Looking at Appalachia – One Year Later

It has been one year since Roger May brought the Looking at Appalachia photography project to Alleghany County.  The 75 photos were exhibited in the Blue Ridge Business Development Center for one month and were viewed by people from 12 states and two foreign countries.  The timing of the exhibit coincided with an ongoing effort to engage in economic and community development in Alleghany.  It was hoped that the exhibit would generate conversation about how we, and others, view our county and region.

Since last October, the photos have been shown in at Radford University (Radford, Virginia), the University of North Carolina – Asheville, Adrian College (Adrian, Michigan), Robert Morris University (Moon Township, Pennsylvania), West Virginia University and will be shown at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, NC this November.  After that showing, the current exhibit will be retired.


Roger May – photo courtesy of Meg Wilson

Roger has also been busy.  He has led an online class with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and taught a class on Multimedia Storytelling at the Appalachian Writers Workshop.  He has also started a new photography project, Laid Bare, which examines the effects of mountain top removal for coal extraction in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

In a recent interview, Roger reflected on the past year and shared insights he has gathered along the way.

When he looks back at the show in Sparta, Roger describes it as exactly what he envisioned when he and others began talking about taking the photos on the road.  “The reception was one of the best attended, and was supported by a cross-section of the community,” he said.  “I’m glad that Alleghany took a chance on us.  At that point, we weren’t completely sure what the trajectory of the project would be.”

Roger said that one of the most surprising aspects of the project is how interest continues to grow in Appalachia.  He said that the region is incredibly diverse and defies broad generalizations.  “When you consider the breadth of culture, economy and even dialect, there are vast differences across Appalachia.  We tend to forget that cities such as Asheville, NC and Chattanooga, TN are in the heart of Appalachia.” He points out that those urban areas are much different that the stereotypical hills and hollows, and th extractive economies tied to coal and timber that we often associate with Appalachia.  And even in the more rural areas, an interstate highway or major manufacturing facility can completely change the socio-economic conditions of a county.

What’s next For Looking at Appalachia? May hopes that the project will continue to evolve and take on new shape and form.  He hopes to expand the website to include audio and video stories.  He has ambitions to start a podcast as a way to amplify voices of those in the region, especially those who seek to document the people and places of Appalachia.

Perhaps his most thought-provoking statement about the future of the project also strikes at the core of any regional social or economic strategy:  “We (Looking at Appalachia) have to be open to change.  We have to be conscious of not only how we view ourselves, but how others see our region.  Once we limit our perspective, we lose the reason for the project.”



Photos from 2015 can be viewed at http://www.lookingatappalachia.org.  Photos for 2016 can be submitted at the same site.




Andy Kakas


Andy and Vicky Kakas

From his home office in Ennice, Andy Kakas has an unobstructed view of Alleghany County landmarks Bullhead and Saddle Mountains. His home is surrounded by a community of hayfields, rows of corn, and rolling patches of bright orange pumpkins.  The setting is a stark contrast to his past life in south Florida.

Andy grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He began studying drums at age seven and by his high school years he played in progressive rock bands. Progressive rock contains classical musical elements with lengthy instrumental breaks.  Andy and his band were influenced by the artistry and originality of bands like Yes and Genesis.

Hoping to land on the technical side of the music business, Andy attended college at the University of Miami.  A requirement of the music program was that the students continue to play in bands.  It was through this Music Engineering program that he was immersed in the studio recording world.  Andy graduated in 1981 with a degree in music engineering and a minor in electronics.

His first stop after college was a stint in a recording studio.  There he had the opportunity to work with national acts, but he describes his role as pretty limited.  He got bored.  He joined a band and for the next two years they performed up and down the length of Florida.

After two years on the road, Andy settled into a job with Off the Wall Sound.  The company provided light and sound for concerts, festivals and occasional private parties in south Florida. While at Off the Wall, Andy worked with a diverse number of performers such as Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alabama and Julio Iglesias. Andy spent much of his time at behind a mixing board, ensuring that the delivery of the music and/or vocals were of a quality expected by the artist and the crowd.


