Second Chances with Unifirst


One year ago, Algeron Smith was working part-time as a general laborer, struggling to make ends meet after completing a prison sentence. Intent on finding a more stable job with better pay that would draw upon his skills, Algernon sought out StepUp Durham and attended StepUp’s Employment Readiness Workshop at the referral of the city employment office. Algernon recalls, “I’ll admit, at first I was skeptical about the training. I was working part-time and really wasn’t looking for some program to waste my time. But as I attended the workshop and started listening to people telling me I do have a second chance… it was so encouraging!”

During the workshop, Algernon created his first résumé, set up a professional email account, and learned how to present himself in interviews in ways that encouraged potential employers to see beyond his criminal background. And what employers discovered in Algernon was an employee whose attitude and work ethic reflected a genuine excitement to be on the job.

Algernon 2.jpeg

Shortly after graduating StepUp’s workshop, Algernon obtained a job performing property maintenance and custodial work at UniFirst, a uniform and facility services company that offers personalized uniforms, facility cleaning, and maintenance equipment to its nationwide clientele. He has enjoyed the hands-on nature of his work and his interaction with colleagues, as well as the many opportunities available for him to learn new skills in different areas of the plant.

As he nears his one-year anniversary on the job and reflects on his experience at StepUp, Algernon recalls: “My time at StepUp raised my self-esteem and gave me the confidence to believe I could accomplish things in my life I never thought possible. I would suggest StepUp to anybody who’s really trying to get their lives together, especially someone who may have a criminal record. Because without StepUp, I never would have tried to aim for the level of job that I have now. The program helped me do things I couldn’t have done alone.” Algernon has worked hard to overcome those obstacles that once stood in his way to employment, making him another among many StepUp participants worth celebrating!

Written by Luke Ehrhardt
Duke Divinity School Fellow

NCCU Eagles Welcome New Employee


For over a decade, LaShawn Marshall struggled to find a job. Her troubles began with an injury she suffered while working as a Nursing Assistant, which led to a doctor’s prescription for painkillers, an addiction, and ultimately, a felony conviction. “It’s been a struggle for me,” said LaShawn about her many attempts to find work. “I would have good interviews, but they would never call back once they did a background check.” 

Originally from New York, LaShawn is a single mom of a 16-year-old son and she has lived in the Triangle for the last 20 years. During a visit to Carolina Outreach in 2016, a therapist recommended she look into StepUp Durham. LaShawn checked out their website and signed up for an employment workshop. She immediately benefitted from the skills she learned, including how to interview and write strong cover letters and résumés. “I learned a lot about how to properly write those things,” said LaShawn. 

Even though StepUp improved LaShawn’s employment materials and interviewing skills, finding a job was still a difficult process. “There were a lot of days I would go into StepUp and feel so sad and discouraged, but they kept me up,” said LaShawn. Even during these hard times, she continued to attend classes and ask for help. One of the best things about StepUp, according to LaShawn, is their network of supporters: “They have a lot of connections. If they can’t help you, they have other people who can help you.” 

LaShawn’s hard work paid off when she was hired as a Human Resources Assistant in the W.G. Pearson Dining Hall at North Carolina Central University. In her permanent position, LaShawn processes payroll, conducts interviews, and gives orientations. She just celebrated 90 days of employment and believes she owes this accomplishment to the StepUp program she attended. LaShawn recommends that anyone struggling to find work consider enrolling in the program. Ultimately, it was more than just the skills LaShawn gained that got her a good and steady job. “StepUp has so much to offer,” LaShawn said. “They keep you uplifted and encouraged.”

Written by Dr. Julie Nelson, Assistant Professor
Department of Language and Literature at NCCU
StepUp Durham Volunteer

Closing the gap with Duke Credit Union

Ginger - Duke Credit Union

After a twenty-two-year career in banking, Ginger Murphy left the workforce to care for her aging mother and newborn nephew.  Once her nephew was old enough to attend school, Ginger began to search for jobs, intent on obtaining another position in the banking industry. She recalls, “I was nervous and skeptical I would find something because I had been out of the workforce for five years.” Determined to overcome this obstacle to employment, Ginger attended StepUp Durham’s 32-hour Employment Readiness Workshop in April of 2016, equipping her with the skills and resources to achieve her employment goals.  Reflecting on her experiences at StepUp, Ginger recalls, “StepUp taught me how to phrase my experiences when talking with potential employers in order to merge my five-year employment gap.  The workshop also taught me great interviewing techniques, which helped me feel more confident as I prepared to step back into the workforce.”
Three months after graduating StepUp’s workshop, Ginger obtained a customer service position at Duke Credit Union in July of 2016.  As she approaches her two-year anniversary of graduating StepUp and starting at the Credit Union, Ginger celebrates the life goals which she has been able to achieve since her first day on the job.  “One of my goals,” she explains, “was to get a vehicle when I started working.  And I was able to do that this past July!”  Of her time in this position, Ginger shares, “I love that every employee with the Duke Credit Union works at the same location.  From the CEO to the newest entry-level employee, we’re like a very close-knit family.”  And it is this sense of kinship—along with a sense of accomplishment and purpose—that sustains Ginger daily in her work.

Written by Luke Ehrhardt
Duke Divinity School Fellow

22 PYO students begin summer internships this week!


This June marked the second consecutive summer that StepUp Durham supported Partners for Youth Opportunities (PYO) in conducting their Summer Career Academy (SCA). SCA is a training program PYO students are required to complete prior to their placement by PYO at summer internships.

The partnership between PYO and StepUp Durham began in late 2015 through an introduction made by ReCity Executive Director Rob Shields. Neither PYO nor StepUp was on the other organization’s radar. StepUp serves adults and PYO serves students 14 and older. Yet Rob saw potential for partnership that resulted in StepUp impacting a greater number of employment seekers and PYO having access to curriculum that could help improve the quality of workforce development training they facilitated.

Last summer, StepUp Durham led several modules from its Employment Readiness Workshop to students of the 2016 SCA. StepUp Employment Counselors presented on time management, effective communication, and conflict readiness to 19 secondary and post-secondary students as part of pre-intern preparation. The result was 19 SCA graduates who experienced fruitful internships.

The feedback from SCA was positive, and StepUp Durham and PYO agreed to collaborate on SCA 2017 but with a few changes. While it was wise to retain the core of the curriculum and the education style of approaching everything from a workplace perspective, the partners thought that PYO students would be better served by having peer presenters trained by StepUp Durham in the StepUp content. This meant that the 22 students who’d attend the 2017 SCA would receive trainings that has been found reliable and effective in placing hundreds of people in finding employment delivered by trainers who had much more recent experience with being in high school facing the demands of work, school, family, and community.

In addition to peer trainers, PYO and StepUp decided to adjust and replace modules aimed at the traditional StepUp audience (60% justice involved, 40% homeless, myriad single parents) with content that addressed discrimination and workforce challenges high school age students are likely to face (e.g., fair wage laws, advocacy in the workplace, and the boundaries and rules for harassment.)

The week ended up being an overwhelming success. StepUp was present during nearly every module to help guide conversations if the facilitators needed support. However, PYO trainers rarely needed any such support. They were professional and powerful every day of the week. PYO student Chamiya commanded the room and had people nodding in agreement while presenting on time management to teenagers.  By the end of her training, students had started to name their mission statements and had built a priority driven calendar. On Wednesday, Anthony had each of the 22 students on their feet practicing elevator speeches; the students adeptly named their desired work field, provided experienced based proof of their work skills and abilities, and made sincere offers to stay engaged regarding employment leads. Later Wednesday afternoon, Nandi held the entire room captive with how she discussed using the sandwich method to deliver honest, direct feedback in challenging situations. She also had students asking great questions regarding communicating with empathy while showing cultural sensitivity. Lastly, on Friday, PYO and StepUp volunteers closed out the week by giving multiple mock interviews to each of the 22 students who graduated. The interviews focused on everything from how a person was dressed to how he or she answered interview questions.

