Andy Blethen – Ensuring a Healthy Alleghany County

Andy officeCovid 19 and the international, national, state and local responses to the coronavirus have changed our lives in many ways. For weeks many of us talked about “when things get back to normal.”  Nowadays those discussions are more about creating a new normal for our communities.  The ways we interact with others, how we shop and even how we work will be different.  In many ways our lives have been forever changed.  As we have worked through these challenges, individuals have stepped up to exhibit leadership during these trying times.  One such person is Alleghany resident Andy Blethen.

Andy’s parents are from Massachusetts.  They moved to North Carolina when Andy’s father took a position as a history professor at Western Carolina University. Coming from an educational and academic household, there was an expectation that Andy would go on to college after high school.  After high school Andy enrolled in the health promotions program at Appalachian State University (ASU).

At ASU, Andy gravitated toward environmental health after working an internship in that field with AppHealthCare. Environmental health focuses on keeping a community healthy.  This is done through regulations, enforcement of rules, and education and outreach.

As the environmental health supervisor for AppHealthCare, Andy leads a team that oversees permitting and inspections of hotels and restaurants; pools, spas and tattoo artists; child care and long-term care facilities; and water protection through the permitting and inspection of private drinking water wells and onsite septic systems.  While these tasks are regulatory in nature, Andy emphasizes that the goal of his staff is to aid in building and maintaining a strong, healthy community. Realizing that their work has a direct impact on the local economy, they engage in outreach with the community. His work group conducts orientations for realtors and training sessions for restaurant owners. Their desire is help businesses and individuals take a proactive approach to public health.

Covid 19 has brought a heightened awareness to public health and especially AppHealthCare. Andy points to their designation as a federally qualified health center as making them eligible for millions of dollars in federal funding and grants. He describes a recent $400,000 grant that was recently awarded which will be used to expand dental programs to our school aged children. (Note: AppHealthCare has had a dental program for years).  Oral care is often cited an important factor in school performance, self confidence and later employment opportunities.  Roughly 17% of AppHealthCare’s funding comes from local sources in their service area of Alleghany, Ashe and Watauga counties.  For each dollar of Alleghany County funding, AppHealthCare provides $11 in services for the county’s residents.

One of the key elements of the success of AppHealthCare is that the employees are not distant bureaucrats – the staff lives in the communities they serve. Andy and his wife Robin live in the Ennice community.  They have five children aged 19 to 28. Andy and Robin enjoy spending time with their family, hiking with their 3 year-old Labrador retriever, and floating the river.

Andy and dog

As we in Alleghany County continue to proactively develop the “new normal” coming out of the current pandemic, AppHealthCare and their dedicated staff such as Andy Blethen will play a key role.  Community health is a foundational component workforce and economic development, and long-term economic vitality.

 

Lorene Moxley Sturgill

 

                      “Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.”                                                                                                           Proverbs 31:10 (KJV)

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Lorene Moxley Sturgill

Lorene Moxley Sturgill traces her family lineage back to Scottish born, William Black who came to America around 1817.  After hearing there were Scottish people in North Carolina, Black made his way to Alleghany County.  While visiting the Allison family, he became ill and was nursed back to health by one of the daughters, Nancy.  The pair married and settled into life in Alleghany County.

In 1961, descendants of William Black gathered at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Alleghany County.  There were family members present from Scotland, South Africa, and the United States.  It was determined that the family’s history should be preserved and a committee was formed to begin that process.  Lorene Sturgill was asked to serve on that committee.  Together, they compiled the family’s history and published a book on the Black family.

Those two paragraphs go a ways toward describing Lorene Sturgill – a strong love of family, an deep appreciation of history, and a curiosity of what lies beyond the horizon.