The Miami Sound Machine

Then an opportunity arose to work with an increasingly popular band, The Miami Sound Machine.  When Andy joined the band as an audio mixer in 1984, they were beginning to transition from a pure Latin band that was wildly celebrated in Central and South America, to one with an eye on a broader audience.  As their fan base grew, Andy traveled around the world with the band.  As the travel became more complex, so did Andy’s role.  He became the tour manager and was responsible for logistical planning for future shows.

The tour schedule was grueling.  Andy recalls one stretch when they were on the road for two months without a break in the schedule.  He says that was common to lose track of which town they were in.  He left the band just as they were reaching their commercial peak.  A platinum record on his wall reminds Andy of those hectic and exhilarating days.


Commemorating the sale of 1,000,000 albums

He went back to Off the Wall in 1988.  He continued with work with audio, but utilized the skills he honed on the road.  He added tour manger to his role and begin developing proposals for clients.

In 1995, Andy joined the Multi Image Group. Based in Boca Raton, Florida, the family owned business is an audio visual products company that designs sets, and provides sound and lighting for business events around the world.  The clients include Deutsche Bank, Sikorsky Aircraft, Nissan, and Proctor and Gamble.  Andy is responsible for client relations, developing proposals, and onsite logistics.  He does much of the planning and prep work at his home then travels to the site to assist with the event.

In 1989 Andy was introduced to his future wife Vicky.  They married in 1992.  Their son, Nathan was born in 1998.  Around 2000 a friend bought a home in Sparta.  Andy and Vicky were considering buying land in the mountains and the friend suggested the Kakas’ check out Alleghany County.  They traveled to Sparta and met with local realtor, Mary Crouse.  They fell in love with the area and bought seven acres in Ennice.

For the next several years, Andy, Vicky and Nathan visited Alleghany County.  They often camped at Stone Mountain State Park and hung out at their place in Ennice.  They enjoyed getting to know their neighbors and were overwhelmed with how nice the people were to them.  The pace of life in Alleghany County  was a good fit for them. With each trip, the pull to move here full-time became stronger.

In 2014, Andy floated the idea to his boss of moving to North Carolina and working remotely with the company.  The boss said they could work it out though it may require move travel.  During Nathan’s spring break that year they came to Alleghany County.  Nathan spent two days visiting Alleghany High School.  The staff showed him around and let him experience the school.  When Andy and Vicky asked how he liked it, Nathan enthusiastically said that he loved it.


They found a house for sale near their property.  The owners were looking to downsize and offered the house complete with furnishings.  The Kakas’ house in Florida was on the market for five days when they received a cash offer.  Vicky also works remotely, helping patients in Florida navigate from doctor through insurance carriers to medical specialists.  Andy says that the ease in which all the pieces came together tells him one thing that’s certain -Alleghany County is where God wants their family to call home.



Cody Hamm – Alleghany Office Supply

As we move through life, our experience of dealing with adversity and trials tend to add to our faith that things will ultimately turn out well.  We learn over time that the worry that led to sleepless nights as a teenager barely generate a raised eyebrow later in life.  But leaving a steady job to start a business can cause considerable angst regardless of age.  Cody Hamm recently made that step with confidence and isn’t looking back.

Cody is an Alleghany County native who grew up in the Whitehead/Pine Swamp community.  He graduated from Alleghany High in 2011 and moved on to the Alleghany Center of Wilkes Community College (WCC).  He completed an associate’s degree in business administration at the Alleghany Center and he says with a certain sense of local pride that he, “Never set foot on the main campus of WCC.”


Cody Hamm

His work path wound from Lowes Food in Sparta to work as an accountant at Truline Truss and then at Pioneer Eclipse.  While at Pioneer, local businessman DW Miles suggested that Cody consider opening an office supply business.  Cody took the advice to heart and opened Alleghany Office Supply in Trojan Village.

The location of his business is perfect for Cody.  It is a spot with established shopping traffic. His wife, Mackenzie, works with Blue Ridge Cardiology and can walk down to assist in the store on her lunch break or after her work day ends.  Cody’s mom also helps out and covered the store while he was still at Pioneer Eclipse.  But there came a moment when Cody had to decide if he was serious about owning a business or just flirting with the idea.  On June 13, 2016 Cody took what he acknowledges as a scary step – he left the security of working for someone else for the unknowns of entrepreneurship.