By graduation on Friday, every student had experienced employer-focused training on obtaining and maintaining employment. They had a professional resume and headshots taken by Blest Studios, another ReCity partner, for their LinkedIn profiles. Lastly, students were given a graduation certificate and had words of affirmation spoken over them to celebrate their completion of SCA.

The students graduated feeling confident and powerful. And as of Tuesday, June 27th, that spirit of empowerment and professionalism has remained present in the students’ internships at organizations such as: SEEDS, NC Mutual, Welcome Baby, Kids Vote in Durham, Durham VOICE, Durham Farmer’s Market, Low & Behold Natural Beauty Care, Museum of Life and Science, Durham Arts Council, DCIA, El Futuro, Don’t Waste Durham, Scrap Exchange, Triangle Land Conservancy, Soul Cocina, and myriad Durham summer camps.

Per Workforce Development Director, Carlton Koonce, and PYO and StepUp Durham volunteer, Dan Brenner, the students have seemed “prepared and impressive” as well as “comfortable within employment situations.” Both site visitors are incredibly confident that the students will continue to be successful this summer and beyond!

StepUp is incredibly grateful for the opportunity to partner with PYO in serving employment seekers in Durham. StepUp looks forward to a long, bright future of collaboration as both organizations think of fresh new ways of impacting unemployment and underemployment for residents and communities of Durham.

April Spotlight: Anees Ahmad

Story and photos by Chris Lee

For some of us, the month of April signifies a seasonal gateway to fresh beginnings. It’s a time when overcast skies and heavy rains give way to glimpses of new light, peeking through cracks in the clouds. Few people demonstrate these qualities of resilience and growth through adversity better than Anees Ahmad, one of our February StepUp graduates. 

Originally from Pakistan, Anees moved to the United States in the spring of 2016. Within less than a year, he has achieved high proficiency in English, completed StepUp’s job skills workshop, and has obtained living wage employment as a housekeeping specialist at the Duke University Health System earlier this month. These impressive accomplishments, however, remain secondary to his larger vision: to use his life as a vessel by which to encourage and care for others.

Any conversation with Anees about his life soon shifts to focus instead on his calling to support the people around him. When asked about his personal interests, Anees graciously speaks about what he truly cherishes: “I am assured that the only purpose of our life is to live for others,” he explains. “Otherwise, what can you do? We should not work only to make money. We only have a few years in life, and I want to spend it thinking about and helping other people.”

Even now, as he takes steps to advance in his career, Anees thinks deeply about the close relationships he was forced to leave behind in Pakistan: “I think human beings naturally long for their homeland,” he relates with a sigh. “I miss my country – its weather, its people, my family and friends. When I left, my grandfather had liver cancer. I was supporting him financially here, and it was the most difficult time for me. He was like my father. He passed away two months ago, but even then, I could not go back to my country.”

Back in Pakistan, Anees had successfully managed a tractor showroom run by his family’s business for 12 years, in addition to working in an administrative capacity with other organizations. The difficulty that forced his move to the US, however, was not a surprise.   

“I belong to a sect of Islam known as the Ahmadiyya,” he explains. “In the constitution of Pakistan, we are considered minorities, and so we are persecuted on the basis of religion. We cannot practice our religion independently, and we cannot even say ‘As-Salaam-Alaikum’ (a phrase of greeting among Muslims). The law of Pakistan states that we are not Muslims, so we are socially ostracized and killed by others for our religion.”

Anees describes how, despite earning a Master’s degree, he and other Ahmadis were legally barred from opportunities available to others. As a result, his community had to grow successful businesses on their own. Still, due to constant threats against their safety, many Ahmadis have resettled as refugees in countries such as the US, Canada, and Germany.

Due to this persecution, Anees cannot return to Pakistan even if it means missing times of celebration such as family marriages, or times of sorrow such as his grandfather’s passing. Yet somehow, in the midst of this, he insists with optimism that there is no country more beautiful than Pakistan. “It is not always what you see in the news media,” he says. “Our people and the nature are wonderful. The government is corrupt, but the people are good.”

Resettled life in the United States has come with joys and hardships alike. While there is peace and stability, new difficulties have emerged in the form of culture and language.

“Everything in America felt different,” he says. “For example, when I started to take classes at StepUp, I learned that making eye contact is good. In my culture, if I have a meeting with an officer then I have to look at my feet. Also, there are many jobs that my wife cannot do because of her hijab, so to adjust to this culture, we had to take guidance from others.”

While such challenges can be daunting, Anees continues to overcome each difficulty with admirable resolve. He tends to apologize for his English being “not good,” but his proficiency, especially after just one year of study, is extraordinary. English is his sixth language, after all—he also speaks Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi, Saraiki, and Sindhi. Through his new work at Duke, he hopes to practice with native English-speaking co-workers and become fluent in the next year or two.

Anees was first connected to StepUp through Church World Service, a refugee resettlement agency in Durham that assisted him and his wife after their initial arrival. His caseworker Erin referred him to our February workshop, allowing us to partner together on his job search.

“StepUp gave me a basic understanding of why I was not getting a job here. It taught me how to sell myself,” he explains. “I was thinking that I would get a job through my own honesty, my own hard work, but StepUp taught me that this is not enough. You also have to actively sell yourself.

“I had heard that it is very difficult to get a job at Duke, but when I did my interview there, it was only half as difficult as the mock interview I practiced at StepUp. I was prepared, and the interview officer said I did a very good job. He said I was very well dressed – I was wearing the suit that StepUp gave me. Before, I gave interviews with more casual clothes, but this comment proved to me that everything StepUp taught me was true.”                      

This job, according to him, is only the first step toward a larger vision – one for which he is willing to work tirelessly. Moving to a new country meant that he had to start working as a housekeeper despite his extensive managerial experience in Pakistan. “But I am loving it,” he says, “because I am living in peace. No one is saying I can’t do something because of my religion. I feel now that I can live my life.”

Now that he has secured employment, Anees has thought extensively about goals related to family and education: “I am doing this job wholeheartedly and honestly because I hope to move up. This is my first step. My wife and I want to plan for a new family member, so she needs to be free from work for two or three years and I hope to take on all the expenses. I want to study short courses, obtain a job as a receptionist, learn more English, and finally get a job in the administrative field. I’m not going to waste my time – I will center my vision on this path.”

Remaining true to his university studies in Urdu poetry, Anees enjoys pondering the beauty of nature, in all senses of the word: the nature of the earth, as well as the nature of human beings and of God. His words communicate a rare sensitivity indicative of how deeply and intentionally he thinks. He does not wish to live only for a job to earn money – he believes in living for others, and his actions prove it.

“I am not a rich man, but my wife and I save money every month to give to other Pakistani families who need it more – maybe they are getting married or maybe they are sick. We do not carry that money because this satisfaction motivates me and my wife to work harder. I do not want to forget my life’s purpose.”

In the meantime, Anees plans to help some friends with their own job searches and convince them to join future StepUp workshops. In doing so, he wishes to invest in the community here, for this is where he finds meaning.

“I left my homeland, but in my heart, I have accepted that this country is my new homeland, and it will be the homeland of my children. I want to be a good citizen. I want to not be a burden, I don’t want my children to be a burden on anyone, and I wish that we will be able to help others.             

“In a way I have lost my life—I have lost my original life. If I get anything now, then I will use it to help people like me. That is my promise with God. What I want most is the happiness from giving to others what God has given me. Otherwise I don’t have needs. That will be my light.”

