As of last November, 30-year-old Samantha Harding became the Program Director for the YMCA of Pulaski County. The Program Director has many responsibilities but the day I came to visit, Samantha, who goes by Sam, was fully occupied in preparations for the upcoming Duck Derby. This charity event was set to occur just a few days from the interview.
“I’ve made over 1,000 entries so far,” said Sam of her task. “A lot of these Duck Derbies were canceled because of COVID but we’re making it work.”
This year’s Duck Derby will involve dumping 5,000 rubber ducks in the outfield of Calfee Park and every one of those ducks must be labeled with a serial number, so that a winner can be picked from the field. It’s a labor intensive job, but Sam seems up for it.
Earlier this year, as part of her duties as Program Director, Sam oversaw the Thin It To Win It competition. The Reading Divas won this season’s contest, but getting participants to lose massive amounts of weight wasn’t really the point.
“We didn’t want to focus on weight loss but rather just getting healthier,” said Sam. “You don’t have to starve yourself. If you eat healthier, you’re going to lose weight.”
Sam Harding is a native of Virginia but not of the Virginia Highlands. She was born in Newport News and spent her formative years in the Tidewater area of the Commonwealth.
“We went to the beach a lot,” said Sam. “My dad used to have a boat. My uncle’s farm is right on the bay, so when we were bored, we’d just fish the crab pots.”
Samantha moved to Florida with her mother after her parents divorced, but they soon relocated to Huntersville North Carolina, where her mother had family. Four years later she returned back to Newport News with her mom. After finishing high school, she enrolled in Tidewater Community College.
Though generally healthy, around this time Sam was experiencing chronic headaches. To get some relief, she began taking vision therapy treatments. Vision therapy treats eye disorders without surgery by utilizing a variety of eye exercises. She did so well with her treatments that she was offered a job.
“I went all through college working there and once I got out of college I took over as head therapist,” Sam recounted. “A lot of kids that are labeled ADD and dyslexic just have trouble tracking their eyes across the midline of their body. Eye turns can help fix that. You could treat amblyopia (Lazy eye) with vision therapy. That’s when you lose vision over time until you become legally blind, but that’s correctable. You can fix that and we’ve had kids that were 20/600 go to 20/60.”
While working as a Vision Therapist, Sam transferred to Old Dominion University where she studied Exercise Science. Sam not only studied exercise, she did her own research on the topic. Her favorite exercise was rock climbing.
“I like the explosiveness of it,” said Sam of rock climbing. “I mostly bouldered, so there were no ropes and like 15 feet was the highest you could go but I’ve still had a lot of close calls.”
A friend introduced her to a fellow named Jonathan Harding, who worked as the rock climbing coach at a gym in Virginia Beach. In time, their love of ascending steep surfaces together led to a fondness for one another.
Samantha graduated from Old Dominion University in 2013 with a degree in Exercise Science. Jonathan Harding, who was also attending ODU, earned his bachelor’s degree in English Literature from that higher learning institution.
In 2015, Jonathan and Samantha became husband and wife.
The couple moved west the following year, as Jonathan had decided to pursue a master’s degree in Composition and Rhetoric at Virginia Tech.
“When we moved out, I didn’t have a job lined up,” Samantha explained. “So we were trying to find something that we could afford. Jonathan was getting paid a little bit because he taught freshmen English at NRCC, while he was getting his master’s. In Blacksburg everything was a little out of our price range and so we looked at some houses in Pulaski where we could have a big dog … we had a big dog at the time.”
For the next three years the couple lived in a house adjacent to Calfee Field.
“It was fun, especially when they had the fireworks shows,” said Sam. “It was nice living in town and we just liked the area so much we decided to stay.”
Not long after moving to Pulaski, Samantha got pregnant. Sam started working part time at the YMCA teaching yoga classes. After her daughter Gwendolyn was born in July 2017, Sam spent more time at home. Once Gwendolyn was old enough to start day care, Sam started working full time in the kitchen at the YMCA.
“I was the lunch lady essentially,” said Sam. “When we first had our daughter, we didn’t have any family nearby and coworkers would watch her if I needed help. It’s just … it’s a really good team of people willing to help each other out.”
Sam continued to do personal training classes as well as her yoga routine.
“I like that it’s calm,” said Sam of her yoga classes. “It’s not jumping around so it’s low impact. I was a climber and I would fall all the time, so it was nice to have something that wasn’t high impact. It’s not just for people who are fit. A lot of people who come in are older and I like the versatility of that.”
In 2019, Jonathan Harding replaced an English teacher who left her post for maternity leave at Pulaski County High School. That teacher never returned and Jonathan teaches English at the high school to this day.
In the latter half of 2019, Adam Pace, the former Program Director at the YMCA of Pulaski County departed and Samantha Harding was promoted to fill that position. As such, Sam has a variety of duties aside from organizing special events like the Duck Derby. As Program Director she is in charge of coordinating personal training classes, helping with day care, tending to the “Community Garden” in back of the facility and even vacuuming the treadmills as part of a deep cleaning procedure.
The onset of COVID also added to her list of duties.
“I clean what our cleaning staff doesn’t get done on a regular basis,” said Sam. “We space everything out. We can’t have water fountains. We have our front desk sanitized two or three times a day. We all just fill in where we can.”
Though she wears many hats, much of her work involves keeping people healthy … and that can be challenging.
“Keeping people motivated, I would say it’s the hardest thing,” said Sam. “We get a lot of people in January who are really ready to get involved and stay fit and then it usually falls off by the next couple of months. So the challenge is trying to keep people going and motivated and making fitness and healthy living a habit and not just a phase or a diet.”
As soon as the demise of the coronavirus makes it possible, Sam plans on introducing more programs at the YMCA of Pulaski County.
In the summer of 2019, Sam, Jonathan and Gwendolyn Harding moved out of Pulaski to the tiny upriver community of Austinville.
“We were looking for land, so we got six acres out that way,” said Sam. “It’s a pretty cool spot for Gwendolyn and our big dog to run around. I would like some cows eventually … my uncle has cows. I never personally had a ton of land, so it was always something I thought would be really fun. We’ve got some chickens right now and a little hobby farm.”
As one might expect, Samantha makes a point of getting plenty of exercise. She does a lot of hiking but both Sam and Jonathan have eased up on their rock climbing hobby.
“We used to climb Mcafee’s Knob all the time,” said Sam. “I hike it now and I’m like dang, I used to hike up here and then climb! I don’t think I could do that anymore.”
Jonathan now participates in Highland Games, where he competes in activities like the caber toss. That’s the one where big dudes, often dressed in kilts, heave a 20-foot-long logs as far as they can.
“I like going outside and I love the mountains,” said Sam of her newly adopted home. “It’s nice to be able to drive somewhere on the weekend instead of having to drive hours and hours to try to even see a mountain, like when we were at the beach.”
Will they stay?
“We’re planning on staying for at least 10 years and we’ll decide from there,” said Sam. “My husband wants to go to school for his doctorate in the future but that’s not going to happen any time soon.”
“We’re thinking about it,” said Sam. “I like the community. Like I said, we stayed because we had such a great support system. We weren’t expecting that moving to a new area and there were so many people willing to help you out.”
Doesn’t she miss the beach?
“I get sunburned,” said Sam. “I’ve seen the beach enough but I like seafood. It’s the only thing I miss about being out here.”