“Over the years, I’ve realized I am really just a speck on a global map, but the work I can do to help communities reach their full potential can linger for many generations after me.”
Sarah Thompson’s “wanderlust” began early in her childhood, after spending years traveling the country for sports competitions. Though she grew up in Cincinnati, Sarah attributes her real “growing up” years to her experiences studying abroad in Europe during college and later living and volunteering for a time in Mexico and Guatemala.
“Travel gave me a broad and varied worldview,” says Sarah, “but the one thing I found everywhere I went was that humans are the same no matter where you go, and that people have the same need for economic stability and community support.”
The year before graduating from college, a group of kayaker friends encouraged her to visit Western North Carolina, insisting she’d love it. Sarah obliged, and fell in love with the landscape and people of the North Carolina mountains after working a summer job at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. She returned to WNC after graduation and although her travels pulled her away from the mountains for periods of time she eventually settled into Sylva and started a family.
While raising her young children in the heart of downtown Sylva, Sarah became involved in downtown revitalization efforts, first spearheading the development of the Bridge Park, then as the director of the downtown association and as a Sylva Town Board member. Her passion for community development led her to pursue a graduate degree in Public Administration from Western Carolina University.
In 2011 Sarah joined the Southwestern North Carolina Planning and Economic Development Commission – first serving as a regional planner, then director of community and economic development, and now as executive director. Among her goals is helping communities take a more active role in improving their overall health. For instance, in rural areas where preventable diseases and lifestyle-based health problems are common, Sarah encourages implementing active transportation tools like bike lanes and greenways to support healthy habit change.
Conducting her work almost exclusively in rural communities has given Sarah a unique perspective, one that will be vital to the Dogwood Health Trust board of directors.
“I spend every day working with the realities of these rural areas, and I know firsthand their challenges,” says Sarah. “But I also know how much opportunity and untapped assets exist
here, and I’m so excited to be a part of an organization like Dogwood that will be a true agent of change where we need it most.”
Sarah lives in Sylva with her three daughters and says she’s instilling in them every day the biggest lesson she’s taken from both her travels and her experiences in the mountain of WNC: “We are so much more alike than we are different.” It’s a lesson she plans to also apply in her work on behalf of Dogwood Health Trust.