Monica Santos Torres


Monica Santos Torres

What determines individual success?  Perhaps an even more difficult variation of that question is, “How do we define success?”  Those questions haunt sociologists, school administrators, politicians and anyone who desires to see positive development for individuals and communities.  With so many variables that can influence growth, we have to wonder if there is a “magic bullet” that can truly impact the success of the people in our communities?  While the question may befuddle the experts, a key component of the answer may be found right here in Alleghany County.

As a young girl, Monica Santos was a fixture on the regional fiddlers’ convention circuit.  The Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program at Piney Creek Elementary School uncovered her guitar skills.  Her mother, Tina Jordan, understood the quality of Monica’s musical gift and bolstered her JAM lessons with private instruction with Bob Desanto of Galaz, Virginia.  The results were 15-20 competition wins.

A change in family dynamics took Monica and her mom from Piney Creek when Monica was in the 5th grade.  They spent a period time with Monica’s grandmother in the Whitehead community before they moved to Sparta.  While in 8th grade, Monica became sweethearts with her future husband, Leo Torres.

Monica played volleyball her freshman year of high school and enjoyed the game.  But, in her sophomore year volleyball gave way to work and she began waiting tables at Mis Arados, a restaurant in Sparta owned and managed by Leo’s family.   Monica worked  with the Torres family all through high school and until she completed college.

2014 was a pivotal year for Monica.  She graduated from Alleghany High School that summer, and she and Leo were married in July.  That fall, she began the nursing program at Wilkes Community College (WCC).

monica 1 (1)The WCC schedule and course load were challenging.  Monica began her days with a one hour commute to the WCC campus in Wilkesboro.  She simultaneously took prerequisite and nursing classes before wrapping up the school day with another one hour trip home.  Once she was back in Sparta, it was off to Mis Arados for a shift of waiting tables.  After her shift she headed home for 1-2 hours of homework.  These days she shrugs off a full-time class load coupled with a 30-40 hours of waiting tables. But while in the throes of that grinding schedule, the thought of quitting college crossed her mind many times.  She credits Leo with encouraging her through those rough spots and giving her the motivation to stick with her dream.

While Monica was balancing all those elements of life, Leo was also taking classes through the Basic Law Enforcement Training program at WCC.  When he graduated and became a deputy with the Alleghany County Sheriff’s Office, Monica was able to scale back her restaurant work to what she describes as a more manageable 10-20 hour week.

Monica completed the nursing program in May of 2016 and passed her state exam a couple of weeks later.  That June, she went to work as a floor nurse at the Alleghany Memorial Hospital (AMH).  Once again, she felt overwhelmed.  As she talks about those first weeks as a hospital nurse, the description is stacked with the sense of responsibility and accountability she felt towards her patients.  She often found herself questioning her abilities and whether she could handle the emergencies that were sure to arise.  And she wondered if she could deliver the kind of care she knew her patients deserved.  Once again, Leo stepped in to encourage her that she was on the right path and that he believed it her.

monica 1 (2)

These days a conversation with Monica offers no hint of self-doubt.  She says quite confidently that AMH is a perfect fit for her.  The size of the facility has given her a broad base of experience that would have taken months, even years, to attain in a larger hospital.  Monica explains that this small size also allows her to give patients more personalized care than they would get in a more urban hospital. And working at AMH is something of a homecoming for Monica.  Her patients are often surprised when she tells then she that was born in Alleghany Memorial Hospital.

Monica’s life journey to this point may offer us clues to that question of what determines success.  She was fortunate to find herself in a youth music program where hard work and practice were expected and rewarded.  Her mother recognized Monica’s musical giftedness and made sacrifices for private lessons to enhance that gift.  When her family faced personal challenges, Monica’s extended family provided a safety net as they regained their footing.  Her mother instilled and modeled a strong work ethic.  A small elementary school gave her personalized attention and an enhanced sense of community.  Wilkes Community College furnished the flexibility to balance work and education, while preparing her for a career of professional service.  She married into a hardworking family of entrepreneurs that produced her husband who understands how to provide her encouragement when she needs it most.  And now she works in an environment where she is supported by all levels of staff as she seeks to give back to her community.

A strong work ethic, a sense of delayed gratification, a safety net for life’s challenges, and a network of encouragers are crucial to individual success. As to the question of how we define success.  We don’t have to look further than Monica Santos Torres.


Tiffany Vargas and Isabel Engel Alleghany Junior Appalachian Musicians

Some would say that traditional, old-time mountain music is more caught than taught.  The songs are circular in nature, rotating from “A” to “B” parts and back again.  In jams, the more accomplished musicians sit in the center of a circle and those learning surround them.  Creating something of a vortex, the tunes pull those learning into the song.

