May 16, 2023

As a Community Grows, StepUp Durham Works to Ensure That Everyone Gets to Thrive

Author Aly Semigran, Content Specialist

With a quickly growing population of over 300,000 individuals, Durham, North Carolina is a small, but mighty and ambitious city. A similar sentiment can be said for the nonprofit organization StepUp Durham, which is comprised of a team of ten part-time and full-time employees, but whose work and reach is immeasurable to the people and communities they serve. As Executive Director Syretta Hill puts it, “[Our work] is less about how many people we serve, and more about the depth of service.”

Established in Durham in 2015, StepUp works toward transforming the lives of adults and children with life skills training and meaningful, stable employment through step-based programming. “It’s really important for us that people don’t just get a job,” Hill explains, “It’s that they get a decent job and keep it.”

The program’s steps focus on employment training, job placement (within 90 days) and career retention. Step 1 is Work, which includes job coaching and employer referrals, targets reemployment and long-term success. Step 2 is an eight-week block called Grow, and it focuses on personal development, career development, leadership development and education.

Finally, Step 3 is Thrive, which emphasizes personal achievements and stability. “Simply getting by is not stable, it’s slowly exhausting,” says Operations Director Tim Wollin. Completing this final step includes having participants take public speaking training, completing a community-driven passion project and accomplishing a life goal, which they are given $1,000 to do. The latter, Wollin explains, is not for paying bills or going into their savings, rather so that participants can “do something that feels good that they couldn’t do when money was a barrier.”

Other programming at StepUp Durham includes StepUp Kidz (which supports the children of participants), Elevate (which provides short-term courses and educational opportunities) and Excel (where formerly incarcerated individuals receive an unconditional $600 per month cash stipend). This guaranteed income pilot program was created to reduce recidivism in the state, where roughly 40% of incarcerated individuals return to jail.

“We looked at the profile of a person that is most likely to go back, and asked what the intervention strategies are,” Hill explains. That included enlisting nonprofit organizations that provide mental health services, including one-on-one and group counseling. “We’ve served about 25 individuals and their families to date and we’re really proud of that.”

Breaking down systemic barriers, which often includes tackling stigmas, is at the heart of StepUp Durham’s mission. With a current budget of a little more than $900,000, Hill says, “you need every penny of that to keep these programs going.” That’s where donor support, particularly for day-to-day operations, is critical to providing these services.

The organization says they’ve seen an increase in unrestricted and long-term giving in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that while donor-advised funds (DAFs) only make up a small portion of their portfolio right now, Hill says they are “helpful and useful” to their mission.

When donors give through unrestricted or long-term funds, “it shows a level of trust that the organization knows what they’re doing and gives the time and space to try new things,” Hill emphasizes. “When a funder doesn’t create barriers or challenges, that aligns with who we are, because we don’t create barriers or challenges for people: we try to remove them.”

Wollin adds that donor support gives the people of Durham who “are working really hard and deserve better opportunities” the chance to make these opportunities happen. “You are celebrating the grit, resilience and effort that participants put in.”

About the Author

Aly Semigran is a Content Specialist at National Philanthropic Trust. She has been writing and editing professionally for over 15 years, with articles in Billboard, Well + Good and Mic, among many other notable publications. In addition to her editorial background, Aly is currently getting her Master of Social Work degree from Temple University. She resides in Philadelphia with her dog.