During the Great Depression, as the economy tightened, Mrs. Sturgill’s father looked beyond Alleghany County to provide for his family.  He took the family to Pennsylvania where he found work on a dairy farm.  He worked there a year before returning to Alleghany.  After a year of struggle back home, he returned to Pennsylvania for another year.  He then returned to Alleghany for good and started a dairy in the Topia community near the South Fork of the New River.

Mrs. Sturgill describes her childhood years in a way that seems both nostalgic and difficult.  She attended Rocky Ridge School, a one room school house.  In sixth grade, Rocky Ridge consolidated with the larger Piney Creek School.  Until the roads were upgraded to allow for bus traffic, she walked three miles to catch the bus to school.  In those years prior to and during World War II, electrical service was scattered around the county.  She recalls carrying water from the spring to their home and visiting neighbors to listen to a battery powered radio.  She says that we take for granted that we can now turn a knob and have water available in our kitchens or press a button on a remote to access hundreds of television channels.  Her earliest memory of the telephone were those that were hand cranked which evolved into party lines and then to phones we can carry in our pockets.

Mrs. Sturgill graduated from Piney Creek in 1943.  Her cousin was working in Baltimore and sent word that there was work available in the city.  Mrs. Sturgill caught a bus in Sparta that took her to Wytheville, Virginia and then on to Maryland.  During those war years she worked at aircraft manufacturer, Glenn L. Martin Company as a file clerk.  “Baltimore was quite a change from Piney Creek,” she said recently with a laugh.  Due to the war effort, many staple items were rationed.  She said that her paycheck included ration stamps that allowed for the purchase of items that were not otherwise available.

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Graduating class of Piney Creek School – 1943
from History of Alleghany County, NC 1859 – 1976

After the war, aircraft production slowed and Mrs. Sturgill returned to Piney Creek.  In 1946, Sid Sturgill was discharged from the military where he had served as an aircraft mechanic in England, France and occupied Germany.  He also found his way back to Piney Creek.  Lorene and Sid rekindled their friendship and were married in 1947.  Their daughter, Ellen Sturgill, writes in the book of the Black family history that, “I have often heard my father say that my mother was the most beautiful woman in the county.”

Sid and Lorene settled into life in Piney Creek.  Sid took over the family farm that had belonged to his father and grandfather.  Lorene worked briefly in Independence and then at the Hanes plant in Sparta.  She left public work to tend to ailing family members and raise their two children.

Those years were also filled with community service as a 4-H leader and an active member of the Piney Creek Homemaker’s Club.  She is a member of the Alleghany Historical and Genealogical Society and a past member of the Alleghany County Library Board of Directors.  In addition to the Black family history, Mrs. Sturgill authored a genealogy book of the Moxley, Hopper and Toliver families.  She and Sid were active collectors of Native American artifacts and spent many hours walking the plowed fields along the New River looking for arrowheads.

And they traveled. They bought a motorhome and traveled all over the country.  They later switched to bus tours.  Over time, they visited 49 of the 50 states in the union.

Lorene Moxley Sturgill is anchored in a community occupied by family for 200 years, in a house that she moved into in the early years of her marriage.  She and her husband played a role in the defeat of Nazi Germany.  She has preserved her family’s history and experienced tremendous technological changes over the course of her life.  Her family adores her and holds her in the highest esteem.  She has a richness and depth to life that is Absolutely Alleghany.

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The books referenced are available from Imaging Specialists in Sparta.

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Zach Barricklow – The Versado Foundation

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The Boston Marathon

Zach Barricklow is a runner.  The word “runner” is a bit if an understatement.  “Distance runner” is a more accurate descriptor.  He has competed in the Grandfather Mountain Marathon, touted as one of the toughest marathons in the country.  He had a 3:04 hour time in the storied Boston Marathon in 2015.  And he is a frequent competitor in 200 mile relay races such as the Blue Ridge Relay and this year’s inaugural Get Outside Mountain Relay held here in Alleghany County.   His success on the race course is reflective of a work ethic that began in his teenage years.

