By Sally Voth -- email@example.com
WOODSTOCK -- After 15 years as Department of Social Services director, John Ayers is planning his retirement.
Ayers, 64, plans to step down in September. He says in a news release that ads for the position will start this month.
A New Jersey native, Ayers was hired as DSS director in August 1997. Before that, he spent eight years as an information systems analyst with the Peace Corps, he said in a phone interview Monday afternoon.
But, Ayers' background was in social service work, and he'd spent time in both Washington DC and Hawaii running social service programs, "usually non-profits, but sometimes for the government."
Ayers majored in psychology as an undergrad and graduate student, but his interest in social work was likely forged at a much younger age.
"I was raised with foster kids," he said. "My parents loved kids. There were five biological kids and several foster kids. For us, it was, 'Oh boy, more kids to play with.' We were pretty oblivious as to some of the trauma that had gone on."
In his tenure, Ayers has watched the department move from older houses on Main Street in Woodstock, to the County Government Center in 2000, and finally the Health and Human Services building last year.
"We had no elbow room in the houses," he said. "Now, we have room to grow for the future."
The poor economy has led to a much heavier burden on DSS.
"The recession has more than doubled our caseloads," Ayers said. "It has been a huge caseload increase even though I have one staff [member] less."
The number of people getting food stamps has gone from 1,100 to about 2,450 in recent years, he said.
Over the years, social services has worked harder at keeping families intact, if it's safe to do so, Ayers, the father of two grown daughters, said.
Some other accomplishments he cites are the Seven Bends after-school daycare programs, the back to school book bag program -- now run by the Shenandoah County Sheriff's Office -- and the Healthy Families initiative, which he originally helped to get funding for while working in Hawaii.
In his retirement, Ayers is looking forward to traveling with his wife, Betty, working on his farm and getting back into aviation.
He had nothing but praise for his employees.
"I think they keep raising the bar, even with themselves," Ayers said. "They're very dedicated. They work hard.
"They used to roll their eyes when I said we've got the best jobs in the country -- we get paid for helping people. They don't roll their eyes on that anymore."