Annette Lewis: A Local Legacy

“When I came aboard TAP, I didn’t know how young it was,” says Annette Lewis, president and CEO. That was in 1988. TAP had been established 23 years prior, in 1965. “I thought it had been around forever. It was very well known in the community for helping people move out of poverty.” Now, in its 59th year, TAP’s still very well known, particularly by those who can use a helping hand. Annette is too. She’ll be leaving a legacy when she retires in March.

Annette worked for Allstate for nine years before leaving her job as manager to begin her time at TAP. Ironically, she recalls, “I decided I wasn’t going to manage anything or anybody else. I wanted a nine-to-five job.” TAP seemed a good fit with her existing social work degree, so she took a position as a summer youth employment counselor. “I fell in love with it,” she says. Teaching young people about the importance of showing up to work on time, finishing jobs in progress, communicating effectively with supervisors, and learning skills necessary to get and keep a job was invigorating. “I have run into many of them in recent years.  Here they are, professionals today, having gained this knowledge that they received [from TAP’s training].” 

“During my time at TAP, after deciding I didn’t want to become a manager, I became a supervisor with Head Start, I became a director,” she admits. And of course, ultimately, she became president and CEO.  

A Can-Do Culture

When Annette joined TAP 36 years ago, she discovered a can-do culture. “Early on, we were successful employing people with a passion. What they didn’t know they learned on the job. And this agency grew from that mindset,” she recalls. “If you had a skill, you could do just about anything.”

Annette tells the story of 21-passenger bus. At the time, she had been promoted to the coordinator of the Summer Youth Employment Program. She was taking youth on an overnight trip to a city 1.5 hours away. Due to the good relationship that the rental company had with TAP, the key was left so that the vehicle could be picked up if the office was closed. Surprisingly, the key was left for a 21-passenger bus. Annette looked at the vehicle, called her supervisor and said, “I don’t think I can drive this vehicle.”  She quickly realized her old way of thinking didn’t fit the TAP culture. Annette drove the bus that day, full of passengers. 

That passion and problem-solving spirit continues today. TAP is one of the main connectors in the community between those in need and area not-for-profits, according to a 2018 study. In fact, Virginia Tech’s research called TAP a “lynchpin,” critical in directing those in need to appropriate area providers. As a community action agency, TAP pays attention to what citizens are asking for and will often create initiatives and programs when other agencies can’t fill a void. With this mindset, the organization not only has a profound effect on the underprivileged in our area, but also the greater community as a whole. TAP’s yearly economic impact exceeds $35 million.   

Changing focus

Annette recalls that when she first started at TAP, services looked a little different than they do today. “We had many of the same programs we have now, youth programs, adult programs, workforce development programs, housing programs, a large Head Start program. TAP started the food bank [now Feeding Southwest Virginia] so we had food pantries. We also had clothes closets and other emergency services. We spent a lot of resources on those services. A decision was made to no longer provide emergency services.”

“I think the best decision that the agency made was to move out of the emergency services business into the human, community, and economic development services,” says Annette. “People will always need emergency services if they can’t stand on their own two feet. Equip people with the education and the skills that they need to stand on their own two feet and you’re changing lives, one family at a time.”

Funding Hope

Historically, TAP has relied heavily on grant funding. However, grant restrictions make it difficult to provide all of the services that families need. Grants also get discontinued and/or require annual reapplications without any ongoing funding guarantees. With more unrestricted funds and bigger community support, TAP can become more effective in its mission.

“Word of mouth drives people to knock on our door,” says Annette. She admits that influential people and those in a position to support TAP financially are less apt to know what TAP does. “I’m amazed, because I’m working in an environment where everyone knows us. That’s been interesting.”

To address this concern, TAP hired a director of fund development in 2023. TAP has tried several tactics to raise discretionary funds throughout the years, with varying success. This included special events. Annette explains that hosting a variety of concerts and other events raised some money, but not enough to start a program or keep one going.     

The agency finally struck the right chord when it introduced the Bringing Hope Home campaign four years ago. “Each year of the campaign, we raised more than our goal,” says Annette. “In three years, we’ve raised over $900,000. One hundred percent of the board participates.” With increasingly more effective funding initiatives, TAP can better provide for those it serves.

Looking Back

When asked what has brought the most joy from her tenure as president, Annette responds, “It’s the people that are assisted. It’s the lives that have been impacted. When I became a director and had graduation ceremonies—it’s the people who walk across the stage for the first time in their lives. Or a person who’s been abused and they don’t see any hope, who finds out they can get a safety plan and leave an abusive relationship. All of those things are just so rewarding.”

A few memories stick out in particular. Annette recalls a gentleman who worked at a manufacturing company for over 40 years until he retired in his 70s. “He never told anyone he couldn’t read.” She says she’ll never forget the moment when, after going through the TAP literacy program, he read a Valentine’s Day card to his wife for the very first time.  

“We had two federal Two-Generation grants that focused on assisting adults to continue their education so they could get a good-paying job while providing support for their children [through Head Start and other childcare programs],” she continues. “It was very successful. We have someone now who’s working on her masters in nursing as a result of our having a program like that. It is a best practice model for ending generational poverty. It’s not about the grant or just the individual. It’s about the family and their needs.”

The work TAP does with area youth is also a bright point. “At one time, schools in our region had children dropping out of school at an alarming rate of 500 kids each year. Most of them were Roanoke City Schools’ children. We started a dropout retrieval program and got over 900 back into education.” This was over a six-year period.

Finally, “To be in a home where you see sewage going up and down the walls and then seeing that home being repaired so the family can live in it safely and affordably is truly amazing,” she says. “People don’t realize how fortunate or blessed they are.”   

Pride in Standing Out

“We are not your typical non-profit,” says Annette. “We do so many things while operating over 20 programs. Our senior staff are on numerous boards and committees throughout the community to connect our families with resources to help them move out of poverty.”

She’s proud of a strong board and associated fund development initiatives. Bylaw changes shortened permitted tenure terms, which she finds helpful. “We’re able to bring in leaders from the community with new ideas and other connections to help keep our agency strong.”   

“When I think of things that started while I’ve been here, either under my leadership as a director or president of the agency, I am proud of the microenterprise loan fund program that has grown into a Community Development Financial Institution where we help small businesses get on their feet and become very strong and very respected in the community,” says Annette. 

She’s also proud of three other major initiatives started by her, “The dropout retrieval program” mentioned earlier that returned over 900 to education. Annette continues, “Sabrina’s Place, the only supervised visitation and safe exchange center in our region for victims of domestic violence and their children that has kept over 1,000 victims and their children safe. Families come from across the country to benefit from the program; and TAP’s Whole Family Initiative.”

As a result of TAP’s Whole Family focus, its programs aim to work in concert to meet the needs of each member in a family simultaneously. For example, a parent may be getting a Certified Nurse Aide (CNA) or Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) certification through TAP’s adult education and employment programs while using childcare through Head Start. Looking at all family member needs has become a guiding principle for TAP.

 “I’m very excited about the direction the agency is going, to have a focus on the whole family and not operating in silos anymore,” Annette says.

“Annette has dedicated her life to helping the poor and those in need,” says Senator John S. Edwards. “Her extraordinary leadership at TAP has made life better for so many. Her leadership has extended to southwest Virginia and across the state in improving the lives for many families living in poverty.  I am proud to know her as a friend.”   Annette is the third president in TAP’s 59-year history. She’s served in this role for eight years. The agency has changed and evolved since she started as a summer youth employment counselor and so has she. Her last day at TAP will be March 1.