8 unsung nonprofit heroes in Charlotte — and what drives them

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“I think a hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people.” -Maya Angelou

Charlotte’s philanthropic scene is thriving, with over 400 nonprofits serving the city. While we often hear about the big players making a difference, sometimes it’s the least-celebrated individuals who perform the most exceptional feats.

These behind-the-scenes heroes make Charlotte a better place to live by combining their passions with a desire to give back to the community.

We’re highlighting seven individuals whose leadership, mentorship, and good hearts make a difference in the lives of Queen City residents each day:

Jocelyn Negron-Rios
Co-Chair, Circle de Luz

Through mentoring, holistic programming and educational scholarship funds, Circle de Luz empowers young Latinas – a cause close to Negron-Rios’ heart. Each year, the organization selects six to eight seventh grade girls to support until high school graduation through programs geared toward core themes: Academic Support & College Readiness, Personal Development and Community Awareness & Engagement.

The goal? To teach these young women they can choose their own future. With a 100% high school graduation rate and post-secondary education enrollment, the program proves its success in creating tomorrow’s leaders.

Negron-Rios’ upbringing and drive to set a good example for her sons highlight her motives to act as an important member of the organization.

What inspired you to join Circle de Luz?

“The mission, plain and simple. As a Puerto Rican kid from NYC, the mission of empowering Latina girls to pursue further education was meaningful to me.

“I grew up in Harlem and the Bronx. My mother and grandmother were strong, capable, smart, enterprising women but my grandmother had a second grade education and my mom graduated high school and immediately went to work, as did I.

“The chance to be part of something that could potentially change the playing field for so many girls of color, their families and our community, to foster and mentor young women that reminded me of myself at that age was something that moved me to action. With education comes power and choice, something so desperately needed in our communities of color.”

What drives you? 

“Equality! Representation! Diversity of people, backgrounds and thought. Above all my two boys. I want them to have a mom who may not be able to change the world, but lends her strengths and voice to causes that are important to her. I want them to grow up to be men who are not deterred by strong women, who practice empathy and who will actively lend their own talents and voices to matters of social justice.”

Can you share your most memorable moment as a member of Circle de Luz?

“My most memorable experience was seeing our first group of girls graduate from the program in 2014. I was one of the class captains for this first class and spent six years seeing them grow, overcome challenges and come into themselves. To see these young women transform from shy little girls unsure of their direction and their own abilities, to strong, confident, smart young women was amazing!

“We went to their high school graduations and then had our own Circle de Luz graduation ceremony and it was like they were my own children. There was a lot of ‘ugly’ crying.  It was an emotional, joyful moment!”

Lara Hicks
Feeding Project Director, Project 658

via Midwood Collective

As a leader of the Feeding Project, one of Project 658’s four main ministries, Hicks carries out the organization’s mission to provide relief and stability for families. Volunteers understand the difficulty in considering day-to-day tasks when a basic need goes unmet. To ensure the proper care and comfort of every individual, they provide over 20,000 free meals to families annually.

Hicks’ father and her love for the culinary arts led her to join the mission at Project 658, where she delivers kindhearted hospitality to those in need.

What inspired you to join Project 658?

“From the moment I was old enough to be in the kitchen, my parents were thoughtful enough to teach me about hospitality and what that truly meant. And what that meant for my family was that when someone asks you for help, you stop and do what you can for them. More specifically, I watched my late father live his entire life cooking and sharing food with anyone he knew that needed it. He kept the table full and a seat open.

“When a friend reached out to me about Project 658 after I finished schooling at Johnson & Wales, I knew immediately that was where I needed to be. It meant I could use my love for hospitality and talents in the kitchen to benefit others.”

What drives you?

“I receive so much joy from teaching people what I know about hospitality and food. And for them to finish up in my class and go out into their communities/homes/workplaces to share what they’ve learned completely ices the cake! The opportunity to make an impact, whether significant or not, drives me to give my best each day and to constantly grow myself.”

Can you share your most memorable experience as a member of Project 658?

“I could name countless experiences, but one of my favorites is the first culinary class graduation we held. At that time, I was only working part-time at Project 658 and another gentleman, Ed Price, was leading the class. It was also during this time that my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The class became a refuge, a support, a ray of sunshine to me, and it was then that I realized how it was possible for a culinary class to teach me instead.