At first glance, it would appear that Cody has stepped into an unwinnable situation.  Office supplies are readily available online from a multitude of sources.  Box stores carry shelves of supplies.  A Virginia based company has customers in this area.  When asked how he plans to succeed in an extremely competitive market, Cody says that his plan is to build trust with local businesses and organizations that he can deliver quality office supplies to their door at a price that is comparable to that found online.  His hope is to capitalize on the desire to support local business and help grow the county’s economy.

His advice on starting a business? Don’t be afraid of that first step. He points out that many people have good ideas, but fear keeps them from putting those ideas to work.  He is convinced that if this venture doesn’t work out, he will take the lessons learned and move on to the next challenge.

So the question that begs an answer is, “How does a 23 year-old who has lived his entire life n Alleghany County make this kind of life altering decision?

For Cody the answer is simple – he relies on his spiritual faith.  He says with no hint of doubt that, “God won’t let me down.”  This is not to say that he feels God is guaranteeing his financial and business success.  No, Cody understands that all of his life experiences are preparing him for a higher calling.


Cody and Mackenzie Hamm

Cody is currently the youth pastor at the Full Gospel Church of Sparta.  His grandfather is the pastor there and his other grandfather is a Baptist minister.  Cody’s long-term goal is to go into the ministry full-time.  He views the office supply business as simply a vehicle to help make that goal a reality.  Cody Hamm is a young man with plans for both immediate and eternal impact.

As he speaks and sings in area churches, Cody will continue to build his business.  He is developing a website where he can sell products via the Internet.  His current sales are roughly 25% in-house retail (store sales) and 75% customer accounts.  He is making the rounds throughout the county, calling on potential customers pitching service and quality products to local businesses.

A common refrain in rural counties is that there are limited job opportunities for our youth.  However, a look around Alleghany will expose numerous young men and women like Cody Hamm who are carving out a niche and creating opportunities for themselves.  A question we have to consider is whether we will support their efforts.


Cody Hamm can be reached at 336-572-2592 or at chamm@alleghanyofficesupply.com

Alleghany Office Supply is located at 665 South Main Street #15, Sparta, NC 28675

AOS map

Jay Coman – Local Foods Coordinator

Alleghany County’s local food movement has an unusual connection to a building supply business founded in Durham, NC.  The Coman brothers opened Coman Lumber in the years following World War II.  When the business was sold in the 1970s, one brother, James, bought a farm in Piney Creek and permanently located to Alleghany.

Many remember James as a sheep farmer, but some of his most important work was through the Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust (currently The Blue Ridge Conservancy).  Through the land trust and conservancy over 18,000 acres of northwestern North Carolina have been protected through conservation easements or set aside for public use.

james and jay

James and Jay Coman

Jay Coman spent his high school summers on his Uncle James’ farm.  Jay was a state champion high school wrestler in Durham and his father felt that a summer of farm work gave Jay a better overall workout than time in the weight room.  Through his Uncle James, Jay was exposed to a unique combination of business acumen, love and respect for the mountains and mountain life, and shown the value of hard work.  During those summers in Piney Creek, Jay also grew to love Alleghany County.

IMG_4206Jay was awarded an athletic scholarship to wrestle at North Carolina State University.  In 2007 he was part of a team that won the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship.  He struggled with injuries during his final year at NCSU and became interested in coaching.  Jay says that for the first time he fully understood the role his coaches had played in his development over the years with their devotion of time and experience.  Jay determined that it was time for him to repay that debt by coaching others.

After graduation from NCSU, he taught history and coached wrestling in Durham.  In 2009, his Uncle James succumbed to cancer, and Jay took over the farm in Piney Creek.  He traveled back and forth for three years before fully transitioning from city to farm life in 2012.  He loved the local dedication to wrestling and he began the New River Wrestling Club which practices at the Briddle Creek School in Independence, Virginia.  He also began coaching Grayson County High School Wrestling team.  And during all that, he went to graduate school at Virginia Tech.