Alleghany Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) follows a similar process.  In 2000, Sparta (NC) Elementary School guidance counselor, Helen White, founded the first JAM program at Sparta Elementary.  Aided by local musicians, the program set out to expose elementary aged students to traditional mountain music.  As JAM grew in popularity, it received funding from a variety of sources and has spun into 29 programs in four states.  But for all its success and expansion, at the center of the JAM circle are the students.

Tiffany Vargas

Tiffany Vargas

Tiffany Vargas has been a fiddle student in Alleghany JAM for five years.  While she enjoys old-time tunes, she also plays semi-classical music in a string quartet and the flute in the school band.  Her grandfather, Charlie Earp, is an accomplished classical and jazz musician, and Tiffany has taken fiddle lessons from Erika Godfrey in neighboring Surry County.

Isabel Engel

Isabel Engel

Isabel Engel has also been in the program for five years.  Like Tiffany, she’s from a musical family.  Isabel’s dad plays the guitar and her step-dad plays the guitar, mandolin and bass.  Isabel finds music relaxing.  She enjoys the challenge of working through the complexities of the songs.  One of her favorite tunes is the Peacock Rag.

Musician and educator, Lucas Pasley, is the current program director Alleghany JAM.  He describes the Alleghany County program as focusing on kids, heritage and community.  With the help of local musicians, they seek to provide a positive place for kids to belong, regardless of their skill level.

In an exciting bit of news, this year, for the first time, Alleghany JAM will be offered to high school students.  In addition to their instruction, the high school students will assist with the elementary classes.  This will help the high school students develop leadership skills and enhance a pathway for them to college.

Across the country, public schools have suffered a loss of programs during the economic crisis.  North Carolina and Alleghany County are no exception.  As school funding decreases, the arts are often the first programs cut.  This makes community based initiatives such as JAM even more valuable and vital.  The students’ tuition only covers about 20% of the costs of the program.  Alleghany JAM is funded primarily through grants and fundraising activities such as their annual golf tournament.  Grassroots, local support keeps these students in class.

A popular song throughout the mountains asks Will the Circle Be Unbroken?  With a focus on heritage and community, the Alleghany Junior Appalachian Musicians will assure that the circle remains intact as they continue to embrace and celebrate our mountain culture.


Alleghany JAM musicians will begin their recruitment tour on August 21, 2015.  They will visit all four Alleghany public elementary schools and the Blue Ridge Christian School.  The registration deadline is August 24, 2015.

For more information on how you can register a student or support JAM, contact Lucas Pasley at or 336-572-5266.  For a great overview of the program, watch the UNC TV video below.

Friends of the Alleghany Community Auditorium

In rural areas, life often revolves the local school.  Schools are the places where lifelong friendships are formed.  Piney Creek Elementary and Glade Creek Elementary are located in those respective communities at opposite ends of Alleghany County.  Sparta Elementary is located in Sparta.  All are K-8 schools whose students reflect the diversity of the county as a whole.  School activities pull together families that may not otherwise interact.  Administrators are quick to point out that the success of the schools rely heavily on community support.

photo by Charlie Scott

Alleghany County Auditorium photo by Charlie Scott

The Alleghany Community Auditorium is an example of the collaboration of the school system and community.  In 2010, the Friends of the Alleghany Community Auditorium partnered with the Alleghany County Schools to renovate and manage the auditorium.  The school system took care of some pressing structural needs such as roof repairs.  The Friend’s group has replaced the sound system and added a number of padded seats.

photo by Charlie Scott

photo by Charlie Scott

The auditorium has become the center for performing arts in Alleghany County.  The performances are varied and reflective of the people who call Alleghany home.  There have been plays by the Barter Players and the Alleghany Community Theatre (ACT).  The Hillbilly Comedy and Variety show is an annual favorite.  Musical acts range from the Highland Camerata which preformed Handel’s Messiah to the Western Piedmont Symphony to Alleghany’s Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM).  At some point during the year, there is something for everyone on the auditorium’s stage.

The next phase of renovations is the improvement of the auditorium’s lighting.  There will be a benefit concert on April 4, 2015 from 7:00 – 9:00 pm to raise funds for this next project.  The line-up is an all-star cast of local and regional musicians anchored by Wayne Henderson and Helen White, and the Loose Strings Band.  Local celebrity, Wes Brinegar, will serve as emcee.  By any measure it is an entertainment deal at $10 admission.  Emphasizing the family nature of this evening, children under 6 will be admitted free.

There is an adage that “the value of the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts.”  Our schools reinforce that notion as much by necessity as by design.  There is a vision by some that the Alleghany Community Auditorium can be more than most can imagine.  On April 4, 2015 we have a chance to get a glance at that vision.