Participants like Anees are what truly bring light to StepUp’s mission. On a personal level, I am simply honored to call him my friend.  

NCCU Interim Chancellor joins StepUp Durham board

An interview with Chancellor Johnson O. Akinleye on his inspiration and hopes around partnership with StepUp Durham

How did you first hear about StepUp and what inspired you to join the board? 

I first heard about Step Up and its role in assisting individuals with employment and skills training from the Executive Director, Ms. Syretta Hill. She spoke passionately about the nonprofit organization’s purpose and its mission to restore the lives of those who are struggling economically. She also told me of the need for additional community partners such as North Carolina Central University.

As citizens and neighbors, I believe we have a personal obligation to reach out and assist others in our community, especially those faced with major challenges.  Everyone deserves the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families. NCCU’s motto is “Truth and Service.” These values have been a cornerstone of my life and are beliefs I have shared with my own children. They also are demonstrated daily across campus by our students, faculty and staff. 

I was inspired to become an active agent of change as a member of the StepUp Board of Directors because of my investment in the Durham Community and my desire to enable NCCU to become a resource and potential employer for clients of the agency.

What StepUp initiatives are you most excited about in 2017?

One of the main StepUp initiatives I am most excited about for 2017 is Step2.  Its focus on the personal development, financial awareness and career pathways will no doubt have a transformative impact on the lives of participants. Through training and individual empowerment workshops, this program will succeed in enhancing the skilled talent her in Durham and provide a resource for the Triangle Region’s workforce. We are exploring the potential of providing NCCU facilitators for these training to foster a stronger partnership between the university and StepUp. Ultimately, this is a win-win for the organization and our university.

What StepUp participant stories have resonated with you the most?

The testimony of Ms. Jajuanna Chavis exemplifies how the right combination of persistence, perseverance and talent – along with the insight and resources provided by StepUp – can transform individual lives. Ms. Chavis spoke about the guidance she was provided through her search process, including interview preparation, networking advice and options for a new career path. As she said, StepUp invests in your success if you are “willing to do the work.” I understand that Ms. Chavis story is just one of many that highlight the positive influence StepUp has had on those it serves.

"Step2" is Coming!

By Tim Wollin, StepUp Durham Employment Director

Life Skills Graphic.jpeg

Thank you all for your wonderful and generous support of StepUp Durham over the course of our initial 18 months! Since opening in October 2015, we have seen 70 adults and 24 youth obtain employment! The average wage of those people has been $10.59, with employment positions occurring across 78 different employers! We are so grateful and excited to be part of the journey with the courageous, resilient, and talented folks who come through StepUp Durham. Feel free to check out some StepUp alumni success stories and read more about the great things our grads are doing.

As a continuation of the impressive work being accomplished by the participants of StepUp’s Employment Program, we are excited to announce that we will be kicking off the next phase of StepUp Durham programming this April. We are launching this program because, while there is much to be celebrated with all the successes of 70 people obtaining employment, we’re also keenly aware that “getting a job” is just the start or continuation of the great things that StepUp participants want to do. Many working StepUp adults have goals they would like to accomplish like repairing credit, saving for a car, finding safer and more affordable housing, and more.

We also know that StepUp graduates are more likely to succeed on the job when they engage in committed, sustained, and supportive relationships with other working families and StepUp staff. Research from StepUp Ministry in Raleigh suggests that 90% of participants who have this kind of support retain employment for six months or more—a remarkable retention rate, given the unique challenges that many StepUp participants experience. 

Our emerging post-employment program, called “Step2,” aims to be a strong next step for participants who have completed our Employment Workshop and are working at least 30 hours per week.

Step2 is a nine-month, three-phase program focused on supporting people in developing stability in a myriad of areas in their lives. Phase one will focus on personal development and will engage topics such as goal setting, racial equity awareness, community advocacy, public speaking, stress management, and other skills. Phase two will focus on financial coaching and topics like budgeting, wants versus needs, how to build and rebuild credit, and what it looks like to save for major purchases like a home or a car. Phase three will be focused on career growth. This last phase aims to provide education on different employment industries and skills, as well as how to navigate the landscape to find employment in those industries. Our hope is that by the end of this final phase participants are either in a position that offers benefits and salary sufficient to provide for all their family’s needs or they are on a concrete path towards that type of employment.

StepUp Durham’s vision for Step2 is that it will be a place where people grow and thrive, create and accomplish goals, and build a deeper sense of community, stronger self-awareness, greater financial stability, and clarity for how to obtain the type of job they could call a career.

Thank you for all the support you have shown to StepUp Durham, StepUp Durham participants, and the many community partners who have helped make our first year and a half so successful!

Emerging volunteer opportunities with Step2:

  • Co-partner – Be trained to walk alongside and support a StepUp participant as they set and accomplish their personal, professional, and financial goals 
  • Childcare & homework buddies - Provide supervision and homework help for the children (ages 0-16) of StepUp adults
  • Meal donation - Help StepUp provide a nutritious dinner to the 10 families participating in the Step2 pilot 
  • Instruction - Offer to teach or coach participants on a skill in which you have expertise (i.e. setting S.M.A.R.T. goals, leaning into personality strengths, credit repair, career development, etc.)

Please feel free to contact StepUp Durham’s Employment Director, Tim Wollin (, if you have questions or would like details on how to become involved in Step2.

Meet Tahmeko McDonald, StepUp Durham Volunteer

Article and photo by Chris Lee

“For me, [volunteering] is an honor.” It brings me joy to do something even as little as providing a meal to someone, knowing that it’s making an impact in a positive way, even if I might not know them.”

For many, the month of December has become synonymous with warm expressions of generosity and compassion, and few individuals demonstrate these qualities better than Tahmeko McDonald.

Born and raised here in Durham and a proud graduate of North Carolina Central University, Tahmeko lives out her love for the city by constantly seeking out ways to give back to the community that she calls home.

Since July, she has prepared and donated two homemade lunches per month to be served at our employment readiness workshops. Her meals, ranging from chicken salads and sandwiches to pasta dishes and cheesy broccoli bakes, are consistently a hit among our participants and staff—there’s never a dish she makes that doesn’t elicit a smile and a plea for “seconds” from everyone in the room.  

One would never guess that, prior to volunteering with StepUp Durham, Tahmeko had never formally cooked for any group outside of her family. Perhaps it’s this homemade touch that truly stays with the people she serves.

“I was that little kid who was always in the kitchen when somebody was cooking,” she recalls. “Just wanting to taste different things or see how everyone else was preparing their food, all of that has stayed with me, and for that reason I love to cook.”

When Tahmeko first heard about StepUp from a flyer at work, she identified deeply with the organization’s mission to help people find work and wanted to learn more about how she could become involved. While her full-time job made it difficult to schedule volunteering shifts during workshop hours, she found that she could still contribute by providing meals for 12-18 participants and staff twice every month.

“For me, [volunteering] is an honor,” Tahmeko shares. “It brings me joy to do something even as little as providing a meal to someone, knowing that it’s making an impact in a positive way, even if I might not know them.”

She adds with a smile, “It also just makes me feel good that I’m appreciated outside of my household.”

This spirit of generosity permeates all aspects of Tahmeko’s life. Any conversation with her about what she finds meaningful quickly shifts the attention away from herself and onto others. When asked about what she would consider a perfect day, Tahmeko explains that doing whatever she could to make sure the people around her have their own perfect day would be more than enough for her.

She is grateful for her family and especially for her daughter Monaé. “I really see myself in my daughter,” she says. “I can point to things in her life and say that I’ve been in your shoes. I know how you feel, and I know what you’re going through.” Now twenty-years-old, Monaé has become a lasting source of inspiration to her mother, always brightening Tahmeko’s day and, by extension, bringing smiles also to everyone that her mother helps out.

