Crystal Little knows first-hand what it’s like to live in poverty. She knows because she lived it.
“I had the experience of going into the system not as a volunteer, but as someone who needed the help,” says Crystal, who married and divorced young, became a single mother and struggled for financial stability.
“I realized that further economic mobility wouldn’t be possible without a college education and went into poverty when I went back to school,” Crystal explains. “I know that facing the government system is traumatic. It feels like there is nothing you can do to fight it.”
These experiences inform Crystal’s work today as the first program director of The Flourish Initiative, an intensive two-year program designed to support female heads-of-households and their families on their journeys out of poverty. The program, offered by The Shalom Project, received a 2019 grant from The Women’s Fund.
The Flourish Initiative is changing a decades-long narrative about poverty with a holistic curriculum that addresses not only financial stability but also health and wellness, education and career, self-empowerment, and personal resilience.
“Most of the programs designed for poverty mobility only focus on the financial,” says Crystal, who interned with The Shalom Project while earning a master’s degree from Wake Forest University School of Divinity and helped develop The Flourish Initiative.
“They don’t talk about relationship-building, communication skills, self-care, or connecting with your authentic self. No one talks about peeling back all the narratives society has placed on you to connect with who you are inside.”
Building relationships is a critical tenant of The Flourish Initiative. Participants are paired with financially secure individuals who commit to supporting them through the program. The partners gather weekly to share a meal and engage in a wide range of programming provided by a network of community partners.
Kaisha McDermott-Carter, a single mother of twin daughters, went through a devastating divorce that adversely affected her financial stability. She says she’d never felt such a close sense of community before joining the program’s first cohort in 2019.
“After the divorce, I didn’t trust anybody. I shut the world out. Being in Flourish, I have learned to trust again. I see there are people who care about you just because you are you,” she says.
“My life has done a 180. Last year I was really at a low point. I was looking for work and had been on food stamps and Medicaid. That is what I had to do at the time, but I hated every step of the process. This has been a turning point for me.”
Kaisha works as the Regional Manager for NCWorks at Goodwill and as a social advocate through the city’s Partnership for Prosperity (PFP), an initiative to raise awareness about the causes of poverty and coordinate the fight against it.
“They came to Flourish to talk with us about what the PFP was trying to do and were looking for advisory board members. And I was like, ‘Yes, I want to be involved.’ ”
Kaisha’s decision came as no surprise to Crystal. Opening the door to community advocacy work is another goal of Flourish.
“The women in this program are brilliant,” Crystal says. “We need them as leaders of our communities, because they are the ones with the answers about how to solve poverty issues.”