As a 16 year-old, Zach began mowing lawns in his hometown of Brooklyn, Michigan.  His customers grew from 10 in 1999 to 120 in 2005.  To meet this growing demand for services, he employed many of his friends.  The business revenue grew from $5,700 the first year to almost $60,000 six years later.  The success of his business earned an award for Young Entrepreneur of Michigan and paid Zach’s way through college.

During his college years, Zach expanded his service orientation through jobs with the AmeriCorps in Southern California, a Spanish language tutoring program in Michigan, and Habitat for Humanity International in Mexico.  After graduating from Hope College in 2005, Zach became a Peace Corp volunteer.  The Peace Corp challenges their volunteers to “Make the Most of Your World” and Zach set out to do just that in the Republic of Panama.

During his five years in Panama, Zach responsibilities grew from consultant to trainer to associate director.  While his titles and roles changed, he spent those five years on community economic development projects.  Through a network of  governmental agencies and non-profit community groups, Zach and his group helped entrepreneurs develop and grow small businesses.  All his work in rural cooperative development, eco-tourism, community mobilization and volunteer training was focused on empowering local people to develop local solutions that were sustainable over time.

One of the best things that happened during those years in Panama was Zach meeting Lauren Edwards of Sparta.  They shared common values and a desire to empower local community members to take charge of their economic and social destinies.  Zach and Lauren were married on December 29, 2007.

In 2010, Zach and Lauren returned to Sparta.  They were drawn to the close-knit community, the outdoor recreation opportunities, the rich cultural heritage, the beautiful scenery at every turn, and the ability to have a vibrant, engaging social life.  The couple plunged into Alleghany County life with Zach serving on the board of Alleghany County Community Foundation and helping co-found the Blue Ridge Developmental Day, a five-star rated daycare facility.  Lauren put her Spanish language skills to work as  Alleghany County School’s Migrant Education Program Coordinator.

The entrepreneurial spirit was still alive in Zach.  He and Lauren co-founded Barricklow Holdings a commercial property management firm with properties in Boone, Wake Forest, and North Wilkesboro.  They are also co-founders of Anytime Fitness, a 24 hour fitness facility in North Wilkesboro.

Their boldest step was partnering with Zach’s siblings to found and launch Versado Training.  In seven short years, the company has developed a global footprint.  They now have 30 full-time employees who live across the country and employ 100 contractors.  Versado recently earned national recognition as an Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Private Companies.  This places them in the 99.98 percentile of small businesses in the United States.

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Zach and Lauren receive the Inc 5000 award for having one of the top 5000 fastest growing private companies in the country

A key element of Versado’s mission is to engage in local communities.  To facilitate this vision, the Barricklows setup the Versado Foundation, the nonprofit arm of their business.  Zach has begun transitioning away from the for-profit side of Versado to spend more time with the foundation.  He is using this transitional period as a sabbatical as he begins channeling his entrepreneurial energy into the social sector.

A beneficiary of this transition is Sparta.  Zach has agreed to partner with the Chamber of Commerce and the Blue Ridge Business Development Center to develop a communication and community engagement plan for the upcoming Streetscape project.  It is his hope that this plan will have applications and usefulness long after the work on Main Street is complete.

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Zach and kids

Which brings us back to the thought of the marathon. Most of us can’t just wake up one morning and run 26.2 miles.  To prepare for a run of that length requires incremental and focused action steps.  Runners must attend to minute details and be willing to make lifestyle changes. They must be aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and have the determination to finish the race well.

Sustainable economic vitality follows a similar path.  There is no simple formula for economic growth.  It takes actionable steps by a number of people working together toward a common goal.  Zach and Lauren Barricklow are committed to helping us grow our community in a way that honors our heritage and culture while meeting the needs of the future.