At present, Tahmeko finds herself in a period of transition. After working in the operations department at an investment firm for about ten years, she is seeking a career change that would provide her opportunities to give back to her community in ways different from before.

“Bottom line, I like to help people,” she explains. “I’m not saying that you can’t do that in the finance industry or in the business world, but I just want to help people more than I’ve been able to in my past roles.”

In Tahmeko’s bag is a book she recently purchased on financial accounting, from which she hopes to gain knowledge that might be of use to her and to others. She is also interested in taking additional classes or earning certifications that might open doors to work in human resources. According to her, reading and learning keep her productive while she searches for opportunities that she might pursue next.

In the meantime, Tahmeko plans to take on more volunteer roles at StepUp, in addition to providing meals. She also volunteers with Dress for Success, a global organization that equips women with the skills and professional clothing necessary to succeed in the job search.    

As usual, Tahmeko will be spending her holidays with loved ones: cooking and eating as a family, laughing and playing games together, and visiting other relatives in the area. In addition to her financial accounting book, she also carries with her some Dr. Seuss books that she plans to give to her great niece.

Of course, giving back remains important to her, particularly at this time of year. “A couple years ago,” she says, “I thought I should start volunteering, so I became involved with Angel Tree at Christmas time. And then I thought, how can I make this a year-round thing and not just helping someone only once?” Since then, Tahmeko has found true fulfillment in devoting her time to others and always seeks to do more.

“I would encourage anybody who has thought about volunteering to find an organization [whose] mission they feel passionate about,” Tahmeko says. “I really admire the mission of StepUp Durham, and I’m excited to see what the future holds for the organization.”

Volunteers like Tahmeko and many others serve in many ways as the foundation keeping StepUp afloat. We too are excited to see where their support takes us in 2017.

StepUp Collaborative Visioning Session: Summary & Next Steps

All photos by Debbie Vu


StepUp has placed 62 people in employment since October 2015.

These were parents to over 92 children for a total of 154 lives impacted. About 60% of those who obtained employment had a criminal background. At least 15 have worked their way out of homelessness.

StepUp experiences high attrition.

On average, about 45% of those who sign up for StepUp’s 32-hour workshop attend. About 70% of those who arrive on Monday graduate on Friday. These rates are consistent with those experienced at other StepUp locations; however, StepUp Durham is open to suggestions on how to strengthen attendance and graduation rates.

Childcare and transportation are key challenges for employment seekers.

StepUp provides bus passes to interviews and from the point of hire through the first paycheck (as needed) for working participants. We do not provide passes for the one-week workshop. We hope our provision of breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday of workshop allows individuals to redirect funds towards transportation. For childcare, we refer employment seekers to the Dept. of Social Services Work First program, which has funds and staff to assist in this area.

There is a desire for more coordinated collaboration around economic and workforce development in Durham.  

Specifically, there is appreciation for coordinated intake systems, data sharing, and collective impact models within the Durham nonprofit community, though this appreciation is not felt across the board.


With StepUp staff responses/reflections.

Is StepUp clear with employment seekers about the expectations and benefits involved in partnership with StepUp? Would it help to have an orientation before the workshop week starts?

The eligibility criteria and reasoning are on our website and we go over them on the phone the week before workshop. A more in-depth orientation, however, might be beneficial. After the visioning session, we are committed to piloting one after the New Year.

In terms of the benefits we outline to StepUp participants, they are as follows:

  • Assistance in creating a resume that is reviewed by two HR professionals
  • Strategies for how to plan an employment search
  • Free professional attire from either Dress for Success or Suited-N-Success
  • Feedback from a local staffing agency on interviewing strengths and growth opportunities
  • Connections to StepUp employers. We also make it clear that approximately 30% of StepUp participants will find employment through a StepUp employer and the other 70% will likely find their own opportunity with StepUp support.
  • Access to their own Employment Counselor and some resources to assist with transitioning into employment, such as bus passes through the first paycheck and pre-employment supplies (as needed)

Can StepUp participants come and see the workshop before they commit?

Yes! Much like a college campus tour, we have opportunities for prospective participants, employers, volunteers, and nonprofit partners to sit in our program every Monday and Friday of workshop. Folks can view upcoming dates and register here.

What would it look like for StepUp to offer more coaching for referral partners on how to talk about the StepUp eligibility criteria and process?

We would be happy to do this. Let us know how we can help!

How might StepUp listen more intently to the voices of unemployed and underemployed people?

StepUp hired asset-based community development consultants to lead a year and a half listening process with those directly affected by unemployment and economic inequality in Durham. That feedback informs the work we do and we continue to solicit the voices of those directly impacted by unemployment through workshop surveys and conversation. We also cultivate leadership within our alumni network through the StepUp Ambassadors program, Durham C.A.N. community organizing trainings/actions, the Second Chance Alliance, and All of Us or None.

Can there be sponsorship for the childcare and transportation needs of StepUp participants?

We would love to continue conversation around this. Both would require funding that we do not currently have, so we refer to other agencies (mostly those with state or federal funding) at the moment.

Can StepUp be more flexible in what it asks of participants in terms of perfect attendance and the 32-hour time commitment involved for employment seekers?

We are hesitant to change our expectations around perfect attendance, as it allows for a continuum of learning (our modules build upon one another), community building amongst employment seekers, and our ability to vouch for an employment seeker’s reliability. We recognize, however, that the hours of M-F, 8:30 AM – 4:00 PM do not fit the schedules of all people. That is why we will be piloting a shortened weekend workshop from January 20-21 for those who cannot attend the traditional weeklong workshop. For more information on this workshop, please contact Tim Wollin at   

How might StepUp deepen its commitment to transitional employment opportunities (temp work, apprenticeship, etc.)?

Three temp agencies currently hire from StepUp and we collaborative closely with NC Works to access on-the-job training dollars for eligible candidates. One difficulty we encounter is that the majority of OJT money is allocated to those who have been laid off and received unemployment benefits. Most StepUp participants resigned or were involuntarily dismissed, meaning they are not eligible. We would need considerable funding to provide paid internships or apprenticeships for the individuals we serve.

Would occasionally hosting separate workshops for women and men help some (ex. those in the Muslim community) feel more comfortable?

We have not yet offered a gender-specific workshop; however, we have offered trainings tailored to particular demographics when requested by community partners. We have, for instance, provided training for individuals with at least one felony or groups of exclusively high school juniors and seniors. We may consider adding a question to our participant workshop survey to see if occasional gender-specific workshops would also be helpful. We are also exploring ways to better serve the Spanish-speaking community.  

How can StepUp work to create a greater sense of community amongst job seekers before and after the workshop is complete?

We are hoping that the post-employment program for families will be this community-building space.

What could a cooperative covenant look like between StepUp and other nonprofits, churched, and businesses?

We currently have Primary Partnership Agreements for faith community partners, Collaborative Partnership Agreements for employers, and Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) for nonprofit partners. Each reflects the unique aspects of the relationship. If your organization is interested in working on one of these with StepUp, we welcome the conversation! 

How can StepUp grow its employer network?

Our current focus is on deepening the relationships with the 40 employers who have committed to partnership with StepUp, including Duke University; however, two industries we would like more of are warehouses and call centers. We have a few leads we are working, but welcome the community’s help in recruiting businesses within this sector. 

What if there was a cost of $100 to work with StepUp that participants paid 6 months to a year after a person obtains employment – a fee for service in order to enhance ownership in the process?

The StepUp model in Raleigh offers a matching program where working participants pay a $10 weekly fee and StepUp matches the investment dollar for dollar throughout the Life Skills Program. Participants receive their investment back, plus the match and bonuses for goal completion, when they graduate. StepUp Durham plans to explore a similar incentive or matched savings process in our family program (tentatively called “Phase 2”), though we are assessing how that process might need to adapt to the StepUp Durham context.

