PITTSBORO — While attending college in Greensboro about a decade ago, UNCG student Ashlyn Martin thought she knew which area of social work she wanted to go into.
And so, when the Greensboro Housing Authority interview panel asked about her preference for an upcoming undergraduate internship, she responded, “Children and families.”
“The interview panel, they knew better,” Martin said with a laugh.
Instead, the organization placed her in one of its communities for individuals aged 55 and older — a decision which kindled her passion for serving older adults and kickstarted a career in gerontological social work that has, nearly a decade later, led her to Chatham County as the Council on Aging’s new executive director.
“I fell in love with it, and I haven’t looked back since,” said Martin, 31, about working with adults 55 and older during her undergraduate studies.
She officially took up her new role on April 18, a little over two months after Dennis Streets, the council’s previous and much-loved director, retired after eight years in the post. Founded in 1974, the COA has since worked to promote and enable independent living among Chatham’s older population.
About a month into the job, Martin said she’s been settling in well, getting to know the ins and outs of her new role, familiarizing herself with organization, and, of course, working the staff who make it all possible.
“Everybody has just been so welcoming, but also very supportive of the ideas that I’ve brought so far, but also kind of seeing where the agency has been and where it’s headed, it’s a very exciting time,” she said. “... So far, it’s a lot to take in, a lot of people to meet, a lot of information just to come to kind of absorb, but overall, the past few weeks have just been a wonderful experience.”
Growing up in Catawba County, Martin didn’t have a concrete childhood dream job — but all the same, her younger self wouldn’t be surprised at the path she’s taken.
“I think growing up, I have always enjoyed helping other people, and I’ve always kind of had a passion for wanting to make a difference in the lives of others, which is why I chose social work for my degree,” she said. “So I … just wanted to help others and try to make the community a better place.”
But after graduating high school, she wasn’t quite sure yet how she wanted to go about making the community a better place. So, she attended Catawba Valley Community College for two years while she worked it out.
“Originally, I thought I might want to go into nutrition,” she said, “but then ultimately decided that social work was the better path for me.”
Soon after, she moved to Greensboro to attend the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work in 2013. Then, right after graduation, she went straight into the Joint Master of Social Work Program between North Carolina A&T and UNCG. Just a year later, she received her master’s.
Beyond her undergraduate internship with the Greensboro Housing Authority, she also secured a graduate-level internship working at the Salisbury VA Medical Center.
“So both opportunities, I was able to work with older adults,” Martin said, “and that’s really where I discovered that, you know, this was the population that I knew I wanted to work with.”
And why? Part of the reason, she said, lies within her own family — a great aunt and two grandmothers, now deceased, who meant a lot to her. Her great aunt in particular, she said, inspires her.
“She is now in her 80s, still drives, still works for around four days a week, so she’s definitely been an inspiration, but I also had a grandmother-in-law, who also was very special to me,” she said. “So (it’s) just really wanting to make sure that older adults anywhere can receive quality services, but I also saw how much it meant to them to be able to remain independent and also remain at home.”
That, Martin said, is her goal in working with older adults.
“You know, I kind of look at my family and what I would want my family to receive and then being able to provide that for someone else,” she added.
After completing her master’s program in 2014, she found a job with Senior Resources of Guilford, a private nonprofit based in Greensboro which provides many of the same services as the COA as part of its mission to promote independent senior living.
Martin stayed there for about seven and a half years, serving in a variety of roles — from an access to services program director and family caregiver support coordinator to assistant director of home and community-based services and most recently, assistant director of the nonprofit itself.
She started out supervising social work staff, interns and coordinators providing seniors informational resources. A couple of years later, she moved on to overseeing the nonprofit’s nutrition services department — including a Meals on Wheels program, among others — a rural outreach program, a geriatric adult mental health specialty team and even a refugee outreach program.
Around the beginning of this year, however, she saw a senior center listserv email advertising COA’s newly vacated executive director role, and after taking a peek at the job description, she decided to give it a shot.
“Seeing that it was very similar to what I had been doing in years past, I felt like it was a great opportunity that I could bring my skill set here to that area,” Martin said. “And then seeing how much Chatham is really growing up and will continue to grow up over these next several years, it’s an exciting place to be — just the opportunity to be a part of something that is growing, but also being able to bring some of those experiences that I had experiences that I had working in Guilford County to this area to possibly help grow what the council is already doing.”
So far, she said, the most rewarding part of her job has been meeting the COA program participants, “see[ing] the smiles on their faces, learning how much the services mean to them, and hearing some of their stories.” It’s also been amazing to work with the organization’s staff, she added.
“I’m really proud that we have such a strong team that is willing to step in and work together to achieve our mission,” Martin said. “Everyone here in Chatham County has been so welcoming, and just to see this community come together as a whole to want to provide such strong services and supports to the older adults that need them the most, you know, I’m really proud of that because that’s not something that you see everywhere.”
On the flip side, the most challenging aspect of the role, she said, has to be navigating the lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID still continues to be a challenge for everybody, not just our organization, but we work with an at-risk population,” she said. “And so, needing to make sure that we’re keeping all of our clients safe, but also keeping our staff safe at the same time — you know, COVID continues to be a struggle for those that can’t leave their homes, or fear leaving their homes for the possibility of contracting the illness.”
So, what’s Martin’s COVID game plan? Continue working with the Chatham County Public Health Department, follow their recommendations and monitor COVID-19 trends in the area to ensure every decision they make protects the older adults they serve.
If local numbers once again reach a concerning level, she said they would consider reinstating a mask requirement within their senior centers. For now, however, masks are optional.
“While we know that a lot of people want to be able to get out of their homes, and come back and congregate again at the senior centers, or come for lunch, or participate in other activities, we have to continue to do so in a manner that is safe,” Martin said. “So, we’re also going to continue to educate participants. We welcome people — if they wish to wear a mask, when they come to visit us, they are most welcome to do that. We want to create an environment where everyone feels welcome, but also, they feel safe.”
But COVID’s not the only challenge Martin sees in the organization’s future; another is a continued need for volunteers, especially as Chatham’s population ages and more and more older adults seek the council’s services. With demographic change, however, also comes growth opportunities — such as serving those they haven’t been able to successfully reach, including the county’s Spanish-speaking older adults.
“I would definitely not be opposed to reaching any population of non-English-speaking older adults,” Martin said. “I think it’s important that we continue to provide services to people of all different backgrounds. And so, I would definitely say that, you know, that’s in our future, ways that we can also collaborate with other organizations to be able to provide those services as well.”
She knows she’s got big shoes to fill — and “nobody,” she said, “can ever replace Dennis or the work that he did here” — but she plans to do her best to build off of the “strong foundation” and organization Streets left behind.
“It’s hard to say, in the long term, what I hope to accomplish, and our population and the needs of the community are always going to be changing, so I’m ready for whatever challenges may be thrown this way,” Martin said. “But at the end of the day, I hope to provide the best possible services to the older adults of our community, and of course following in line with our mission, just help them to remain independent and remain safely in their homes for as long as they can possibly do so.”
Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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