In what little free time Jay could claim, he began to work the farm.  His operation has grown to 45 sheep, 20 cows and toggles between five to ten pigs.  Although he spent many summers on the farm with James, Jay quickly realized how little he knew about farm life.  He credits his neighbors as being patient with him as he learned to build and repair fences that actually kept his growing herd and flocks where they belonged.  He said the winters have been tough but that each year seems to get a little easier.

This spring Jay took on yet another job – local foods coordinator for Alleghany County.  Working through a grant with the Cooperative Extension Service, he promotes and delivers locally produced farm products to a variety of locations.  Everything from steaks to honey to produce is available the Alleghany Meat Center or Becca’s Backwoods Bean in Sparta.  Jay also services farmers’ markets in Sparta, Roaring Gap, and Independence, Virginia.  Many local restaurants serve Alleghany grown products delivered by Jay.

farmers market

Alleghany Farmers Market

Jay sees great retail growth potential for Alleghany products in the Raleigh/Durham area.  He currently delivers products directly to home customers in Durham.  He says that there is a growing demand in Triangle restaurants for ethically grown meat that is pastured raised with no growth hormones.  Chefs recognize that these products have superior taste that customers appreciate.

Perhaps one of the strongest selling point for locally grown products is the story behind where their food is produced.  There is an increased aversion by some to animals that are raised in large commercial operations.  Customers prefer to know the name of the farm where the products are produced and the farmers who produces it.  They seek a personal connection to their food.  Jay views “Produced on a family farm in the mountains of western North Carolina” as a great way to begin those stories.

In yet another iteration of life, Jay will teach history this fall at Grayson County High School and will continue to coach wrestling.  But he will remain solidly anchored to Alleghany County through Stony Knob Farm, tending to sheep and cattle and an occasional pig.


Alleghany grown farm products can be ordered at http://alleghany.locallygrown.net/.  Jay can also cooridanate special purchases for customers.  He can be contacted at jcoman103@yahoo.com


You can experience a Taste of Alleghany on Saturday, June 18th at 6:30 pm.  This event is sponsored by the Alleghany Farmers Market.  Proceeds will be used to promote locally grown foods and to support the farmers’ market.


Superintendent Mark Woods – Blue Ridge Parkway

Mark Woods’ love of the outdoors was kindled through scouting.  A native of South Carolina, Woods worked his way through the program attaining its highest level of achievement – Eagle Scout.  His educational path led him from Newberry College to Lander University to Texas A&M and finally to the University of California – Davis.  His work place journey was just as geographically varied with time spent in national parks in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky and the Virgin Islands.  He also had a stint with the South Carolina State Park system.  Married, he is the father of three and grandfather to two.  He and his wife, Ginny, live in Lake Junaluska, NC.

The Boy Scout Code of Honor continues to serve him well in his role as superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  When he assumed this position 2½ years ago, he inherited a 10 year, $450 million backlog of deferred maintenance.  The Parkway’s current maintenance budget of $7 million can do little to chip away at this perpetual maintenance issue.  He addresses these and other challenges with a strong sense of duty and commitment.

Superintendent Woods recently spoke to approximately 60 citizens and elected officials in Sparta about the current state of the Parkway.  In spite of the challenges he faces, he spoke in optimistic terms of the future of this linear park.

A part of the national park system, the Blue Ridge Parkway was the most visited park site in the United States with over 15 million visitors in 2015.  Snaking along 469 miles that winds through 29 counties in two states, the Parkway is anchored to the north by the Shenandoah National Park and at the southern end by the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  The Parkway is designed for visitors to “Ride and while, and stop a while.”  900 vistas and overlooks combined with over 300 miles of hiking trails make those stops worthwhile.

But encouraging visitors to explore beyond the Parkway boundary is also part of its design. Superintendent Woods described the Parkway as a “carefully landscaped window from which to view southern Appalachia.”  He said the goal is to, “whet the appetite of visitors for further exploration into adjoining communities.”  He identified nurturing and strengthening the connections between the Parkway and local communities as a top priority of Parkway staff.

Woods listed a number of upcoming projects that will directly impact the Alleghany County section of the Parkway.  The wood shakes on the Bringer Cabin are scheduled to be replaced.  Maintenance crews will be removing hazard trees and clearing overgrown vistas.  Potholes between mile markers 216 and 228 are scheduled to be repaired.  And picnic areas will be enhanced with new tables where needed.