What post-employment support is StepUp already offering to participants?

We currently offer continued access to an Employment Counselor after a person is hired; however, we have found that few StepUp participants carry this relationship on past the first two to three months of employment. This is something we would like to change and hope to do so in our post-employment family program. We hope this space will provide a community where working StepUp adults (and their children) feel engaged and supported as they continue to set and accomplish their goals.


1.     We will advocate for a workforce development “Continuum of Care” like the one Durham currently has for those experiencing homelessness.

2.     We will host a monthly or quarterly orientation for anyone who wants to learn more about StepUp before committing to a full week with us. We will invite agencies that can offer assistance with barriers like childcare, transportation, etc. into this space.

3.     We will convene smaller conversations with nonprofit partners around specific program collaboration.

4.     We will implement systems that can capture more data on the barriers to attendance and completion for the workshop week. This includes asking all potential participants what they foresee as potential challenges to workshop attendance and if they would like StepUp to assist in connecting them with applicable resources and referrals.

5.     We will offer a two-day underemployment workshop on January 20-21 for those who are currently employed and cannot attend the weeklong workshop.  

6.     We will explore what it would look like to incentivize and reward successful referrals to StepUp from agencies and alumni.

7.     We will continue to partner with NC Works to utilize on-the-job training dollars for those who qualify to receive these funds. We will also deepen our commitment to finding transitional employment opportunities for workers in the form of temp and paid apprenticeships.


All were invited. Those with an “*” sent a representative.

Agape Landscaping / StepUp employer*

Antioch Baptist Church

Beth El Synagogue

Blacknall Presbyterian Church*

Community Empowerment Fund (CEF)*

Community Success Initiative

Covenant Presbyterian

Criminal Justice Resource Center*


DLM Enterprises / Potential StepUp participant & employer*

Duke Black Graduate Student Association

Duke Chapel

Durham CARES*

Durham County Commissioners*

Durham Economic Resource Center (DERC)

Durham Literacy Council

Durham Partnership for Children

Durham Ritz Car Wash / StepUp employer

Families Moving Forward*

First Presbyterian Church of Durham*

Helius Foundation

Life Skills Foundation*

Made in Durham

Monument of Faith

Movement of Youth

Partners for Youth Opportunity*

People’s Alliance*

Phase III*

PNC Bank

REAL Durham*


ReCity Network*

Restoration Church

Russell Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church

Southern Coalition for Social Justice*

Square 1 Bank*

St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church*

Straight Talk

Sufficient Grace Ministries


The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People

The Institute for Minority Economic Development*

Trinity Avenue Presbyterian


University Ford / StepUp employer

Urban Ministries of Durham

Village of Wisdom


Those interested in continuing a conversation about deeper collaboration around employment and workforce development in Durham are invited to contact Syretta Hill at 919-973-0890 ext. 224 or Our most immediately next step is to meet one-on-one with partners that express interest in collaboration and reconvene a larger meeting if there is energy in that direction. We also welcome others to lead a wider nonprofit collaboration conversation if they feel moved to do so. We would be happy to participate. 

StepUp looks toward collaboration on employment support

 The StepUp graduate in this picture, Thelma, received an offer of full-time employment from Agape Landscaping, a StepUp employer, at the close of the Nov. 3 Collaborative Visioning Session. Photo by Debbie Vu

The StepUp graduate in this picture, Thelma, received an offer of full-time employment from Agape Landscaping, a StepUp employer, at the close of the Nov. 3 Collaborative Visioning Session. Photo by Debbie Vu

By Syretta Hill StepUp Durham  I  Herald Sun  I  Nov 13, 2016 

DURHAM -- In 2013, 12 servant leaders from several Durham communities were brought together to help determine the viability of StepUp in Durham. They knocked on the doors of close to 200 people across the most impacted communities to discuss the challenges affecting individuals looking for employment.

From their experiences and conversations, these leaders created a list of recommendations to guide the work of StepUp Durham. It was from this work that our foundation was built. And one year later, we strive to continue to live into the community tenets created by those leaders.

This past week was a big one for StepUp Durham. Not only did we have our second annual open house, a time to celebrate with our partners, neighbors, and friends, our one-year anniversary in Walltown, but we hosted our first visioning session. Instead of creating a strategic plan for the organization, which happens internally for most agencies, we envisioned creating a space where community stakeholders came together to help us plan our future.

The goal for our visioning session was to provide information and updates on our employment training, share the beginning design of the holistic and family-centered component we plan to launch in 2017, and get community feedback and buy-in on both. Farad Ali, a leader in minority economic development, and John Parker, an asset-based community development practitioner, facilitated this process.

On the evening of the session, we had more than 30 people in the room representing at least 15 organizations. After some food and fellowship, we began to dig into the nuts and bolts of StepUp Durham’s program -- a 32-hour training that serves employment seekers, particularly those with challenges to employment (for example, former incarceration, gaps in employment), and offers one-on-one case management to support job placement within 90 days.

Questions emerged, but not the ones we anticipated. Folks were asking less about those we served, but those who were not being served. With hundreds of nonprofits in the area, there is just a handful working with individuals around employment. StepUp is proud to be in relationship with most of them; however, there are still a significant percentage of people who are unable to get the type of employment support they need. The necessity for more intentional collaboration and the creation of a continuum of services around employment was clear.

Durham is fortunate to have the strong model with the Continuum of Care (CoC), a coordinated intake and information sharing system that allows sectors to collectively serve homeless individuals better. We need something similar for workforce development. We need a system that allows an unemployed person to have their unique situation assessed and for informed referrals to be made to the agency best suited to serve them. The collaborative would share information, referrals, and possibly even resources so that people have what they need to look for a job (childcare and transportation) and the steps to grow a career (referrals to educational partners like Durham Tech).

StepUp Durham welcomes an opportunity to be part of a collaborative effort like that. We can’t meet every need on our own. We are committed, however, to working with others in the community to bring what we can to address economic development in Durham.

Consider making StepUp a giving priority

 Jordan Clark, SunTrust Bank, Board of Directors Treasurer

Jordan Clark, SunTrust Bank, Board of Directors Treasurer

Dear StepUp supporters,

On behalf of StepUp Durham’s Board of Directors, I want to say one thing: “We did it!” In our first 12 months, StepUp Durham assisted 50 adults in obtaining employment—60% of whom had a criminal background. At least 40 employers have partnered with us  and at least 12 StepUp participants have worked their way out of homelessness. We have assisted veterans, domestic violence survivors, those with GEDs and Bachelors degrees.

These accomplishments are just the beginning. Over the course of this fiscal year (July 1, 2016 – June 30, 2017), StepUp’s goal is to support 100 people in employment and to begin conversations about a post-employment program for working adults and their families. We anticipate this program offering a variety of wrap-around services, including coaching on budgeting, personal development, and long-term career planning. We hope to do this by collaborating with nonprofits that bring areas of expertise that compliment our own employment focus. These include housing, financial literacy, mentoring, youth development, entrepreneurship, and more. 

Conversations around a family program have already begun and will continue in a Collaborative Visioning Session set for Nov. 3. During this session, StepUp stakeholders will gather to reflect on StepUp’s present and dream about its future. A number of StepUp partners have already RSVP’d, including representatives from:

  • Durham CARES
  • Durham Congregations in Action (DCIA)
  • Durham County Criminal Justice Resource Center
  • Durham Technical Community College
  • Helius Foundation 
  • Made in Durham
  • People’s Alliance 
  • REAL Durham 
  • ReCity  
  • Urban Ministries

StepUp has great things on the horizon in collaboration with these partners. But turning dreams into reality will take the support of people like you. 

