05/07/07 — 41 years and still caring

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41 years and still caring

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 7, 2007 1:51 PM

When Bryan Sutton was named executive director of Wayne Action Group for Economic Solvency Inc., or WAGES, he believed it would last a year or two and he would move on.

But that was 1966, the height of the civil rights era. And Sutton, a self-proclaimed conservative, surprised even himself.

"I wound up getting caught up in the movement, really wanting to push civil rights, but I never thought I would get caught up for 40 years," he said.

The program came on the heels of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act put through by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. The act provided money to communities to combat poverty.

But it is not a legacy most people readily remember.

"When you think of (President) Jack Kennedy, you think of the young children bouncing around the White House and the society, other than the assassination," he said.

"With LBJ you think about Vietnam. But I think about civil rights and he was the one to get the Civil Rights movement. I remember him that way."

Recalling such legislation as Medicaid and Medicare and other programs still benefiting citizens today, Sutton said "I knew he wasn't perfect by any means but (President Johnson) know how to buttonhole. He'd been in Congress 30 years. He knew how to get it done."

At the time, Sutton was working in private industry. He was approached by several citizens to go to Washington and investigate the potential program. From there, he secured a planning grant, which helped fund the Head Start program.

WAGES was chartered by a resolution of the Wayne County Commissioners on Nov. 15, 1965. A program development grant for $39,000 was received and partially used to survey the community and assess its needs.

Once by-laws were adopted, a board of directors was established and Sutton was hired, the doors opened on May 1, 1966.

The organization's mission statement then and now remains "dedicated to helping people improve their quality of life and health and gain independence ... to advocate for the disadvantaged, encourage people to raise their self-esteem through education, provide service and opportunities for service, and mobilize community, public and private resources."

The first offices were in an old house near the corner of Ash and William streets, now Wachovia Bank property. Four Head Start classes were downstairs and the offices were on the second floor.

After a year or so, WAGES moved to the former Virginia Street School, expanding to include offices of the Neighborhood Youth Corps, and developed neighborhood service centers, with five around the city and one each in Mount Olive and Fremont. Today its office is on Royall Avenue.

The early surveys had indicated a need for education and employment, Sutton said.

"Everything was based on that kind of program that would provide either education or job opportunities," he said.

They also discovered that a lot of low-income citizens were living in "shabby conditions," Sutton said. "No street lights, streets that had not been paved. We urged them to come quietly before officials and ask for some services that were not provided in other areas."

It was a tempestuous time, Sutton said, when Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Bobby Kennedy were assassinated and rioting was going on around the country.

"Some of those things might have gotten heated, some of that may have come to Goldsboro, but we were doing it in an orderly and organized way so it didn't erupt into those things," he said.

For the uninitiated, WAGES programs have evolved over the years.

"I think a lot of people in the community have never realized exactly what we do here," Sutton said. "If they think of WAGES, they probably think of one of our programs -- Head Start, Meals on Wheels. I have just seen it encompass more and more of the community."

Many of the programs today weren't even on the board when the organization started, Sutton said.

"We didn't do Meals on Wheels (in the beginning). We started with a nutrition program through the neighborhood service centers. People were brought in to eat. Now a lot of it is gone to delivering the meals to the homes," he said. "The down side is they don't get their fellowship as much as some of the services that were offered in the centers."

Under Sutton's leadership, WAGES has launched many programs, including Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions, weatherization, self-sufficiency, Wayne County First Steps and medication management.

While WAGES operates federal programs, Sutton clarified that the organization is not a federal agency.

"We're a private non-profit organization. The federal programs are offered to us as a non-profit group," he said.

And although United Way has funded it, most of the money through the years has come from state and federal grants, private funding and the support of the community.

"At the beginning, there was a small group that aligned with us and now I'm seeing more and more organizations helping us with what we're doing, helping us with volunteering and taking a little pride in helping their neighbor through the programs," he said.

Even its board is a means to identify ongoing needs in the community. It is comprised of one-third each representing low-income people who receive the services, public officials and support organizations.

Now 41 years later, WAGES still serves the same people it targeted in the beginning, Sutton said, adapting its programs to the population and the economy represented.

"I never thought I would get involved to this extent and give it the better years of my life. I got here and I never wanted to leave, even if I could have," Sutton said.

His career has been a rewarding one, Sutton says. So much so that he admits to having a hard time letting go, even though that time is fast-approaching.

"It's all got to come to an end," he said. "I want to make sure that the right people are here at the right time to see that it keeps going."