Perhaps the most exciting news was his announcement of a $100,000 donation that will be used to mitigate the mold issue at the Bluff Coffee Shop.  The coffee shop was closed in 2011 and has since developed a serious mold problem.  Renovation of shop and camp store cannot take place until this problem is resolved.  It is hoped that this work can begin soon.  He emphasized that reopening the coffee shop is one of his personal priorities.

A similar problem exists with the Bluff Lodge.  The current plan is to focus first on the coffee shop and then assess the lodge.

coffee shop

from National Park Planner

Moving forward, Woods listed three goals for the Parkway.  First, he and his staff are committed to providing a high level of public service.  While they have suffered the loss of staff positions in recent years, volunteers contributed over 100,000 hours of labor annually.  He pointed out that it is sometimes difficult to strike a balance between competing values, using grass mowing as an example.  He said he gets many requests for more manicured look to the Parkway through frequent mowing.  He said he also get requests for less mowing to enhance wild flowers along the drive.  Striking a balance with issues such as these are always challenging.

Second, he plans to continue strengthening the working relationships with local communities. Along the length of the Parkway, visitors spent $952 million in local communities.  He pointed out that the Parkway is a tremendous economic driver for towns and counties along this 469 mile corridor.  By working cooperatively, this economic benefit can be enhanced and grown.

And finally, he is committed to enacting short and long term strategies for taking care of the Parkway.  Over 200 miles of the Parkway have not been paved in 20 years.  The harsh environment of the higher elevations creates continual maintenance issues on both the roadway and structures.  The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation has proven to be a great advocate and partner in taking these strategies forward.  Maybe most important is for the Parkway to begin preparing for the next generation of visitors and stewards.  To do this he and his staff will focus on engagement and education.  Officals are taking the long view on how to best protect the resources while promoting the economic connection to local communities.

Mark Woods speaks with passion about the Blue Ridge Parkway and its unique ecosystem.  Those principles gleaned from the scout code are evident and sincere.  Perhaps most apparent is his view that the Parkway an integral part of communities such as Alleghany County that lay along the spine of the southern Appalachian mountains.


For more information about Alleghany County’s role in the development of the Blue Ridge Parkway, click here

To watch the presentation in its entirety, click here



Backwoods Beat Music Festival

Singers, songwriters, and storytellers will converge on Sparta, NC, May 13 & 14, as SkyLine/SkyBest presents the first Backwoods Beat Music Festival in Sparta’s Crouse Park.

Tim & Myles Thompson, a Nashville father/son duo perform Friday, May 13, 7pm, and will teach a songwriting workshop Saturday, May 14. Kate Campbell, a popular performer with Sparta audiences, returns to teach songwriting with Tim & Myles on Saturday, and performs Saturday evening at 7pm. Galax native, Dori Freeman, opens the Saturday evening performance at 6:30pm.

The festival events will open Friday and Saturday evenings at 6pm. Admission Friday is $5/person. Admission Saturday is $10/person. If you bring your ticket from Friday night, Saturday’s admission will be half-off. Kids 12 and under are free.

A variety of food vendors will be on-site before the performances begin. Craft beer and wine will be available from Round Peak Winery and Skull Camp Brewery. Crouse Park is located at Grayson & Whitehead St., Sparta. Free parking is available in surrounding lots.

“We want to bring all types of music lovers to Sparta,” says Festival Chairman, Barbara Halsey. “The Festival will encourage a sense of community while it offers Workshop participants the chance to learn songwriting skills from experienced artists.”

The Saturday songwriting workshop is free to the first 60 registrants, with a $10 registration fee covering lunch and a tee shirt. The morning session begins at 9am. After a lunch break, the afternoon session goes until 3pm. Students will have the benefit of a session with Tim & Myles, and a session with Kate. Private sessions with the instructors are available after the workshop for $30/half-hour, $60/hour. Call the Alleghany Chamber,  336-372-5473 for details.  Registration closes May 9.