“Each person in that class became a sister, brother and friend. So when the time came to speak about each of them on graduation day, I held back tears sharing how Imelda had mothered me and comforted my heart on sad days, how Thomas fathered me and took on extra projects so I wouldn’t have to, how Blanca’s sweet smile had greeted me each morning, how Carolina’s generosity and thoughtfulness taught me to have a grateful heart, how Mwali taught me how to laugh and Jenny taught me to keep on going even when the next step seemed like climbing a mountain.”

Tyesha McNeil
Mentor, EmpowHERment

Programs dedicated to the mentorship, talent management and advocacy of young women comprise the model of the EmpowHERment organization. Mentors, like McNeil, assist mentees in building a talent portfolio during a 12-month curriculum to aid in their growth to affirmed leaders.

McNeil’s position as a mentor stems from her involvement with Safe Alliance and her strong belief that overcoming fear leads to success and fulfillment of personal goals.

What inspired you to join EmpowHERment?

“I first heard of the organization in 2015. I was a volunteer for Safe Alliance, which is an organization that supports victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Safe Alliance needed a representative to attend the EmpowerHERment Summit and I agreed to do so. I was very impressed by the wealth of knowledge being presented to the girls and the purpose of the organization. Mentorship is so important for young women. I was a part of a similar organization as a teen, which exposed me to many new things and helped to shape my perspective as an adult and inspired me to become a mentor.”

What drives you?

“I’m driven by the endless possibilities of tomorrow, gratitude and a desire to see women succeed in all areas of life. I believe every experience we have is leading us to the best version of ourselves by forcing us to overcome our fears and awaken our desires.”

Can you share your most memorable experience as a mentor for EmpowHERment? 

“My most memorable experience as a mentor was meeting my mentee for the first time and seeing the sigh of relief on (her) face because she could tell I was relatable, as well as having the opportunity to expose my mentee to new perspectives relating to her future career choices and being able to celebrate her victories.”

Janine Malave
Program Manager, Student Services, Bright Blessings

Bright Blessings lives up to its name by bringing joy, hope and care to homeless and impoverished children. Through its programs dedicated to birthday surprises, newborn care and gifts of literacy, the organization not only provides basic living essentials, but also essentials for happiness, no matter the child’s financial situation.

Malave began by prepping the Bright Blessings’ staple birthday packages, and now mobilizes volunteers to continue the organization’s mission through small acts of kindness and unforgettable moments.

What inspired you to join Bright Blessings?

“As far back as I can remember, I have always been passionate about helping other people, especially those who are most vulnerable. Shortly after moving to Charlotte in 2015, I signed up for a Community Impact Session at Bright Blessings. During the session, I made wrapping paper for birthday gifts and assembled goody bags that would soon be delivered to homeless children.  It was heartwarming to witness members of the community coming together for the sole purpose of making a child feel special on their birthday.

“After learning about the amazing program of services offered by the organization, I felt a strong desire to want to do more to support their mission of bringing joy, care and hope to homeless and impoverished children. Within a month, I became a regular volunteer and was preparing birthday packages for children living in shelters.”

What drives you?

“Bright Blessings offers community members a variety of ways to get involved with its mission. My involvement with Bright Blessings continued to evolve with each new opportunity presented.

“I was asked to become a Community Ambassador for Bright Blessings. In this role, I attended local events to spread the news about the organization and its mission. Sharing this information with others has been the driving force behind my desire to do as much as possible to help the children we serve. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to engage people from the community to get involved.

“In 2016, I took on the role of Volunteer Coordinator for Turning Point, a partnership shelter for women and children affected by domestic violence. For two years, I coordinated Adopt-a-Party groups with members of the community for the monthly shelter parties.  This opportunity enabled me to see firsthand the generosity of volunteers and what they are willing to do to brighten the lives of needy children.”

Can you share your most memorable experience as a member of Bright Blessings? 

“The testimonials and expressions of gratitude from some of the children Bright Blessings served through the Adopt-a-Parties have tugged at my heartstrings. One of my most memorable experiences as a member of Bright Blessings was during an Adopt-a-Party at Turning Point.

