A young woman walks up to the microphone to share her joys for the week. She introduces herself and then adds that she’s reached Phase 2. The dining hall erupts with applause as the woman smiles at them, looking pleased and confident.It’s Tuesday evening and we’re breaking bread at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC. Tuesday is the Life Skills night of the highly successful StepUp Ministry that helps uplift people from poverty. The remarkable success of this non-profit may lie in its ability to adapt to the needs of their participants. Now in its thirtieth year, the ministry has branched out with programs in Wilmington, Greensboro, and Durham.

In The Beginning. . .
In 1988, a committee from White Memorial formed the StepUp Ministry to combat the rising number of people living on the street in Raleigh. “We quickly learned that homelessness was part of a much bigger picture” explains Linda Nunnallee, Executive Director. Providing housing needed to be coupled with employment and solid life skills. In 2004, the ministry worked with Jubilee Jobs to develop the Employment Readiness Curriculum that the program uses today.

Participants Guide the Decisions Poverty is a multi-faceted challenge and each family has their own concerns. Over the years, Nunnallee and her colleagues developed a winning formula. “We listen to the people we serve. When we need to pivot a little, we do. When we need to be flexible we can be.” Ultimately, this tailored approach led them to turn down federal grants, which were often tied to national benchmarks that could hinder flexibility in the program. “The money that comes to StepUp comes from the community,” explained Nunnallee. “We belong to individuals, businesses, foundations, civic groups, and churches who support us.” Working with 300 volunteers, Nunnallee describes the special one-on-one relationships the program builds with each participant. “So the first day they’re at StepUp, participants are asked, ‘What was your dream and where did it end?’ And there has never been anybody who couldn’t answer that question. They can tell you the exact moment that their dream ended. And then we know that we can start building a personal relationship with that individual.”

It’s Easy as 1, 2, 3
The StepUp program may sound deceptively simple: Get a Job, Create Stability, Build a Career.

Step 1 – Get a Job
It all starts with a participant partnering with an employment counselor. An intensive week-long workshop focuses on resume writing, interview skills, networking, dressing professionally and mock interviews. After that week, the partners follow up with employment training and connecting with employers. While employment is the foundation of the StepUp approach, it’s just one piece of the bigger picture.
Carryl Tinsley, Marketing and Communications Coordinator at Step Up, said, “A lot of these people have been knocked down by life. They need to rebuild their confidence so they can maintain eye contact in a job interview. Sometimes, people feel ashamed and nervous. And they come in and need to relearn how to lift up their shoulders and their head and be proud of who they are.”
Often, the difference between success and failure can hinge on small issues. In one case, the court costs of parking and motor vehicle violations prevented a participant from obtaining a driver’s license. Campbell University Law Clinics, a partner of StepUp, represented them in court and paved the way to obtaining a new license.

Step 2 – Create Stability
Once an adult is employed, they may enter Step 2, which meets weekly on Tuesday nights. This in-depth life-skills phase lasts for a year and is a family affair. Adults in the program bring their children to StepUp’s Children’s Program, where they learn the same skills as their parents, on age-appropriate levels. The popular Real World program helps young adults set goals and plan for their future. Some years ago, Real World participants were experiencing bullying. The leaders were able to adjust the curriculum to work through these difficult encounters. This year, there was a new pivot when the participants showed an interest in art and music.

So, what happens in Step 2? Participants secure a mentor who will walk beside them throughout the year. After dinner, participants learn about budgeting, relationship development, goal setting, managing emotions, and conflict resolution. During this phase, participants develop a strong support system. “The community of volunteers, staff and the people in the class will spend a lot of time together,” says Tinsley. “They’re vulnerable with each other and they share experiences. They keep up with each other for years to come.”

Participants may be starting a new job and navigating public transportation with their little ones to get to class. It’s not unusual for Step 2 to take up five hours of their evening after a full day at work. Those who remain committed to the program for the full year get to celebrate their accomplishment with a special graduation ceremony. “Our participants are amazing,” says Nunnallee. “Nobody’s mandated, so nobody’s unhappy they’re here. So, it’s easy to celebrate their joy and accomplishment. Even when you have to take a step back every once in a while.”

Step 3 – Build a Career
After graduation, it may be hard to sustain a dream. So, on Thursday nights, alumni surround themselves with support and love to keep them on track. At this stage, participants improve communication and leadership skills through Toastmasters International. They also develop their career through free Wake Tech courses.

Sweet Success
In 2017, the StepUp Ministry helped 265 people find work. They served 144 adults through Life Skills, 124 children in the Children’s Program, and 56 young adults in Real World. Success stories like Jeff Henderson’s success can be very moving. When he entered the program, he shared his dream of being a truck driver. Several years later, Jeff stopped by in his 18-wheeler semi-truck to say thank you.

A Little Help from Friends
As you can imagine, StepUp can’t assist in every aspect of a family’s need. That’s where their partnerships throughout the community pitch in. They work with groups around Raleigh that help with legal issues, mental health, substance abuse, clothing, housing, furniture, primary health care, pro bono law, diaper supply, after school care and so much more.
Homelessness is a national problem. Like many cities, Raleigh struggles with the paradox of a booming economy coupled with a shortage of affordable housing. While overall unemployment in the county is 4%, there are still some neighborhoods where the rate is high as 23%. With the help of their partners, StepUp builds on a strong foundation on family, education, community, great dinners and one-on-one mentoring.

Nunnallee believes the success of StepUp is the organization’s ability to change direction when needed. There’s no question that the employment rate has a large impact on the program. Twenty years ago, when large scale unemployment was a problem, there was a high demand for Step 1 employment guidance. “Today, the jobs are plentiful, and participants come for entry level jobs, so not as many people need employment training. But we have more people who need to learn how to build stability for their families in Life Skills. That’s where you learn how to keep a job.”
And family is the final cornerstone at StepUp. At the Tuesday night dinner, a young man shares how his fiancé sent him to this program after she and several family members had graduated. That’s how you keep it in the family.

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You can support StepUp’s missions by attending the AMA’s Big Marketing Pub Quiz, a charity trivia meet to benefit StepUp. Net proceeds will go to benefit StepUp’s mission to enable adults and children to transform their lives through employment and life skills training.
Enjoy food, drink, and five action-packed rounds of brainteasers in marketing pop culture, history, strategy, and more! Tickets are just $10. Seating is limited—register today!
(Want to bring your whole team and/or promote your brand? Speak to Jared about sponsorship packages: jared.brickman@amatriangle.org)

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Sue Anger is a digital marketing writer, who lives in north Raleigh. When she’s not writing pithy content, she’s  creating historical fiction. Then, she goes sailing.

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