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Social Services Director Betty Wells retiring

“I’m looking forward to a long life,” said Halifax County Department of Social Services Executive Director Betty Gupton Wells, contemplating her impending retirement at the end of the year.

“I have, I guess, a lot of longevity in my genes,” she continued. “I’ve known all of my grandparents and six of my eight great-grandparents in my time.”

Wells is retiring after 33 years with social services. “I started out in Mecklenburg County Social Services on Oct. 1, 1977 and worked first as a social worker and then as an eligibility supervisor in the food stamp program,” she said. “I came here in February 1986 as assistant director and then was promoted to director in April of 1990.”

A county native, Wells grew up in the Aarons Creek community and attended Virgilina Elementary School and Halifax County High School.

“I’ve been in Halifax County all my life except for about two years when I went overseas with my military husband,” she explained. “Other than that I’ve been a Halifax County resident since I was born. I actually live in the house where my mom and dad lived when they were expecting me, so I’m all the way back to my roots.”

Wells holds a B.S. degree from Longwood College (now University) in secondary education in math and social studies. “I taught school for six years after we came home from overseas,” she said. “I had received scholarships to go to college, so I came back and taught at Sinai Elementary for five years, and then I taught in Mecklenburg County at Clarksville Elementary for a year.”

Combining her six years teaching with the 33 years with social services, Wells has a total of 39 years in the Virginia Retirement System.

“I’m excited to be finally hanging it up,” she said, laughing.

Wells said she has seen a number of changes in her department over her tenure. “I have definitely seen the number of clients coming through our doors increase drastically, especially with the recession we’ve been going through,” she said.

“Between 2000 and 2010 our Medicaid caseloads increased 70 percent, and our food stamps went up 145 percent,” she continued. “Fuel assistance went up 106 percent, crisis fuel went up 852 percent, from 77 to 733 cases.
“The only program that’s gone down, which is a good thing, is the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which went down 9 percent,” Wells said. “That’s the program that welfare transformation was done.

“Before that time the emphasis was on education and training people to become self-sufficient, to become members of the working class from being on welfare,” she continued. “Then they had the Virginia Initiative for Employment not Welfare (VIEW), and that’s changed the emphasis from training and education to work first. We’ve seen the caseloads go down continuously ever since that took place,” she said.

Wells said her department has seen some increases lately in the TANF program because of the high unemployment rate. “The vast majority of these increases have been since 2000 when we started here in the county and all the textile companies began to close down,” she explained.

“As the unemployment benefits gave out they’ve come to us for assistance in the form of food stamps and Medicaid especially,” she said. “So those caseloads have drastically grown.”

Looking back on her career with social services, Wells compared it to a journey. “It’s been more than just a career, it’s been a mission,” she explained. “To me this is a daily mission to be able to provide services and assistance to people who happen to be down on their luck.

“A lot of people who come in here never thought they would come,” she continued. “They find themselves down on their luck, they lose their job, whatever happens is just part of life in this recession time. So being able to help them has been a mission for me, and it’s been very rewarding that I could do that.

“I see my job as being one that I hire the staff that I think will be the best providers of that customer service,” she said. “Then train them to do their job, let them do their job, expect them to do their job and to do it in a professional way. The employees who work here try to treat everybody the way we would want to be treated.

“Nobody is better than somebody else, and a job is the best form of welfare,” she said. “So if we can get people employed and off of welfare, it’s the old story of give someone a fish and they eat for a day, but train them to fish, and they eat for a lifetime.”

Wells said her department strives to do that to make their clients self-sufficient and help them to maximize their potential. “That’s what our goal is, it’s what our mission statement is, and we try to do that every day.”

Looking at the future of her department, Wells said she foresees more automation. “Automation is good in that it will help us get our job done more expeditiously, more efficiently, but we lose our human contact,” she said. “I think for a social service agency, they need that human contact. A computer takes away the human element.

“But it is the way of the future,” she continued. “Down the road I think we’ll see applications for food stamps, applications for Medicaid all taken online.”

Looking ahead to her retirement on Jan. 1, Wells said she plans to spend time with her family and do some traveling. “We would like to see all the United States,” she said. “The farthest we’ve been is North and South Dakota when we went on a mission trip about a year ago last summer,” she said. “We’ve been on a mission trip to Panama.

“We like doing those kinds of things together, mission trips and helping folks,” she said. “We also enjoy camping, so Myrtle Beach will be calling me, I’m sure.”

That’s not a bad retirement plan for anyone.