Community Action conference comes to WNC: The annual conference paid special homage to several regional leaders

Mountain Projects Executive Director Patsy Davis speaks to the crowd at the NCCAA conference. Donated photo Mountain Projects Executive Director Patsy Davis speaks to the crowd at the NCCAA conference. Donated photo

True freedom isn’t attainable without economic freedom. This was the central theme of the 2024 North Carolina Community Action Association’s annual convention held at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino last week.

The event, which celebrated NCCAA’s 60th anniversary, was held over several days and included trainings, break-out sessions, various speakers, and of course, celebration. 

Community Action was created on the heels of a March 1964 message to congress from President Lyndon Johnson during which he urged the body to pass his Economic Opportunity Act. Ultimately, the act created the Office of Economic Opportunity, including the creation of Community Action Agencies (CAAs) to “strike poverty at its source — in the streets of our cities and on the farms of our countryside.”

While the event celebrated community action organizations around the state and was well attended by folks from the Charlotte area and the Triangle, Western North Carolina often took center stage, especially considering the group’s board president is Patsy Davis of Mountain Projects, an organization that serves Haywood and Jackson counties.

Davis is set to retire this time next year, which will put an end to her 35-year run with the nonprofit. She recalled her career, starting off in Mountain Projects’ senior program before becoming director. She said getting involved with NCCAA at the state level has been particularly rewarding.

“I started realizing that people didn’t really have a voice,” she said. “The west was not represented as well as it should have been, and it felt like people thought the state stops at Asheville, so I went to Raleigh to bring attention to the needs of Western North Carolina.” 

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A major challenge for Mountain Projects in recent years has been addressing the growing housing needs of the community as many working-class families are finding themselves priced out of a market that is still lacking inventory. But Davis also noted that while much of the focus of Mountain Projects is tackling the affordable housing problem, the organization does so much more.

“We serve people not just on economics, but also with independence and self-sufficiency, like with our senior programs,” she said. “You know, that’s not an income-based program. We do a lot of preventive programs with trying to educate youth on the risk of substance abuse and those kind of things. We also do public transit in Haywood County, which has nothing to do with your income.”

Davis said community action has been a driving force her whole life and that she hopes that can continue for other generations. She said she thinks that’ll be the case, especially with partners like Dogwood Health Trust shouldering a ton of the load.

“Dogwood Health Trust really changed the landscape in Western North Carolina,” she said. “And not just with the support they’ve given community action agencies, but a lot of other nonprofits, too. I’m already seeing some signs of things getting better because of their involvement.” 

Davis wasn’t the only representative of a Western North Carolina community action agency. Chuck Sutton, who heads up Macon Program for Progress, also attended. A Macon County native, Sutton has been with MPP since 2002. While Sutton used to be in private industry, he said he was called to serve.

“I was just always having a spirit for the community and helping others, whether it was a food drive or any other type of pursuit that was trying to have a civic change,” Sutton said. “And then I saw that community action was a way to do that as a career.”

MPP focuses on a similar mission to Mountain Projects and aims to help low-income individuals in that county, including a large childcare effort through Head Start as well as short-term and long-term job training and housing programs. Sutton noted that NCCAA has helped MPP significantly.

“Over 60 years of community action, the needs of our community have changed, and so the funding opportunities have changed,” Sutton said. “So we try to match that and help our community the ways that are needed at the time.” 

State Executive Director Sharon C. Goodson, who works out of the organization’s main Raleigh office, also spoke with The Smoky Mountain News. Although she has been working with the North Carolina Community Action Association for a little over two decades, she said she’s really been in community action her whole life without realizing it, going way back to her youth when she was in one of the first Head Start programs.

“I was just this young kid running around, five or six years old, having a good time learning all this stuff, and then I grew up and ended up working in community action again through a summer youth employment program,” she said.

Indeed, Goodson has always been called to serve, something she credits to growing up with “incredible” parents who instilled the values of caring and empathy. Plus, being in a small town where everyone knew each other made it difficult to look past a neighbor who may be struggling.

“I think it was a family foundation about love and respect for other people, and caring about other people, and being willing to give people a hand up and not a handout,” Goodson said. “So that’s what my family did for me. And then I got into this thing called community action.”

Goodson said that as tough as circumstances may be at times, the mission now is quite clear.

“It’s about economic mobility,” she said. “We look at a community and assess what it needs, and the work being done across the state is amazing.” 

At the end of the day, it’s about the big picture. Even beyond helping the individual, it’s about improving society.

“Community action groups help people and they grow taxpayers, which makes our communities better for all people,” Goodson said. “It’s about better parks, better facilities and better local programs.” 

Goodson specifically spoke about how much she values the community action groups in the oft-overlooked far-western counties, as well as everywhere else in the state.

“The west is just as important to us as the east or anywhere else,” she said. “This is about helping all people. It didn’t say people in Raleigh, it didn’t say people in a certain spot. We take our promise of the Community Action promise very seriously. We care about the people in these mountains we love.” 

