What brings a woman who is second in command at a large environmental organization in Montana to Salisbury, N.C.?
The answer: the Catawba College Center for the Environment.
Willa Mays recently joined the center to direct development efforts and assist Center Director John Wear with environmental projects in the community and region. “The center is an exceptional institution,” she says. “I feel very excited about the work that has already been accomplished here and how much potential exists for real change in people’s behavior and their attitudes and their level of awareness.”
Mays served as executive director of the Foundation of Thomasville Community General Hospital – now Thomasville Medical Center – when the foundation began in 1992. After nine years in that position and after earning an MBA and MHA from Pfeiffer University’s evening executive program, she became director of development at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
The timing for that move proved to be a monumental challenge. Mays began work six days after Sept. 11, 2001. “It was an exceptionally tough climate for all non-profits and continued to be over the next three years,” she says. “The stock market fell dramatically and many sources of individual and foundation funding disappeared.”
Yet under Mays’ guidance the organization thrived. Membership grew from 8,500 to 13,000. GYC opened a new office in Cody, Wyo., and added two major fundraisers – one in Colorado and the other in New York. During that period she was promptly promoted to the Number 2 position in a 30-person organization, adding communications, information systems, finance and general office functions to her development responsibilities.
Mays found many satisfactions in being a part of the management team at GYC. “I was privileged to work with exceptional people,” she says. “We had several attorneys who had left their practices to work on these issues that they believed in so deeply. These are people who are working for the future. They were a really smart group of passionate, hard-working people.”
It was also gratifying “to know that you were working to protect something that is still pristine,” she says. “The Greater Yellowstone ecosystem is the only place in this country that still retains all of the large mammals that were present when Lewis and Clark explored. We were all dedicated to keeping it that way for the next 200 years and beyond that.”
A creative big-picture thinker, Mays values compassion and an adventuresome spirit. “I love to try new things,” she says. “When I went to Montana, I started riding horses and cross-country skiing. I had never done any of these things and I decided I wanted to.”
North Carolina Native Mays is no stranger to North Carolina. She grew up near Lenoir surrounded by relatives. “I’m a country girl,” she says. “I grew up in western North Carolina where everybody within distance was a cousin or related somehow.”
That background informs her work ethic. In fact, she uses the word “driven” to describe herself and attributes her high level of motivation to her mother and other women she knew growing up. “The traditional Southern woman worked from the time she got up until the time she went to bed,” Mays says. “My mother was a very hard-working ambitious woman, and I attribute a lot of my drive to her. She was my model.”
Mays’ love for the environment also began in her childhood, when she explored the creeks and springs of the back country, when she learned to set tomato plants on her grandparents’ farm, when she tagged along when her father took the Boy Scouts on camping trips.
That heritage is reflected in Mays’ career and volunteer choices, which have consistently revolved around the environment and non-profit causes. Even when she was a stay-at-home mom with her children (Laura, now 34, Brant, 24, and Elizabeth, 20), she organized a community group in High Point to clean up the park where she wanted to take her children. “I was not happy with what I found at the park,” she says. “It was not the kind of environment you felt good about taking your little toddlers to.”
The community group beautified the park by cleaning up broken glass, planting flowers and even painting beautiful designs on the bathroom facilities. “The bathrooms were repeatedly vandalized before, but after we painted them, they were no longer vandalized,” she says.
That project led to a position as executive director of High Point’s new Keep America Beautiful project. In that position, Mays started one of the first recycling programs in North Carolina – a newspaper recycling program for the city of High Point.
From there, she got involved in non-profit work in general. “I must say I have a lot of background and experience in non-profit management and governance, both as a volunteer on boards and as a paid employee,” she says. “I’m a tremendous fan of non-profits because they fill such a void in our society. It’s a way for people to direct their contributions to things they really care about.”
Mays is glad to be back in her native North Carolina, near two of her children – one is now a student at Catawba – and her brother, who lives in Hickory. And she is glad to be associated with the Center for the Environment.
She notes that moving away from the state where she had lived all her life helped her appreciate North Carolina even more. “I’m so excited to be back here,” she says. “I am excited about working on protecting it and helping the community make good decisions. I’m appreciative of what’s going on at the center and happy and privileged to be a part of it.”