Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: Woman helps youths on path to success

CorrespondentJanuary 19, 2013 

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Portrait of Kim Caraganis, executive director of Chatham County Together! headquartered in Siler City, NC. Caraganis is a 24 year veteran of the local organization whose goal is linking troubled youth to mentors and helping youth to keep out of trouble and in school.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Kim Caraganis Born: March 21, 1955, in New York City Career: Executive director, Chatham County Together! Education: B.S., public health education, UNC-Chapel Hill; coursework in jewelry making, School for American Craftsmen at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Penland School of Crafts Family: Husband, Lewie; sons, Rivers, 32; Kai, 29; and Haze, 25; one grandson Fun Fact: Caraganis’ hobbies include painting the furniture her husband refinishes and teaching yoga.

As a young adult, Kim Caraganis rambled through a number of very different areas: from upstate New York to a South Dakota Indian reservation to rural Chatham County.

But for the past 23 years, her professional life has had a singular purpose: doing whatever she can to keep Chatham County’s youths on a path to success.

Caraganis began working at the nonprofit Chatham County Together!, or CCT, in 1990 as a part-time administrative assistant, shortly after the organization was conceived as a mentoring program to help point youthful offenders toward better lifestyles.

She took over as director in 1998 and now heads an eight-employee staff that runs half a dozen programs, each with a particular focus – family advocacy, pregnancy prevention, community service, job training and more.

But Caraganis sees them all as part of one large effort. She hopes to expand it in the coming years, when the organization will merge with the statewide nonprofit Communities in Schools, allowing it to bring programs to more at-risk students in Chatham County schools.

Caraganis is a passionate advocate of mentoring, which remains the group’s central focus. For her, however, the breadth of her organization’s purpose is a key strength.

“I really like the idea of working with the whole child instead of focusing on one problem,” says Caraganis, 57. “It’s a holistic approach to helping people and families.”

George Greger-Holt, director of student services for Chatham County schools and a founding member of CCT, says the group’s success stems partly from the persistence of Caraganis and other staff members, all of whom work to reach even the most difficult youths.

“They care about youngsters, and they’re going to go the extra mile to do what it takes to make them successful,” Greger-Holt says. “Some of the youngsters they work with are the ones that everyone else has given up on. And when someone sticks with you, it’s really empowering.”

Unusual route to Chatham

Caraganis traces her desire to help families to a transformative experience that occurred shortly after she finished high school.

She graduated early, but while in school in upstate New York, she took a class in American Indian Studies. The teacher of that class had run a day care at the Rosebud Sioux reservation and mentioned that there were opportunities on the reservation for anyone who wanted to do the program again.

Caraganis and a few others pooled their money to buy a Volkswagen bus and drove across the country to South Dakota, where she found the most desolate rural community she’d ever seen. She and her friends started a camp that entailed little more than entertaining the tribe’s children.

“ ‘Summer camp’ was a very loose word there,” she says. “We would take them swimming and do arts projects.”

They camped on the land of a village elder who told them stories and took them to powwows and other events, immersing them in the native culture.

Caraganis says she left there not only with a desire to serve those in need, but also with an understanding that those needs should not define a culture.

“It was remote and depressing in some ways,” she says. “But I got to see a different way of living and to see not only poverty, but also the richness of the culture.”

She moved to rural Chatham County with a friend in 1974. They made the move in February, she says, in part to escape the bitter cold of Rochester, N.Y., where she was studying jewelry making.

She and her friend moved into a country house and took several classes at the Penland School of Crafts in the mountains, where she met her husband, a woodworker.

They married in 1980 and bought some land in Chatham County, hoping to live off their talents – and their land.

“We were composting and gardening, and canning and using woodstoves way back then,” she says. “We just wanted to do things with our own hands and create a community with other people doing the same thing.”

But when they had children, they found this lifestyle difficult to maintain. Caraganis returned to school with her eye on a job that would mesh with her sense of social justice. She earned a degree in public heath education from UNC-Chapel Hill.

Her first job out of school was with the Goldston Medical Center, which hired her to conduct programs in rural churches on a variety of health topics. She liked that personal approach better than a more traditional path in her field, such as working in a public health department.

At about the same time, a group in Chatham County was brainstorming ways to fill a gap in services for the area’s troubled youth.

Growing and adapting

Chatham County Together! grew out of the frustration among community leaders about the number of young people passing through the court system. They saw a lack of services that might help these young people make better choices, so they developed a mentoring program to step into the gap.

Caraganis read about the program in the paper and started working there within months of its creation; for the first five years, she and the group’s director shared its 10-by-10-foot office in a building that was eventually demolished.

Greger-Holt said the way the group has grown to meet the community’s changing needs is impressive. For instance, when Caraganis started, it dealt with very few Spanish-speaking families; now, half of the staff is bilingual.

While a lot of the grants that fund CCT have specific goals – for example, to reduce teen pregnancy or juvenile crime – Caraganis aims to connect anyone who enters her web of services with whatever kind of help is needed.

The children CCT helps originally came through the courts after engaging in some sort of juvenile infraction. But now, the group helps the children of prison inmates and youngsters referred to them in a variety of other ways.

CCT runs on eight grants from state and federal agencies – along with about $100,000 a year through foundation grants and its two annual fundraisers.

Four years ago, the group moved from Pittsboro – its home for two decades – to Siler City, where Caraganis’ husband and a friend outfitted a 2,300-square-foot storefront space for its offices. The county helped fund the move, and the community pitched in to help fix up the office.

Its most recent additions include Teen Court – an innovative program in which a jury of youths determines a punishment for peer offenders – and a restitution program for young offenders.

Next up is the merger with Communities in Schools, which Caraganis hopes will help the group expand its services to more children.

“We never know what we’ll be doing in the future because we’ll be responding to the needs of the community,” she says. “Right now we have a dropout problem, and we want to help with that. It’s a new beginning for us.”

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