Afira DeVries is passionate, driven and dedicated to her roles as CEO, mother and friend.
When Afira DeVries strides into Beamer’s 25 for our lunch, she hugs me as though we’ve been friends for years. And by the time our lunch of turkey and smokey burgers with tater tots and onion rings is over, I feel like maybe we have been and I just never realized it until now.
As President and CEO of the United Way of Roanoke Valley, DeVries is in charge of the largest branch in our region. United Way acts as the connective tissue for the community, and DeVries plays a lot of different roles in her job, including overseeing administrative work, leading strategic direction and planning processes, and having conversations with groups, media and other organizations to design social work.
“United Way manages a few initiatives and programs, but we are the organization that brings social service networks together to solve social problems,” she says. “In many respects our organization identifies gaps in service and figures out who should work together to fill and solve those gaps. It’s a lot of social work crafting so that there’s a much stronger, tighter network.”
DeVries has been involved with United Way since her entry-level position after college at Averett University. The United Way’s particular mission “spoke to her soul” and appealed to her as a critical piece of the community’s fabric.
On any given day, she can play with a child in their preschool and see how they’re learning thanks to a curriculum United Way helped establish; in that same afternoon, she can sit with CEOs and industry leaders to discuss philanthropic goals.
“It does not feel like a job, it feels like something I am supposed to do,” she says. “Who I am, what am I saying, if I don’t have the proximity to the actual population and community we’re serving? It’s important for me to never lose touch with the product of our effort, which is a community that benefits from our work. Being that conduit is what I believe I was put on this earth to do.”
DeVries is a role model not just for her two young daughters, but for the community at large. She sees our city as “beautifully diverse” and accepts the challenge of being a woman of color in a unique position to be a mouthpiece of a community that needs and deserves representation.
“I made a decision a long time ago to expect the best from people and to behave as though that’s my expectation. More often than not, it leads to the best outcome,” she says.
“If you’re going to be successful and you ever get to the place where you get to be the example of what someone else’s potential might lead to, you have no right to turn your back and you must embrace it. I’m proud to be some kind of example and I hope every day it’s enough for someone. Not just for women of color, but young women in general. There’s a lot that comes with being a female leader and as a woman of color. There’s nothing else I can do but accept that and do my best with it.”
Having only been in Roanoke for two years, DeVries has enjoyed every moment. She remembers the weekend she and her husband Jason visited Roanoke for the recruitment process, visiting downtown Roanoke on a cold, drizzly day.
“We thought it had all the life of a big city, but you could feel it was a community...it feels good to be a part of a community that believes in a collective effort.”
When she’s not working, zumba is her happy place, as are hikes in our mountains. When time permits, she loves to paint, but of course being with her family is the best part of her day. She and her daughters share a love of fashion and shopping and she helps her daughter, Ava Rosa, with her video journalism (see page 21 to meet this impressive kid journalist!).
“This is my home now. My children feel connected here, it’s a beautiful city, and it really is a great place to raise a family and know good will come of them being here.”