Sen. Kevin Corbin (R-Macon) closed out the week with an address to the group Friday morning. In an interview with SMN, he said he has always supported community action groups, especially MPP since it’s in his own backyard. As the chairman of both the Senate Health Care Committee and the Appropriations on Health and Human Services Committee, he said community action groups are always on his radar.

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Sen. Kevin Corbin (center) stands with Patsy Davis (right) and NCCAA Director Sharon C. Goodson. Donated photo

“The day before I spoke to them, I put a provision in the state budget to increase the childcare subsidies for rural counties,” he said. “There’s a formula they use; it factors size of the county and other things. The formula is unfair to rural counties, so Haywood or Jackson doesn’t get the same childcare dollars per child that bigger counties do.” 

In addition, Corbin was one of the first Republicans in the state to get fully behind Medicaid expansion, which finally passed last year.

“Since Medicaid opened, we’ve enrolled about 450,000 North Carolinians,” he said.

In his speech, Corbin also focused on North Carolina raising the standard deduction from $11,000 up to $29,000, as well as lowering the personal income tax rate from 4.75 to 4.5, moves he said help low-income families in particular.

“It’s putting more money in working people’s pockets,” he said.

Corbin said he stands firmly behind the community action agencies that aid the counties he represents in Raleigh.

“I think they do a lot of good work in North Carolina,” he said. “In particular, I can speak to Macon Program for Progress. They are very instrumental helping in the housing market and with childcare. They’re a valuable resource.

One of the most impactful moments came at the awards luncheon Thursday as yet another Haywood County figure, District Court Judge Donna Forga, offered her testimony of how Community Action — specifically Mountain Projects — helped her when she couldn’t necessarily help herself. Forga told her story, one of hardship and redemption, a journey from the depths that was made possible through Mountain Projects. It was difficult to find a dry eye in the room.  

Forga broke the ice by admitting how nervous she was for her speech, joking that she, in a sense, set herself up for a life of discomfort, an introvert who has to not only campaign, but also deliver decisions in court that are subject to scrutiny by courts of appeals.

“So much for being insecure,” she joked.

Forga’s relationship with Mountain Projects goes back about 40 years. After getting married right out of high school, she took a job at a sewing plant in Jackson County. However, after giving birth to a daughter, she was again pregnant with a son, and her employer wasn’t going to give her paid time off after giving birth. Her husband, a mechanic, didn’t have the ability to support the family on his own.

“We were the working poor,” Forga said.

“I was stressed beyond belief,” she added.

In 1985, she applied to put her children in a Head Start program. First, her daughter was enrolled, and then her son a few years later. All the while, she was thrown into further turmoil when her husband left her on Mother’s Day.

“Thinking homelessness was imminent, I reached out to the HUD program,” she said.

But the waitlist was long, and things weren’t getting much better. Forga said that at that time, she was thrown into the most depressing, overwhelming time of her life.

“I was hopeless, drowning in a dark pit that I could find no way to escape,” she said. “Then, what was clearly the most miraculous hand of God, I got a phone call the next week saying that my name was up on that list.” 

This was the beginning of a slow crawl out of that dark pit. Over the next few years, Forga received her associates and then her bachelor’s degree. Even as the first college graduate in her family, she still struggled to find employment. However, she said Mountain Projects was there every step of the way to make sure she had a safety net. Eventually, thanks to Mountain Projects, she was able to work in a few volunteer positions that helped her develop confidence she hadn’t felt in years.

“The shackles of self-doubt began to fall off,” Forga said.

Then, she made a radical choice.

“I had come to the conclusion there was no good, long-term employment on the horizon, and there’s nothing like a good divorce to make you want to become an attorney,” she said.

Forga and her children went to law school “as a team,” with her kids learning how to be self-sufficient to help alleviate the burden on their mother. While her kids helped, she said it was her support network back in Haywood County that also pushed her across the finish line. During her toughest times, she’d receive phone calls, cards and letters reassuring her of her purpose.

“I knew who to reach out to in my time of need for help or encouragement, and that was my friends at Mountain Projects,” Forga said.

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Patsy Davis (left) and Judge Donna Forga. Donated photo

Upon graduating law school in 2000, Forga came back home, where she practiced in state, federal and tribal courts. In 2010, she was elected District Court Judge, a position she has held now for 14 years. But no matter how far she’s come, she said she will never forget her tumultuous past and the key people who helped her help herself — especially Davis.

“The folks who were there for me moved on, and now with one more retirement next year, the folks that made my success possible will no longer be working at Mountain Projects,” she said. “There was never before and will never again be another Patsy Davis. God broke the mold when he made her.” 

Ultimately, Forga had a final message for the rapt audience. She told those in attendance that their work matters, not only to her, but to countless others.

“Can you see the miracle now over the last 40 years?” she said, “that this love and support gave me the opportunity to turn every difficulty, every burden, every hurdle into a chance to see promise in the world, to see the hand of God in the actions of people with a servant’s heart.”

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