StepUp invests approximately $3,000 in supportive services for each job seeker. This covers the cost of 32 hours of pre-employment training, interview and work attire, pre-employment supplies like work boots and uniforms, professional employment counseling, referrals to employer partners, post-employment support, and career planning services. We compare this to the cost of $30,000 per year to re-incarcerate a returning citizen who cannot find employment or the immeasurable effects that joblessness has on the social fabric of our city.

To date, StepUp has raised $156,000 of the $400,000 needed to serve 100 unemployed adults and launch a program for working families in 2017.

That is enough to assist a few, but we want to serve all who come to our door. That is why we, the StepUp Durham Board of Directors, are asking for your support. Help us serve every adult and family that needs to get incoming flowing. We need you. More importantly, they need you.



Jordan Clark

StepUp Durham Board of Directors, Treasurer

SunTrust Bank

Love & Respect founder says StepUp goes into the "eye of the storm" to reach job seekers

My job is to get those boys to StepUp so [the staff] can give them the message and have the opportunity to talk to them. But if we don’t get them there, they won’t be able to hear nothing—but gunshots.
— Dennis Garrett, Founder & Executive Director of Love and Respect
 Dennis Garrett, Founder and Executive Director of Love and Respect / Photo by Debbie Vu

Dennis Garrett, Founder and Executive Director of Love and Respect / Photo by Debbie Vu

Article by Debbie Vu

“Pull up behind that white Jaguar,” my StepUp colleague, Baqir Mujahid, directed me.

We had just arrived at Love & Respect to speak with the Executive Director and founder, Dennis Garrett. Later, Garrett would tell me that the white Jaguar was a symbol of how far he'd come on a long journey that includes a colorful past. A mentor who once drove a jag told him that if he worked hard he could purchase a car like that. Years later, he was able to accomplish that goal and it serves as a symbol of his hard work. 

Success for Love & Respect comes from creating a safe haven and transitional housing for men struggling with unhealthy life choices, such as addiction and criminal charges. So after everything that has happened and after every door that has closed, life led Garrett to this moment in his life where he is making a significant difference in the larger Durham community.

My colleague, Mujahid, has a long-standing history with Garrett. After Mujahid was released from incarceration, he was inspired by what he saw Garrett doing with Love & Respect. Both men wanted the same things for the community: economic opportunity for all and a chance for a someone’s past not to define their future.

“We [Mujahid and I] have seen each other go from taking the pistol to taking a notebook and briefcase,” Garrett remarked. 

Today, Love & Respect offers free space for StepUp’s biweekly workshops. It’s becoming a symbiotic relationship. Garrett provides refuge for men struggling to turn their lives around from battling drug addiction to experiencing discrimination due to a criminal background; then he suggests StepUp to the men who are looking to start fresh with a new job and, more importantly, a new career.

Garret appreciates that StepUp is a safe space for those with barriers to employment, whether that barrier is a gap in employment history or a criminal background.

“What I like about StepUp is the desire and willingness to go into the eye of the storm,” Garrett said. “Love & Respect was in the drug-infested, prostitute, gang ring center when we first started. But for StepUp to come into the same community says a lot to the integrity of the program.”

Garrett does outreach for his organization and crime and gang intervention in other parts of town or “the eye of the storm” as he calls it. He goes into these areas with long gold chains around his neck. That’s his necktie, he said. Approaching youth in this way proves to be effective.

 Photo by   Sheila Rosier

Photo by Sheila Rosier

He said, “My job is to get those boys to StepUp so [the staff] can give them the message and have the opportunity to talk to them. But if we don’t get them there, they won’t be able to hear nothing—but gunshots.”

Mujahid’s caseload includes several of the justice-involved referrals from Love & Respect. Mujahid said that helping them find jobs helps to reduce crime. But for Mujahid, when he helps justice-involved people, it’s, “one less life taken away, one less home broken into.”

Before Love & Respect set its roots on Angier Ave, Garrett was incarcerated. He had a double life sentence hanging over his head and didn’t think he’d ever see the streets again.

Garrett points to his participation in a program called “Think Smart,” now called “Scared Straight,” as a turning point for him. Although his only intention to join was to get reprieve from the cellblock, it would turn into an opportunity to walk down a different path. In a chance encounter, a senator made a visit when Garrett was interacting with a youth. The senator could see Garrett changing this particular young man’s life and later told Garrett that if he took his experiences and turned them into assets then he could help a lot of people. Soon after, he became an honorary peer counselor in the prison. Thanks to the help of the senator, Garrett was also allowed to leave the prison to attend classes at the local community college.

Similar to the program that impacted Garrett’s life, Love & Respect provides a place for people to start over again. It slowly introduces the recovery dynamics of the 12-step program because, as Garrett said, “You can’t walk in the woods for 20 miles and expect to walk out in five.”

It’s a slow process, Garrett explains, but it’s a remarkable transformation. He can attest to this from his own experience.

“I’m in this because I want my son to be able to go outside and play. I don’t want my daughter to go through what I had to go through. I want my son and my daughter to wake up with a mother and father in the household. I did that [wake up with a mom and dad] too, but my father taught me how to load a gun and my father taught me how to bag up an ounce of cocaine. He didn’t teach me to be bad; he taught me what his daddy taught him.”

And he’s breaking the pattern, one person at a time.


Meet Christelle Ndong, StepUp MSW Intern from NC Central University


As a northern transplant, I never thought I’d come to enjoy living and studying in The Triangle.  After being here for a year without working, I decided it was time to kick myself into gear. Once I found employment, I began to feel as if I was part of the community. Work provided an income and something to do, but it still didn’t fulfill my desire to help others. You see, I am a helper. I have loved helping people since I was a youngster on the playground who gave away her lunch to kids who didn’t have anything to eat. I am passionate about helping people whom society seems to have forgotten about, cast aside, or just simply mistreated. So yes, my job gave me a chance to help others but I wanted to do more! One day, a casual conversation with a friend changed how I saw my passion. My friend had recently completed her masters in social work and mentioned that she thought I would enjoy learning about social work and different ways to help individuals in society.

Though I was skeptical about returning to school, support from my friends and family bolstered my confidence. I was accepted into the Masters of Social Work program at North Carolina Central University, and am now entering my second year in the program. The social work curriculum requires students to have an internship each year, and that’s where StepUp Durham comes in!

Though I had a wonderful internship experience in my first year, I wanted to try something completely different. Luckily for me, amazing field placement advisors took the time to listen to my wants, and encouraged me to look into StepUp Durham. This was another life changing experience! Quickly after reading about the work StepUp was doing, I knew this was where I wanted to be.

StepUp Durham’s mission to transform lives through job and life skills training is no different than many other organizations. Yet their approach and model is what sets them far apart. After meeting current and past participants and seeing the tremendous changes in their lives, I am even more drawn to the work we do. I am so excited to grow with them and change the lives of job seekers in Durham, one Employment Readiness Workshop at a time.


Christelle is a New Jersey native who suddenly found herself enjoying some ‘southern hospitality.' After getting her B.S. in Psychology from Delaware State University, she moved to North Carolina and enrolled in NCCU’s rigorous masters of social work program. Christelle has worked with a variety of clients with mental health and developmental challenges, and is passionate about supporting those who cannot yet support themselves. Christelle has also lived abroad and has interests international social work, as well as supporting those in her local community.

Letter from Executive Director Syretta Hill

When I was first introduced to StepUp, I was struck by its values - not only the beautiful way in which they were written but the tone they set in how we serve community. As we approach our one-year anniversary, I reflect on these tenets, how we have lived into them and how they will guide our work in this new year. At StepUp Durham:

  • We believe lives are transformed through God's love and grace.

