Why I Feel Hope in Wilkes

Do you remember seeing Wilkes on the cover of the New York Times (“Feeling Let Down and Left Behind With Little Hope for Better”)? Do you remember how you felt? I didn’t feel hopeless. I felt angry.

Do you know that spot on 421 near Clingman, right after you enter Wilkes when you come over the top of the hill and see the Blue Ridge Mountains for the first time beyond the pastures and the vineyards? I don’t know how a person could feel hopeless surrounded by such beauty.

I don’t know how a reporter could depict life in Wilkes from a couple conversations in a vape shop in North Wilkesboro; not without stopping by a chicken-que at Memorial Park or walking through the cattle sale early on a Monday morning. Sure, some factories closed and median-income fell, but I don’t know how a person could come to Wilkes and write about despair without seeing our resilience; or forget to mention the guys at Anchor Coffee and Raffaldini; St. Paul’s Episcopal Church’s Crisis Assistance Ministry, Project Lazarus and Unified City Church’s Justice Project Food Pantry.

I’m angry at reporters who come to Wilkes to write about overdoses and abandoned factories — but I’m mad at myself, and everyone else who let that become our story and who accepted decline as our fate; who became ashamed to be from Wilkes whether they moved away or stayed. I didn’t always feel that pride. I had to rediscover why I cared.

I grew up near the Iredell County line on a chicken farm where we woke up well before the sun to pick up eggs in in the chicken houses. That farm has been in the Prevette family since the early 1800’s and there’s something special about the land, where the old homestead sits out back with a tree growing inside — but I didn’t appreciate that life as a child and teenager growing up in Wilkes.

We played horseshoes and volleyball in the yard, and I threw softball with dad, and we went to church (Mt. Pisgah Baptist) at least twice a week, but we didn’t have cable or the internet when I was in high school. As a farm family we lived paycheck to paycheck. I didn’t have the nicest clothes, didn’t fit in, and my internal clock counted down to the day I could leave Wilkes County and never look back.

I showed up wide eyed and bushy tailed at Wingate University. I was a good student at Wilkes Central High School, but quickly realized I didn’t know certain words, had never tried different foods. I felt like an ignorant hick, and like many of the students from my generation who made it out, I felt ashamed to be from Wilkes. I graduated high school only a few weeks before the Great Recession, and I forgot how great Wilkes was growing up (the shopping mall, theatres, water park, bowling alley and skating rink) only seeing the empty buildings on Main Street. — But that eventually changed.

My father died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 39 when I was just entering my sophomore year at Wingate; and that was the end of my world. Dad was my world, he was a wonderful man, the definition of a servant leader who worked on the farm all day and then came in for a glass of grape Kool-Aid before heading out to help a neighbor on theirs.

When I was growing up my father would look at me as I worked beside him on the fam and he’d remind me that’s why I had to focus on school, so I didn’t have to work as hard as he did. By the time I left the farm was large and he was the patriarch and suddenly he was gone. I was an emotional wreck at the time but looking back those weeks after his passing are why I fell back in love with Wilkes; when friends and family and church members kept showing up with food and to make sure we weren’t alone.

I dropped out of school to help on the farm and started waiting tables at an IHOP in Statesville to help support the family and after a year transferred to the University of Nevada at Reno to continue my education, but I kept missing Wilkes. Out west I got to explore the country on a grand adventure but at the end of the day I was just another stranger walking down the street, I missed the feeling of community and being a part of something. So, I came back.

I took a job at Lowe’s Home Improvement (the quintessential Wilkes story from a chicken farm to Lowe’s) and I began actively recruiting friends to relocate; and my family’s farm became an unofficial hub for millennials who loved the freedom and responsibility of living in the country where they paid rent by mowing grass or splitting firewood for the single stove. In a small town, we mattered.

I started hosting a weekly trivia night at Dooley’s to give young people something to do on a Thursday night and the first couple weeks were a struggle; but by the fourth or fifth week the crowds were standing room only.

Then I read the New York Times article.

I didn’t come back because of NASCAR or Lowe’s or the American-Drew factory where people used to work. I didn’t come back to mourn who we used to be. I came back because of who we are. The homemade desserts and hugs when dad died; the Baptist church on every street corner; the town where everyone knows your name and your business (for good and for worse) and where folks are there to pick you up the way they don’t in places where people read the Times; the quiet dignity of folks who didn’t crash the economy or get rich shipping jobs overseas; folks who have nothing to be ashamed for because of what happened.

The story of Wilkes County is a story of makers: makers of moonshine and music. — We made a sport. We made as many millionaires per capita as anywhere in the country and while we’re stubborn (sometimes to a fault) we’re creative and because of that we have a future. Wilkes hosts some of the best hiking and wineries on the East Coast, combine that with restless energy and character and resolve and invest in transportation, housing, hospitality and entrepreneurship and you’ve got an economy — an economy where we make other people’s money.

But that only happens if we feel pride — if we stop apologizing and start selling Wilkes again because we believe ourselves — that only happens with leadership and if my generation steps up.

That’s why I’m running for county commissioner. I’ve seen Wilkes come together in times of crisis and that’s when we’re at our best. I want to see us extend our sense of community beyond the church walls and fire departments and little leagues; and to use that spirit to bring Wilkes County back. I want us to invest in ourselves (because the best jobs here were always made in Wilkes) and to give young people a seat at the table; to provide incentives for college graduates to come home; and to prioritize folks who want to work and support themselves and only need an opportunity. I want you to feel the same sense of pride — about our history, our geography, our people, and our future — and I want you to feel hope again. I want that to be our story.