Sharing the Journey
Willa Mays, a native of Collettsville who bursts with pride for
her North Carolina heritage that includes a good old Appalachian Mountains first name, is going to
turn 61 this year, and just in time.
‘I just got the job of my dreams, and it’s the last one I’m going to have,” she said. “I get to tell my grandchildren I did all I could to help the Blue Ridge Parkway -- not just to survive, but to thrive.
“We’ve got to insure we keep its character and legacy for future generations. It’s not just a road, you know.”
Well, if you didn’t know, you’re about to learn, as Mays takes over a newly created position of chief development officer with the aggressive Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.
A tireless advocate for a clean, safe and protected environment, most recently with Appalachian Voices, Mays has rewired her considerable energies into shepherding a revitalization of a 469-mile parkway that spends most of its time winding through North Carolina and then up into Virginia.
“The parkway is my passion,” Mays said of the Blue Ridge expanse that is traveled each year by 16 million people, more than the combined visitors to Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. “When the foundation asked me to take this role, I jumped. They need me, and I’m a junkie for when someone needs me. It’s a chronic problem with non-profits. They’re run by young people, because the salaries are so low. But I had the senior leadership experience and the desire to meet the foundation’s needs.”
The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation is a nonprofit organization founded in 1997 through a cooperative agreement with the National Park Service (NPS) to provide private financial support for the Blue Ridge Parkway. So far, it has raised $3.4 million.
Possibly of more importance is the fact the foundation is a hands-on partner, working closely with the NPS to identify and prioritize needed projects and programs along the parkway, and actually taking over popular programs like Kids in Parks and Blue Ridge Music Center in Galax.
Therefore, in hoping to lessen the load on its top officer, Carolyn Ward, as its mission is suddenly expanding, the foundation needed someone with senior management skills and advocacy experience. That describes Mays, who after college at UNC Greensboro and later master’s programs at Pfeiffer College, worked to help the environment at places like Yellowstone, and even included an earlier stop at the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation itself, which is headquartered in Winston-Salem.
The single mother of two children and grandchildren left the foundation in 2007 to sharpen her bona fides at Appalachian Voices, at once roaring against the scaling of coal across 500 mountaintops covering 1.4 million acres, while drilling down to the real-life consequences of climate change, such as whether North Carolina’s animals are running out of places to live.
Then last fall came the offer to return to the foundation and tackle the last job she said she’ll ever have.
Among other things, she’ll marshal support for these three top initiatives that address the potential deterioration of some Parkway institutions and legacies that were part of the build-out during the Depression in the 1930s:
-- Restoring the Watermill, circa 1910, at Mabry Mill;
-- Restocking and restoring the Trout Ponds at Moses Cone Memorial Park, at the foot of Grandfather Mountain;
-- Restoring the stone water fountains, restrooms and trails along the parkway.
“Imagine if those three projects were left to the federal government,” Mays said. “They don’t have the time or the money. It’s from the communities along the parkway where we’ll go for help to make those initiatives reality. The people in those communities have a major stake in the legacy of the parkway.”
Late on a recent Saturday afternoon, she admitted it was time to put work aside and recharge her batteries.
“I’m about to head out and go hiking,” Mays said. “On one of the parkway trails.”