts. One key impact was the loss of a recreational space and a community pool the residents of the county are still working to rebuild.

We also heard from Johnny Wishon, a farmer who owns and operates Wishon Evergreens. Wishon shared details on the evolution of agriculture in the region, from tobacco to a growing emphasis on evergreen Christmas trees and pumpkins.

Wishon’s farms are over 1,200 acres — mostly growing those two crops. Wishon’s employees are largely migrant workers, both seasonal and full-time workers. This has led to a need to invest in infrastructure including housing for the workers. Wishon is presently investing significant resources in a 15,000+ square foot dormitory-style housing complex for his workers who otherwise would be without quality workforce housing.

“We also have to build trust in health care among this workforce,” concluded Wishon. As part of his efforts to build trust during the COVID-19 pandemic, he took his team to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. He was the first to receive the shot, and he received the vaccine in front of the entire team.

Meet Dr. Algie Gatewood

Dr. Algie Gatewood is only the fourth President to lead Alamance Community College (ACC) since it opened in 1958. During Dr. Gatewood’s tenure at ACC, the college won its largest ever bond referendum – nearly $40 million – in 2018 to fund a number of major capital projects and expansions. The college also secured $16 million in county funding in 2014 to build the Advanced Applied Technology Center. Other notable accomplishments include creating a Biotechnology Center of Excellence, introducing an Early College, facilitating an apprenticeship program, and introducing nearly two dozen new academic programs and articulation agreements with state universities.

U39702, 10/22