StepUp reaches down to pull people up

CorrespondentJanuary 12, 2013 

Raleigh resident Cortney Perry sold crack cocaine for nine years. She ended up in jail. But when she got out, she did something that turned her life around: She turned to StepUp Ministry.

Now the 32-year-old single mom has attended community college and is making a living as a customer service representative.

Perry says StepUp’s job training program taught her personal responsibility, to set goals for herself, and gave her job-hunting skills, including how to dress appropriately for interviews and work.

StepUp Ministry was started in 1988 by members of White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh to provide transitional housing to working families who were homeless. In 2004, the nonprofit, now supported by several congregations across Raleigh, began offering job and life skills training to low-income, homeless, jobless and underemployed men and women, many who have a criminal background.

Not everyone who starts StepUp’s job training program graduates, and not everyone who graduates finds a job, but the program’s success stories have bolstered the program’s popularity with employers.

Since they started keeping track in 2005, StepUp has placed 1,850 people in jobs.

“We try to empower people,” Executive Director Steve Swayne says. “If you give people time, education and opportunity, people will be successful if they listen and apply themselves.”

Perry joined the program in May 2010 after she got out of the women’s correctional center. Through the program, she was able to get a car through Wheels 4 Hope, a partner of StepUp, and an apartment.

Perry describes the StepUp staff as a caring network. “You’re not a number like you are in social services,” she said. “You are a person.”

‘Very good employees’

Last year, 385 people graduated from StepUp’s program and so far, just like Perry, 358 people have found jobs, said Linda Nunnallee, the ministry’s associate director. Of those 358, 226 had criminal backgrounds, 97 were homeless, 85 were veterans, and 108 struggled with substance abuse. They now work in such fields as construction, customer service, food service and healthcare, with pay averaging $9.88 an hour.

“Every time a participant finds employment, we ring a bell,” said Sarah Werner, marketing and technology coordinator for StepUp. “The bell echoes throughout the entire office, and everyone present cheers while the participant listens over the phone.”

Nunnallee says StepUp works with 190 employers, including K&W Cafeterias and Golden Corral, who are recruited for the most part by its board members. But while StepUp has fostered good relationships with several local employers, Nunnallee emphasizes that program participants do the work of going out and nailing down the job.

Don Camden, vice president and eastern regional manager of Cargill, which produces food and agricultural products, has made two hires from StepUp. Camden said he likes the training he has observed in the nonprofit’s job readiness courses.

“It’s not just résumé writing and interviewing skills,” he said. “They teach them how to relate to people you work for, how to take orders and work with certain co-workers even if you don’t agree with them.

“It’s a dose of reality. They truly come in ready to work. They understand they may not be in charge, but they come in and work effectively in a team environment.”

As for his StepUp hires, he calls them “very good employees.”

A personal mission

StepUp has a three-phase approach. First, it focuses on job training and placement, then life skills development, and once those two are mastered, the staff helps participants work on long-term stability, Werner said.

The last phase presents new opportunities for personal growth, including classes in entrepreneurship, leadership development and career advancement. The goal is a middle-class existence.

The ministry expanded its reach by opening a new job center in October 2011. It took grant money from the Goodwill Community Foundation and renovated the basement of its Oberlin Road headquarters so that its 13 counselors could be housed in one building instead of spread out in various locations in three counties.

Perry completed the life skills program last Christmas in the new space. The yearlong program was her gift to herself. “It taught me how to humble myself. … I had to take a step back and learn patience. If you are patient, things can happen the right way.”

Fuquay-Varina resident Danny Horton agrees. Horton, 52, is another graduate of StepUp and now sits on the board. Horton was a recreational drinker who saw his drinking spiral out of control until he found StepUp. He attended its jobs program in 2007 and the life skills program in 2008. Sober now for seven years, he is one of Camden’s hires at Cargill, where he operates a grain elevator.

He said StepUp’s program transformed him.

“It taught me about budgeting, to be self-dependent and get in touch with me,” he says. “I was able to reach the goals I set,” which included getting a driver’s license and his own apartment, and joining a church.

Horton is proud to share that he receives good job evaluations. Now, he often speaks to other men and women traveling the same lonely road that he did, suffering from making bad choices in their lives. They need just a little guidance and a helping hand.

For many StepUp staffers, the mission is very personal. Juan Nelson, a Durham native, was a drug addict, starting his habit at 18. Now he’s a life skills case manager for StepUp.

He’s been clean for four years with help from both a ministry in Charlotte where he lived for a few years, and StepUp. When he returned to Durham, he heard about StepUp, went to an orientation program, and signed up for life skills. “I was making money but didn’t know how to manage,” he said. He acquired the knowledge and discipline of setting goals.

“I started working on my credit,” he said. “Things got better.”

Now, he’s teaching men and women the same lessons he learned. Program participants say he’s straightforward and can tell if someone is not prepared to be counseled.

“If someone is not ready, Juan lets them know he or she can come back. But he can read between the lines,” Nunnallee says.

She attributes the success of StepUp to “accountability.” Participants sign an agreement stating they will be punctual, dress professionally, and be attentive during class.

“We monitor the progress of participants,” Nunnallee says. “We are with them. When they come up against a barrier, we help them. We teach them how to do it, but they have to complete the goals on their own. We are walking beside them, but they have to have a desire to make a change in their lives.”

Lacy can be reached at

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