  • We are guided by the needs of our participants.

  • We are careful stewards of all relationships and resources in our care.

  • We seek and value diversity, inclusiveness, equity, accountability and collaboration.

  • We joyfully celebrate efforts and success.

In less than one year, we built our donor base from 0 to 178 investors, exceeded our fundraising goals, have 40 graduates employed and work with over 45 employers committed to hiring from us.

Behind each of these accomplishments has been a process of mindfulness, intentionality, and stewardship. We examine our curriculum and language to make sure that StepUp Durham provides mutual accountability between the staff and our participants, looks at assets not deficiencies, seeks to show dignity and not exploit, and considers the systemic issues that surround poverty. We have selected spaces for our jobs training – nonprofits, places of worship and community centers - to be inclusive of all participants and engage the greater Durham community. When our graduates call us with the news of their employment, we respond with cheers and noisemakers. Their reaction is joy, gratitude and sometimes embarrassment, but each person feels celebrated and affirmed.

This year, we will focus on strengthening relationships with our partners. In doing this, we hope to help place 100 people into employment, reach our new and increased financial goals and launch a program that addresses our graduates and their families in a more holistic way.

Thank you for helping us this year. We ask for your continued support as, together, we strive to transform lives through employment and life skills training.

Ginger Murphy Finds Success at StepUp and Duke Credit Union

I told my friend, ‘Thank you for telling me about StepUp!’

By Stephen Crupi / Photo by Erin Roesch

After spending five years taking care of family members, Ginger Murphy wanted to find a new job. She had a background working in banks, but she realized that the process of searching for and obtaining employment had changed since she had last looked for a job. So she attended StepUp’s 32-hour Employment Readiness Workshop in order to engage with people dedicated to helping her with her job search.

“I wanted to get back out into the workforce,” Ginger recalls. “My friend told me about StepUp, and I really enjoyed the workshop. The workforce has changed dramatically, and StepUp gave me lots of tips.”

One of the most important modules during the workshop for Ginger was the “Bridging the Gap” session, in which participants are trained on how to discuss gaps in their employment history during interviews. “The Bridging the Gap module helped me to be able to say what I had been doing during that time,” Ginger says.

“With workshop, I also enjoyed the process of having to get up to go somewhere, having to be prepared for the next day.” Ginger notes. “It got me back in the mindset of working.”

Having completed the workshop, Ginger began to look for jobs. “I was sure eventually something would come up,” Ginger states. “StepUp was a great encouragement, because it can seem like people don’t find jobs, and that can be intimidating. StepUp helped build up my confidence.”

One of the employers Ginger applied to was Duke University, a StepUp referral partner, and Ginger was offered a job working as a teller for the Duke Credit Union. As Ginger had previously worked in banks, she finds her job at the credit union to be both similar and different.

“I have the background and skills from working in banks before, but the credit union is a whole different system,” Ginger explains. “The credit union is smaller and more personal.”

Working at the credit union, Ginger hopes to learn as much as possible about its operations, and she has thought about how she can advance in her field in the future. “I might do something different like auditing or accounting someday,” Ginger says.

Her goal for right now though is simple and practical. “I want to buy a new car now,” she says with a smile.

“Everyone I know is just happy I got the job,” Ginger says. “Everyone was confident, but I had been a little uneasy. StepUp is a plus. It helped keep me focused. I told my friend, ‘Thank you for telling me about StepUp!’”

NC State Intern Finds Inspiration at StepUp

I wanted to join an organization that combats the harsh injustices within the criminal justice system. I found that in StepUp Durham.

By Tobi Holland / Photo by Erin Roesch

As an Africana Studies major at North Carolina State University, community involvement is a requirement for graduation. When it came time for me to choose a potential internship site, I was adamant about finding an organization where I could put my education to use and work in my community. The African Studies curriculum at NC State covers every facet of African American history, but with so many issues affecting the modern African American community, I wanted to be a part of something that makes a difference in our current context. In particular, I wanted to join an organization that combats the harsh injustices within the criminal justice system. I found that in StepUp Durham.

It is truly inspiring to work with the participants of StepUp because I have the privilege of witnessing their drive and dedication to overcome the challenges of a criminal background. I am able to celebrate their commitment to not let their past hinder their personal or professional future. Likewise, I am awed by the passion and dedication that the counselors and recruiters within this ministry have and the ways in which the connections made between StepUp staff and participants are long-term and transformative.

In considering my future with StepUp, I hope to learn just as much from StepUp Durham and people it serves as I will be able to teach. I hope that through this organization, I can find a place for myself to further my education and build a career, as well as continue StepUp’s work of advocating for changes that will better the Durham community and particularly those affected by the criminal justice system in our country.

Volunteer Glad Durham Now Has StepUp

By Karen Mortimer / Photo by Helen Kinser

My volunteer journey with StepUp started in July 2014 when I met Steve Swayne (former CEO of StepUp North Carolina) over coffee.  Having just closed the Sales & Service Training Center at Northgate Mall—an organization that worked with a similar job seeking population as StepUp—I had a strong interest in learning more. My former board member, Ginny Bowman, had told me a bit about StepUp and I had a few questions. My primary question was this: How is StepUp similar to and different from the organization I had run, which focused on customer service skill training for individuals overcoming barriers to employment?

Steve was forthcoming. He followed up on our meeting, sharing the details of StepUp’s training and procedures with me as though I were an insider!  I read the documents he sent me, and eventually saw the StepUp process for myself when I visited StepUp Ministry’s life skills dinner and training in Raleigh.

By now, I was falling in love with this program—especially the life skills training, which is a year-long commitment for graduates of StepUp’s 32-hour jobs training. With the entire family learning about conflict resolution, budgeting, financial literacy, and spiritual matters it was truly transformative. I thought, “This is REALLY the way to help families achieve more stability and a less crisis-driven life!” 

Some time passed while I settled into retirement and helped my husband through a health challenge.  Good timing again. Erin Roesch called.  Would I have coffee with her to learn about StepUp Durham? It was now January 2016. After our 1.5-hour conversation, I was saying YES to her invitation to help the Durham office one afternoon a week. While Durham has not yet started its Life-Skills extension, it DOES have a mighty 32-hour training program for individuals seeking a job or a better job. 

Next, Tim Wollin invited me to coffee.  After meeting with Tim, I was again saying YES. This time, I would provide resume editing and support during their jobs-training week, in addition to the Wednesday afternoon support. As I have settled into my Wednesday afternoon volunteering, I am witnessing how the Durham staff, ably led by Syretta Hill, is building their program. The program has so many of the elements that make it an asset to the community and local employers. 

To the job seekers with barriers and gaps in their employment, having access to hiring employers is a critical component. The StepUp Durham staff often hand-pick the best match for the employer’s unique needs.  Having also formerly worn an HR “hat,” I can attest that this is gold! The fact that an employer can receive a candidate who has met and passed StepUp’s requirements and is hand-picked to be interviewed for FREE is amazing. The job seekers also benefit from the weekly support StepUp offers after graduation from the 32-hour employment readiness workshop. Given that the majority of employment opportunities in the US are found via networking, maintaining connection with other job seekers and professionals is so important.

After working with over 700 job seekers through Sales & Service Training, I had been on the lookout for a program that had all the elements I felt were needed to move individuals from chronic unemployment or under-employment to a more productive and pleasing work and life experience. I believe that we are God-created to use our talents and skills productively!  I am excited that Durham now has StepUp. 

Shanika Burton Finds a Job She Loves After Graduating from StepUp

By Stephen Crupi / Photos by Chris Lee

Shanika Burton loves her job. She began working at The Scrap Exchange in the middle of June and says it is the favorite job she has ever had.