“An amazing group of volunteers planned a themed party, which included two very popular princesses and a super hero. A young girl at the party asked Princess Elsa if she could sing, “Let it Go.” Well, I thought, “Oh my, this little girl is going to know this is not the real Princess Elsa.” I was starting to anticipate the worst.  Then suddenly, Princess Elsa raised her hands to form a circle with the young girls in the room and started to sing. With such joy, the girls sang along and danced. This moment was priceless.”

Laurenzo Surrell-Page
Empowering Positive Youth Peer Navigator, RAIN

RAIN provides quality care for individuals and families living with HIV. Key elements of the organization’s mission include disease prevention and the promotion of understanding and dignity for those affected.

Surrell-Page works to educate and assist individuals diagnosed with HIV and associated chronic conditions so they may navigate their journey with a friend.

[Related: How two young guys deal with their HIV diagnosis and help others do the same]

What inspired you to join RAIN?

“I was inspired to join RAIN as a result of my positive interactions with my then peer navigator, Roberto Olmo. Meeting someone who was open about their status not only motivated me to begin dealing with my status, but also made me feel like I was not alone in this journey.

“It wasn’t always about my status with Roberto, he genuinely cared about my wellbeing as a person. I could talk to him about any subject matter and know that our conversations were under a no judgmental zone.

“Additionally, I was inspired by Hannah Stutts, a grant coordinator with the Mecklenburg County Health Department. This individual was someone with a bubbly personality and was transparent in her delivery of testing results. It was refreshing to see someone uninhibited by subject matter that caused others to grow shy.

“As a child, I realized I had a fondness for helping others and enjoyed being in the company of others; I never knew this interest would translate into a career. I always want to work in an environment where I’m able to help people and be myself; RAIN happened to be that place.”

What drives you?

“What drives me is knowing that I have the power to change someone’s life by sharing my personal experiences. I’m determined to leave not only a positive, but also lasting, impression with everyone I meet. My goal is to make people laugh; this goal is fulfilled through sharing my story with others in public settings, or when meeting a client at a doctor’s appointment. Such interactions make my work in the HIV community a seamless and touching experience.”

Can you share your most memorable experience as a member of RAIN?

“My most memorable time at RAIN was dealing with a client that forced me to self-reflect and think outside of the box to resolve their issue. This experience helped shape my future interactions and challenged me to not only become a better peer navigator, but to also meet my clients where they were.

“In this line of work, you encounter young adults who are close in age to the navigators with whom they work. Even though I may have goals for them to achieve, they might not be ready or willing to work on those goals right away. It’s my job to walk with them, not ahead or behind them.”

Calli Rutzinski
Volunteer, Humane Society of Charlotte

Devoted to finding forever homes for animals, the Humane Society of Charlotte seeks to improve the lives of animals through ongoing education, medical treatments and a strong no-kill philosophy, resulting in a 99.9% live release rate! They placed over 3,000 animals in loving homes in 2017 and strive to build a world without homelessness and abandonment.

Rutzinski’s love for animals and dedication to the Humane Society’s foster program make her a valuable asset in saving the lives of Charlotte’s animals:

What inspired you to join the Humane Society of Charlotte?

“In 2012, we moved here from Wisconsin. I was working at the Wisconsin Humane Society for about a year prior to moving, where I fell in love with the animal welfare field. I enjoy helping pets and working with people. When we moved here, I quickly signed up to be a volunteer with the Humane Society of Charlotte.

“One of my first experiences volunteering here was at the annual Pet Palooza in Independence Park. I loved it! The Humane Society of Charlotte had such great community support and this event got me excited about the mission here. I joined the team as an Animal Care Associate about a month after my volunteer experience and have since moved into the Customer Service and Foster Manager role.”

What drives you?

“I am driven to make a connection to people and their current or future pets. Helping people find their new family member has always been my favorite part of the job. Just knowing that our team is making a difference in the community continues to drive me every day.”

Can you share your most memorable experience as a member of the Humane Society of Charlotte?

