Worth the wait

Published 6:21 pm Sunday, April 27, 2014

Retired Northampton DSS Director Dr. Al Wentzy (second from left) joins with current Director Shelia Manley-Evans to cut the ribbon that formally opened the county’s new Department of Social Services building on Wednesday. Others joining the grand opening ceremony were, from left, Northampton Commissioners Chairman Robert Carter, DSS Board Chairman Eugene Taylor, and Randy Gore, State Director of USDA Rural Development. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

Retired Northampton DSS Director Dr. Al Wentzy (second from left) joins with current Director Shelia Manley-Evans to cut the ribbon that formally opened the county’s new Department of Social Services building on Wednesday. Others joining the grand opening ceremony were, from left, Northampton Commissioners Chairman Robert Carter, DSS Board Chairman Eugene Taylor, and Randy Gore, State Director of USDA Rural Development. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

JACKSON – They’ve battled bugs, mice and mildew. They even killed a snake on their front porch.

To say the least, the conditions of the near 100-year-old Northampton County Department of Social Services office were deplorable, not just to the staff, but to the county citizens visiting that facility for much-needed services.

Now those awful memories are a thing of the past.

On Wednesday, Northampton DSS formally christened its new $6.9 million facility, a sprawling 66,869 square foot building located on NC 305, north of Jackson. The event featured local, state and federal dignitaries, including First District U.S. Congressman G.K. Butterfield.

“This is a day we’ve waited on for a long, long time,” stated Shelia Manley-Evans, Northampton DSS Director, as she welcomed a crowd exceeding 200 who gathered in the building’s spacious training room to be a part of this special day, one that included a formal ribbon cutting.

“We needed this building, and we are truly blessed by the efforts of so many individuals that got us to where we stand today. I must acknowledge our capable DSS staff, our DSS Board and the Northampton Board of Commissioners. We couldn’t have made it without them,” Manley-Evans added.

“If ya’ll just knew where we were before Feb. 18….up the street in the old homeplace, a former rest home,” she remarked. “We killed a moccasin there last year on the front porch. We’ve had mice, rats, mildew…everything. Through it all, no one got hurt, but this county needed a new building for DSS. We fought hard to get this and here we are today. If you fight; if you believe; if you’re willing; it will happen. And if you come in contact with the right people at the right time, it will happen.”

Eugene H. Taylor, chairman of the Northampton DSS Board, traced the long and proud history of the department, saying it began in the 1950’s with five employees – a director, two social workers and two administrative workers – and an annual budget of $11,000. Today, the staff numbers 75 and operates with a $63 million budget.

“We’ve come a long way,” Taylor said. “Think about $63 million, that’s a great amount of money dispersed among our 22,000 citizens, all of which helps move Northampton County forward.”

Taylor praised the efforts of former and now retired Northampton County DSS Director Dr. Al Wentzy for never giving up on his dream to move the DSS out of a tiny, 85-year-old structure into a modern, energy efficient facility.

“Through his efforts and the efforts of others, we were able to secure the funds for this building,” Taylor noted. “This project was on the table for 10 years, it was a part of the budget planning process in each of those years, but as you know there was no money. But Dr. Wentzy never stopped looking for ways to make this building happen. When the president’s (Obama) stimulus package was approved, Dr. Wentzy rolled up his sleeves and went to work on securing some of that funding.”

During his comments, Wentzy shunned the limelight, saying he felt the building is dedicated to those in poverty and need.

“We have thousands of our citizens, especially children and seniors, who struggle with the effects of poverty – lack of a sufficient living wage, not having enough food to eat, or the means to pay for shelter and utilities, or the ability to deal with sickness or disabilities….this building is for you,” he stated.

Wentzy also praised the DSS staff who serves the citizens by administering the various state and federal programs, and thanked local, state and federal administrators for never forgetting about the less fortunate.

“At no time in my 42 years of public service have I ever seen such cooperation and the supporting commitment this project represents. You care for our citizens, and for that I say thank you,” Wentzy closed.

Wayne Black, Director of the North Carolina Division of Social Services, said his initial reaction when seeing the new Northampton office was, “wow.”

“This is a great building, and the great thing is the area it’s located in – you have the perfect location and the building lay-out and design is user and employee friendly,” Black said. “By having this building, what you demonstrate to this county is appreciation and respect for the staff that works here. You have demonstrated appreciation and respect for the citizens of your county.”

Robert Carter, Chairman of the Northampton Commissioners, spoke on behalf of county government.

“The citizens of Northampton County expect and deserve the best from its local government and it is our honor to provide them with a new building that will serve as a resource for you to access and receive related information and services,” said Carter, who also serves as vice-chair of the Northampton DSS Board. “There are many that need to be acknowledged who have been instrumental in ensuring the successful completion of this building. We applaud their efforts.”

Butterfield was one of the major players in helping Northampton County secure the funding to build the new DSS office.

“Officials from your county met with me at my office in Wilson and laid out a very elaborate plan for this building and told me what the price tag was,” Butterfield recalled of a meeting that pre-dated 2010. “Our state and nation was in the midst of the great recession and budgets were tight. I felt that we were not going to get this project funded at the level – $6.9 million – they wanted.”

Despite that bad news, Butterfield said the Northampton officials pushed forward with their plans.

“We got busy and tried to figure out a way to do this,” he said. “When President Obama initiated the $787 billion stimulus package, there was money to invest in infrastructure.”

Butterfield turned to Randy Gore, State Director of USDA/Rural Development, for help in securing funds for the project. What started as a $200,000 grant was increased to $500,000 – at Butterfield’s urging – with the rest financed through a low interest, 30-year loan. Additionally, due to the fact that Northampton DSS administers over 40 federal programs, the federal government would be responsible for well over one-half of the costs of the new building, leaving the county with a 35 percent cost share.

“USDA/Rural Development was the catalyst to make this project come together,” Butterfield said. “It has invested in rural America, helping to improve the quality of life here in your county and other rural areas.”

Gore said by looking around at the new DSS facility, it was federal money well invested.

“Northampton County needs to be commended as well because you put a lot of skin into this game,” Gore noted. “It’s not about us, it’s about what NorthamptonCounty is doing for its citizens. USDA Rural Development is pleased to participate in this project that makes these resources available to the citizens and families of NorthamptonCounty.”

NC House member and Northampton native Michael Wray remarked that the new facility reminded him of the movie – Field of Dreams – “If you build it, they will come,” he said.

“You never gave up on this project, you stuck together and made it happen,” Wray continued. “The people at the head of the stream are important, but it’s the people in the trenches everyday, the staff here at Northampton DSS, that touch the lives of people in need each and every day. I appreciate what you do; you are on the front lines, making a big difference in the lives of the citizens of this county. You treat them with the respect they deserve.”

Wray presented Manley-Evans with a state flag that was flown March 20 over the State Capitol in Raleigh for Northampton DSS to display over their new facility.

Presentations were made by Manley-Evans to each of the event’s featured speakers for their individual/organizational commitment to the project.

The Rev. Robert L. Sessoms, pastor of Roanoke Salem BaptistChurch, and the Rev. David Ross, pastor of Ashley’s Grove Baptist Church, also took part in the hour-long ceremony by offering the invocation and benediction prayers. The Northampton County Sheriff’s Honor Guard posted the colors, and Amber Evans delivered the National Anthem.

Following the ribbon cutting, those in attendance enjoyed refreshments and were taken on a tour of the building by Northampton DSS staff.

Ground was broken on Oct. 25, 2010 for the new facility, but a series of delays caused the bidding process for construction to be put on hold until August of 2012.


About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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