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Zdenko Peros – From Croatia to Alleghany County

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Zdenko and Doreen Peros

On October 12, 1973, Zdenko Peros walked away from the only life he knew.  The 17 year-old Croatian was working on a cruise ship when it docked in New York.  The crew was given a six day visa that allowed them to leave the ship and explore the city.  With only the clothes he wore, a six day visa, his passport and $40 in his pocket, Zdenko made the decision to start a new life in America.

“There was no future for me in Croatia,” he recently said from a table in his restaurant in Roaring Gap.  “Croatia was still part of communist Yugoslavia, and when I returned I was facing mandatory military enlistment.  I couldn’t bring myself to serve the communist government.”

Adriatic seaZdenko’s family has lived in the coastal village of Zaton in eastern Croatia along the Adriatic Sea for 500 years.  His great-grandfather was governor in the 1930s and was a large landowner.  After World War II, the communists took control of the region and much of his family’s property was seized then converted to state use.  This history instilled a deep distrust of communism and led to Zdenko’s decision to walk away from that ship.

Given our current state of security and policies on immigration, Zdenko’s next days are difficult to imagine.

“The next day after leaving the ship, I went to an office where a nice lady asked how she could help me.  I told her I needed papers to work.  She said, ‘You’ll need a social security card’ and issued me one.  Then I went to a restaurant and told them I needed a job.  They put me to work washing dishes.”

Washing dishes led to his promotion to salad man which led to him becoming a line cook. The chef took an interest in Zdenko and helped develop his culinary skills.  Along this time, Zdenko and Doreen were married.  While they were away on their honeymoon, he received a call from the restaurant telling him that his mentor, the lead chef, had died unexpectedly.  They asked if Zdenko and Doreen could cut their honeymoon short and return to the restaurant.  At 21, the newly married Zdenko became the head chef of a New Jersey restaurant.  He laughs as he thinks of those days.  “I had to grow up very fast.”

In 1980, after working in restaurants in New York and New Jersey with noted Italian and French chefs, Zdenko and Doreen moved south to Morehead City.  They renovated an old house and opened an Italian restaurant.  They named it Nikola’s after Zdenko’s grandfather and their oldest son.  They built up and managed the restaurant for 23 years until they grew weary of hurricanes and the always present humidity.  Doreen found a vacant restaurant for sale in Alleghany County and they drove up to take a look at the building and area.

Zdenko’s father was a game warden back in Croatia.  Zdenko grew up going out on patrol with his father. His father instilled a deep love of the outdoors, and specifically for hunting and fishing.  As they drove through Alleghany County on that first trip, they saw deer and turkeys to hunt, and streams to fish.  Zdenko told Doreen, “This is the place.”

They bought the restaurant and inn at High Meadows.  Both required much work to get the facilities ready to meet their high standards.  In 2014, to help with the hotel, the Travel Channel’s makeover show, Hotel Impossible came in to film a segment.

 

Woven throughout a conversation with Zdenko and Doreen is the topic of family.  They began their family when they were young and their sons grew up in the restaurant business.  Oldest son, Nikola, is a teacher in Iceland, and owns a restaurant and bed and breakfast.  Sons Tony and Petar are both chefs at Roaring Gap Country Club.  They all set aside Sundays and holidays to gather at the restaurant for a private family meal.  And for two months each year, Zdenko and Doreen return to Croatia where they reconnect with their extended family.

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Zdenko and Doreen’s home in Croatia

The importance of family carries over to their approach to business.  “We want to have a family atmosphere to our restaurant,” explain Doreen.  “We have nice table clothes and cloth napkins because we want our ‘family’ to feel respected and appreciated.  That can give our place a formal feel, but we welcome families with children and there is no dress code.”  She goes on to describe how regular customers sometimes go missing from their tables and are found in the kitchen with the gregarious Zdenko who is entertaining them with hunting and fishing tales, or with stories of Croatia.  She adds, “We invite everyone in our community to come have a meal and get to know us.”