But not too long ago, Shanika was almost ready to give up on looking for a job that fit her needs. “I would get jobs, but they weren’t what I was looking for. I wouldn’t get the hours I wanted. So I prayed about it, and then I met Julia [a StepUp intern] at Dress for Success and Julia explained about StepUp. So I called StepUp the next day. I was in the right place at the right time,” Shanika explains.

I was kind of giving up with jobs, but sometimes God gives people who can help you. That’s how it was with StepUp.

Shanika attended StepUp’s 32-hour Employment Readiness Workshop in late May, and she says that it was during the workshop that she realized some of her methods for searching and applying for jobs were outdated. Having been trained how to look for jobs in the 1990s, Shanika credits StepUp with giving her new ideas on how to search for jobs in 2016, particularly when it comes to networking, interviewing, and resume writing.

StepUp also provided Shanika with a community of people who were looking for jobs just like her. "I was able to fellowship with other people at StepUp and hear their stories about how to survive," Shanika says.

In addition to the community StepUp offers, Shanika enjoyed the learning environment for the workshop. “StepUp reminded me of going to class. I liked going to school, so I enjoyed that. I took lots of notes. If you want to learn, StepUp is a good asset. It helps you get back into learning.”

After finishing the week, Shanika began working with StepUp’s staff to look for a job. Within two weeks, Shanika had obtained employment at The Scrap Exchange, one of StepUp’s referral partners.

At The Scrap Exchange, Shanika works as a cashier and processes and restocks inventory. She enjoys being able to engage with customers, and she takes pride in doing her job well. “My boss told me that I set a world record with the number of items I was able to process in one day,” Shanika recalls. “It feels good when your bosses appreciate you.”

Having been able to obtain employment at The Scrap Exchange, Shanika is now looking to the future. She says that she wants to learn and grow at her current job, and possibly return to school to take business classes.

For the present, though, Shanika is enjoying where she is at The Scrap Exchange. And according to her supervisor, Jeff Zern, Shanika is doing a great job. In an email to StepUp staff, Jeff writes: “[Shanika] has proved to be a versatile member of our staff. We can rely on Shanika to do a great job in any of the multifaceted positions at The Scrap Exchange. Shanika is a rock star staff member and we are lucky to have her on the team!"

“I want to stay connected with StepUp in the future,” Shanika states. “StepUp is a good investment of your time. My employment counselor is awesome, he is very supportive, and things from StepUp helped when I applied to Scrap Exchange. I was kind of giving up with jobs, but sometimes God gives people who can help you. That’s how it was with StepUp.”


Special Thanks to The Burt's Bees Greater Good Foundation:

Shanika's training and employment support were made possible by the generous support of The Burt's Bees Greater Good Foundation and its investment in StepUp Durham's green jobs initiative. StepUp Durham commends employers like The Scrap Exchange for their commitment to a cleaner, greener world through recycling and reuse. If you are an employer committed to sustainability and you would like to recruit talented individuals from StepUp, please contact Erin Roesch at

StepUp Durham Inaugural Impact Luncheon Raises over $25,000 for Job Seekers

Photos by Philip Revak and Helen Kinser

Over 160 people gathered at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church to learn about and celebrate StepUp's impact on unemployment and underemployment in Durham. With the help of 18 Table Captains, 30+ volunteers, 11 corporate sponsors, and 4 congregational sponsors, StepUp Durham raised just over $25,000 for job seekers.

This money will be used to support the employment journeys of over 20 StepUp participants, providing for each person: 32-hours of pre-employment training, personalized employment counseling, access to StepUp's network of 40+ employers, supplies necessary for work (ex. work boots, hard hat, uniform, etc.), and ongoing post-employment support. 

Volunteer Opportunity:

Love event planning? Think it may be fun to be as a Table Captain? StepUp is seeking passionate folks to join the 2017 Impact Luncheon Planning Committee, as well as future Table Captains. Contact Erin Roesch at 919-973-0890 ext. 226 if you're interested!


Special thanks to our community partner, ReCity, for loaning their photographer, Philip Revak, for this event!

The Student Becomes the Teacher: Mark Alston Trains Workers at His New Job

By Stephen Crupi / Photos by Helen Kinser

Talking with Mark Alston, you could not imagine him being nervous about a job skills training. He confidently engages people in conversation, and he enjoys telling about the story of his life. But Mark insists that when he came to StepUp Durham, he was nervous.

“I had been out of school for so long, and they were giving us homework!” He had been talked into going to StepUp Durham by Fred Stoppelkamp, who is the Workforce Development Manager at Urban Ministries of Durham (UMD) and a current board member for StepUp Durham. But Mark was not very confident when he first came to StepUp’s Workshop.

Mark grew up in Durham, and he lived on Roxboro Street when he was young. After high school, he worked at UNC for over ten years. After leaving UNC, he did a variety of jobs, including working for the City of Durham’s sewer system, brick cutting, and refinishing floors. In 2009, Mark began a custodian role with a facilities management firm where he worked until the company merged with another corporation in 2014.

“I had some issues with [my new employer] about hours and pay,” Mark recalls. “They wanted to reduce the amount I was working and the amount I was getting paid.” Due to the conflict he had with his supervisor, Mark was let go from his job and, as a result, lost his apartment. “I had given up on myself,” Mark states. “It was the first time I had been in this kind of difficult situation.”

Mark has family that lives in the Durham area, but he says that he wanted to get out of his difficulties by himself. “I didn’t want to talk with my family before. I’m a grown man. I got myself into that difficulty, having the conflict with my supervisor, and I was going to get myself out,” says Mark.

So Mark moved into UMD, and it was there that he met Fred Stoppelkamp.

“Fred told me about StepUp, and he told me to give it a try,” Mark states. “And I’m glad that I did. When I came to StepUp, I was nervous and kind of scared, but each day got better. When I looked at the homework, it wasn’t that bad.” But Mark does have a word of caution for people considering StepUp. “If you don’t want it, don’t be there. You got to want it. StepUp is there to help, but you have to help yourself first.”

Mark completed StepUp Durham’s 32-hour Workshop and began to apply for jobs. One opportunity was to return to his former employer, but as Mark puts it, “I had to show my old boss that I had bettered myself in order to get my job back. Urban Ministries helped, and they wrote a letter. Tim [Mark’s StepUp Employment Counselor] wrote a letter, too.”

Mark says that at StepUp’s training he learned how to communicate more professionally in a business setting. Modules on conflict management and effective communication provided new insights on how to interact with people in the workplace. “I learned at StepUp how to deal with my anger, how to address the supervisor respectfully, how to work with my co-workers.”

A month and a half after completing StepUp’s Workshop, Mark was re-employed by the same employer that let him go in 2014. Today, he is working full-time and in a supervisory role.

“I basically train younger people,” Mark states. “I have three people under me. It’s a little rough trying to train people sometimes, but I tell them that they have to work. The job has to get done. You might lose your contract if you don’t get the job done in time. When I first did it, I didn’t know how to do it either.”

In addition to returning to work for his previous employer, Mark has also been offered a position at Wal-Mart. He hopes to be able to work both jobs. “I can take the bus to Wal-Mart. I’ve got to work it out,” Mark states.

Mark has an older son who just retired from the Marines, a younger son who works at Duke in food preparation, and several grandchildren. He says he can see improvement in his family relationships as a result of his more stable employment situation. “Now I can talk with my family. I didn’t want to talk with them before," said Mark. "I feel like I am back to myself now. I go day by day. I’m glad I went to StepUp. StepUp is kind of tough, but you got to apply yourself.”


Stephen Crupi is a Master of Divinity student at Duke Divinity School. He is serving full-time as a summer intern with StepUp Durham.