“My most memorable experiences here with the Humane Society of Charlotte have been fostering animals. I’ve had the privilege of fostering dogs, puppies, cats and kittens. Our foster program helps to allow more space in the shelter for incoming animals, as well as ensuring those that are in foster for medical reasons return happy, healthy and ready for adoption. Each animal I’ve fostered is so different and unique, and I just love being able to share that personalized information with that animal’s new family as well.

Carrie Howell
Executive Director, Hospitality House

Founded in the 1980s, Hospitality House provides affordable accommodations with all of the comforts of home for families of ill loved ones in Charlotte. Over 4,000 patients and family members found solace in this organization, which served almost 40 countries since its formation.

Howell oversees the operation, and experiences firsthand the impact of the organization on families during some of their toughest times.

What inspired you to join Hospitality House?

“My passion is a cliché, but I truly love helping others. I was drawn to the fact that Hospitality House of Charlotte is doing something that no other nonprofit in Charlotte is doing – providing lodging to families and patients regardless of their patient’s age. I immediately loved the intimacy of the house from the moment I walked in. I knew it was special and that it provided so much more than lodging to our guests.”

What drives you?

“The mission of Hospitality House is special. I can experience it firsthand by just walking out of my office and seeing guests who are undergoing chemo and radiation or awaiting an organ transplant. I can hear updates on guests whose loved one had been in a horrific car accident and is now walking after not expecting to live. I can see a family take their baby home after being born at 25 weeks. The families and patients staying here absolutely drive me.”

Can you share your most memorable experience as a member of Hospitality House?

“Gosh, there have been so many. There have been quite a few guests’ stories that have really influenced me. One of the most memorable was meeting a young college student for the first time after he was released from the hospital.  He was a vibrant college student, very active in his community when he was in a car accident. His parents stayed with us for months and we watched the pain of their new reality that their son would likely never walk again and that his speech would be very difficult for some time.

“We experienced this family’s journey day after day as they almost lost him and then they regained him. He came to Hospitality House on their last day and our entire staff just cheered for him and his family. They were such an inspiration to watch as they tried to manage keeping their own jobs, caring for their child and learning a new way of life. I will never forget them.”

David Longo
Volunteer, Promising Pages

Longo, far left

Through innovative literacy programs and partnerships, Promising Pages provides ownership of books to underserved children to encourage future bookworms and a lifelong love of reading. The organization provides more than 100,000 books annually, and Longo, who works for CBi Workspace Solutions, provides the space to store and sort the donations free of charge. In fact, Longo and CBI tripled the donated warehouse space over the past six years, and built custom offices with glass windows so the volunteers could monitor all of the daily activity in the operations center.

Kristina Cruise, the Founder and Executive Director of Promising Pages, referred to Longo as “a human angel.” She mentioned, “If more companies walked in the true spirit of service the way CBI has done with us these past six years, in just a short time there would be no more complex community issues to solve. It would be like heaven on earth.”

Longo’s dedication to service and willingness to listen found him as one of Promising Pages’ most valuable volunteers:

What inspired you to join Promising Pages?

“I believe God placed Kristina and her fledging organization in our life for a reason. We had the space and resources she needed, I just was awake and listened to the call.”

What drives you?

“CBI exists to love and serve our clients, associates, and communities. This has been part of our philosophy since our founding.”

Can you share your most memorable experience as a member of Promising Pages?

“My most memorable experience was the joy and gratitude they [Promising Pages] expressed the day we showed them their new proposed home.”

It’s the dedication and selflessness of these individuals that makes Charlotte a beacon of hope for those in need. Who do you think makes a lasting impact on the community?

Featured photo: Laurenzo Surrell-Page

1 COMMENT

  1. I love that you’re spotlighting nonprofit work in CLT! However, as a founder and executive director of a grassroots nonprofit, I bristle a bit to see The Humane Society and Hospitality House named as “unsung.” I get that it’s the people and not the organizations, and I know these organizations are doing great work. But, almost everyone in CLT knows who they are and what they do. I would really like to see C5 and other media outlet proactively seek out and promote some of the awesome grassroots orgs who are relatively unknown but doing stellar work in our communities! The current class of SEED20 (which, we’re a part of) would be a great place to find some.

    Thanks for your work and taking an interest in the social good sector!

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