When Zdenko recalls the story of him “jumping ship” in 1973, he points out that it was Columbus Day.  We celebrate that day as one of exploration and discovery.  For Zdenko Peros, that path of discovery lead from Croatia to New York City; to family and business owner; to citizenship in 1986; and ultimately to Alleghany County.  Zdenko describes settling here as finding, “a little piece of Heaven on earth.”

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More information about the High Meadows Inn and Nikola’s can be found here or by calling 336-363-2221 (Inn) or 336-363-6060 (Restaurant).

Their menu can be found on line here.

They can also be found on Facebook at High Meadows Inn and Nikolas Restaurant.

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Mitzi Biggins – Ms. Mitzi’s Bakery

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Mitzi Biggins

Mitzi Biggins has been baking her entire life.  The Alleghany native enjoys taking a variety of individual ingredients, mixing them together, subjecting the mixture to heat, and then seeing a customer enjoy the new creation. This October she decided to channel her passion for food and people into a business venture, Ms. Mitzi’s Bakery.  In hindsight it is clear that Mitzi’s life journey has set her up for success.

Mitzi grew up just outside of Sparta.  As is the case with many young people, she heeded the siren call to experience life outside her childhood home and ended up in California at age 17.  One day, a friend came up with free tickets to Disneyland.  They spent the day at the park where Mitzi met a young man from nearby Anaheim, Dan Biggins.  After a year in California, Mitzi decided it was time to head home to Sparta.  Dan came with her and they have been married for the last 34 years.

In 2000, Mitzi, began a culinary course through Wilkes Community College.  It seemed a natural fit given her love of cooking. When her father became terminally ill, she had to drop out of the program to help with her dad.  She then spent some time working with the Allegany County Chamber of Commerce.  And many Alleghany residents may remember Mitzi from her ten years as the owner and operator of All Things Catering.  These experiences, along with helping Dan with his business, Roupe Brothers Electric, Heating and Plumbing, have given Mitzi and unique skill set to launch a business.  But, starting a new business always comes with challenges.

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Rosemary Walnut Cake

First is the challenge of starting a retail business in a small community.  With a population of roughly 11,000 people, Alleghany County presents a retail business with a small customer base.  Second, her business is currently home-based. While working from home can create trials, Mitzi is quick to point out that Martha Stewart got her start working out of her basement.  Finally, Mitzi realizes that her product line contains items that may be new to some residents.  One of her favorite items is Baklava.  Since some people aren’t familiar with the Mediterranean dish, it is one of Mitzi’s staples when sharing samples with various organizations.

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Baklava

Even though she is faced with myriad challenges, Mitzi has well defined business goals.  She envisions growing into a Main Street business with repeat customers who feel satisfied and valued.  She plans to launch a gluten-free product line.  The Small Business Center of Wilkes Community College is helping guide her through the business end of her enterprise through classes, and individual, one on one business counseling.  And she has her eyes set on developing a customer base that extends beyond Alleghany County.  Luna Marketing, an Alleghany based marketing business, will help Mitzi develop her marketing strategy.

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Apple Walnut with caramel glaze

A recent exciting development for Mitzi is an invitation to setup a display in Williams and Sonoma.  This national chain based in California, sells kitchenware and home furnishings.  Mitzi will be at the Winston Salem location on December 17 from noon until 3:00 pm in the Hanes Mall.

Baking is a fitting metaphor for how small communities like Alleghany County creates economic vitality.  The mixing of familiar, perhaps even common, individual ingredients to create something new doesn’t just apply to baking cakes – it describes what it takes to grow our local economy.  Both require experimentation and innovation to reach a broader audience.

Mitzi Biggins is doing more than baking delicious cakes and pastries.  She is modeling how to take smart risks and test new ideas.  It is a trait that is Absolutely Alleghany.

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For current pricing or to place orders, call Mitzi at 336-830-3735.

Visit her Facebook page at Ms. Mitzi’s Bakery

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