To register for the songwriting workshop, visit the Backwoods Beat Facebook event page, the Alleghany Chamber website, http://www.VisitAlleghanyNC.com, or pick up a form at the Chamber office, 58 S. Main St., Sparta. Funding for the workshop was made available through the Arts Guild of Alleghany and the North Carolina Arts Council.


Tim and Myles Thompson are a father-son duo who will be teaching songwriting workshops during the Backwoods Beat Music Festival, and headlining on the Crouse Park Stage Friday evening at 7pm.


Tim and Myles Thompson

Tim is a Nashville based session player, singer/songwriter and the 2008 International Fingerstyle Champion. He has recorded 11 CDs and two DVDs. He has been featured in three magazines and has taught several songwriting and guitar workshops, much like the one planned for the Backwoods Beat Festival.

Music has always filled the Thompson home; unknowingly it inspired Myles to pick up the violin at the tender age of five! By the age of twelve he was studying music theory and improvising with skill beyond his years – it was clear that music would be his life. Today at the ripe old age of twenty-one Myles is also a prolific singer/songwriter and mandolin player.

No one music genre totally encompasses the Thompson’s repertoire. Is it acoustic rock, pop, country, Celtic, jazz, funk? The simple answer is yes to all of the above. To experience a Thompson performance is to remember the experience.   http://timandmylesthompson.com/

Kate Campbell is a singer-songwriter whose past performances have developed a strong Sparta fan base. On Saturday Kate will be teaching workshops during the day and will perform on Saturday evening at 7pm on the Crouse Park Stage.

kate campbell

Kate Campbell at MerleFest

Campbell has a musical career spanning over 20 years. She has always resisted the temptation to follow musical trends, and instead has decided to set her own pace for her unique musical journey. Campbell is originally from the Mississippi Delta and is the daughter of a Baptist preacher. Her formative years were spent in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and the experiences she gained from that difficult period of time shaped her life as well as her songwriting. Campbell’s music, which effortlessly combines Southern rock, rhythm and blues, and soul, is filled with cultural themes from her upbringing. Her music continues to inspire and excite a growing fan base. http://www.katecampbell.com/

Dori Freeman is a 24-year-old singer and songwriter from Galax, Va. who will open for Kate Campbell  at 6:30pm on Saturday evening.

d freeman

Dori Freeman

Freeman comes from a family rooted in art and tradition. Her grandfather, Willard Gayheart, is an artist and guitar player, and her father, Scott Freeman, is a multi-instrumentalist and music instructor. While her style subscribes to no one genre, the influence of her Appalachian upbringing lies at the core of her music — heard especially in the lulling mountain drawl of her voice. She sings without affect and with striking clarity, delivering each song carefully and earnestly. Her recently released CD was named by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the top 35 most anticipated country CDs of 2016.

Freeman’s style was shaped by American Roots music:  Bluegrass, Rhythm and Blues, and Old Country. Her early introduction to musicians like Doc Watson, The Louvin Brothers, and Peggy Lee have heavily influenced her modern yet timeless sound. Dori learned how to play the guitar at fifteen and began writing her own material a few years later, citing Rufus Wainwright and his haunting melodies and achingly honest lyrics as the spark that inspired her to pen her first song. Her songs often center on heartache and pining; unrequited and sometimes unconventional love are common muses for her melodies and lyrics.  http://www.dorifreeman.com/


This post was based on a press release by Jennifer Swenk.

Sam and Julia Simmons

In Alleghany County, Christmas is never far from conscious thought.  It is difficult to drive far on any road without seeing a hillside covered with rows of Frasier Firs.  According to a USDA report almost 900,000 Christmas trees were shipped out of Alleghany in 2012.  Christmas and all that surrounds the holiday are an integral part of our county.

IMG_4172For Sam and Julia Simmons, Christmas takes on an even stronger presence in their daily lives.  Wrapped in a full white beard and styled mustache, complimented with twinkling eyes, Sam embodies Santa Claus. And Julia fully embraces the role of Mrs. Claus.

Sam grew up in Nashville, Tennessee.  At age 13, he and his family moved to Raleigh, NC.  He attended Broughton High School just blocks away from the capital grounds.  After graduation he wound his way through undergraduate studies and then to dental school.

In 1971, Sam joined the US Air Force and served there as a dentist.  He was stationed in England where he met a young local woman, Julia.  They were married 1973 and a year later Sam and his new bride returned to the United States.  They opened a dental practice in King, NC in 1975 and served patients there for over 30 years.

As Sam worked to establish his practice, Julia worked in the dental office and poured herself into their growing family.  Then at age 27, she considered returning to school. Julia did not think she would do well in college as she had not been tracked towards college in England.   She took a tentative step by enrolling in Surry Community College (SCC) and never looked back.  Over the course of time, she graduated from SCC, then Salem College.  She received a scholarship to Wake Forest University where she received a masters degree in counseling.  She finished up with a PHD in human services and counseling from Cappella University.

While Sam served the dental needs of the King community, Julia worked with the Wake Forest Medical School to help internal medicine residents become more aware of the mental health needs of their patients.  She also worked with others in the community to develop a suicide prevention program in Stokes County. They jokingly refer to themselves as the Doctors Simmons – dental and mental.

The Simmons’ residency in Alleghany County was an incremental process.  They began by looking for a weekend home, focusing their search in southwest Virginia.  There they met a man who told them that he had a small farm for sale in Alleghany County.  They made arrangements to view the farm and found it wasn’t exactly what they were looking for.  On their way out, the man said, “Oh, there is a house for sale just up the road.  You may want to take a look at it.”  They pulled into the drive and fell in love with the house and Alleghany County.  After Sam’s retirement, they moved to Alleghany fulltime and bought a new home with a breathtaking view.

Sam and Julia immediately began plugging into the community.  They sing in the Highland Camerata and are active in promoting the arts.  With some 25 years of mental health intervention experience, Julia worked with others to develop Alleghany Lives, a suicide prevention program.  Sam volunteers as a tutor at Sparta Elementary School.  They are active in Mountain Laurel Moravian Fellowship in Laurel Springs.

Then in 2005, a question steered Sam and Julia into a different service direction.  A child saw Sam with his white beard and a touch of red clothing.  The boy, in a moment of pure innocence, asked Sam, “Are you Santa Claus?”  Sam laughs as he recalls that in spite of momentous efforts, many children were always afraid of him as a dentist.  Now, he had the chance to go from someone feared by children to someone revered.

Santa Sam was born.

Surely making the transformation to Santa would be an easy one.  Put on a red suit, polish a perfect “Ho, Ho, Ho,” and listen to the kid’s requests.  But, it was one of those early requests that struck Sam with the seriousness of his new role.

A shy girl climbed onto his lap and as is sometimes the case, she went silent.  Santa Sam probed for her Christmas wish but the girl remained quiet.  Finally Santa suggested a Barbie and the little girl nodded enthusiastically. She climbed down and rushed over to take her mother’s hand.  As she moved to leave, she suddenly rushed back to Santa Sam and exclaimed, “I know what I want for Christmas.”  Santa Sam leaned forward and asked her request.  “I would like my grandmother to be cured of cancer.”

Sam struggled to maintain his composure.  He promised to ask his elves to pray for her grandmother.  To fulfill that promise he asked members of his church to pray for this child’s request.

This revealed the true role of Santa to Sam and Julia.  They now use Santa as a vehicle to emphasize giving to others.  Sometimes they share the Nativity Story using a model to tell about the greatest gift of all – the birth of Jesus.  Their message whether secular or religious is one of faith, hope and love.


The funds generated through their role as Santa and Mrs. Claus are plowed back into the community.  The Simmons support Camp New Hope in Glendale Springs where the staff minister to children with life-threatening illnesses.  They also support the Solid Rock Food closet backpack program, help buy art and music supplies for local schools, and support the animal rescue program.  Through their giving, Christmas lasts all year for Sam and Julia.

sam and julia

Santa and Mrs. Claus

A year round beard, a red Jeep, the wire rimmed glasses, and the rosy cheeks required the question be posed to Sam, “You know you are not really Santa – right?”

Sam only responded with a smile – a smile that hinted of a secret – a secret whose answer is only known to him and Julia.


For more information on Sam and Julia visit http://www.blueridgesanta.com