By Ivey Schofield
After her mother died in 2009, Alyssa Delts didn’t expect to find a new family.
The next year, when she was 11, her social worker signed her up for a summer camp with Men and Women United For Youth and Families. That’s when Delts found a group of people that continues to support her more than a decade later.
Founded in 2006, the nonprofit tries to holistically meet the needs of people in rural Bladen, Brunswick and Columbus counties. The area has endured severe flooding from hurricanes and other storms in recent years, and some residents, especially farmers, are still struggling to rebuild or even put food on the table.
In Riegelwood, home to one of Men and Women United’s two locations, more than 25% of residents live below the poverty line, compared to about 15% statewide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Only 3% have a bachelor’s degree, compared to about 33% statewide.
“We exist because of the need,” said Randolph Keaton, executive director of the group.
To meet that need, Men and Women United partners with local community colleges, food banks, career centers and local governing bodies to provide workforce training, mentorship, disaster relief, scholarships and entrepreneurial development.
Delts can personally attest the nonprofit’s commitment to the region.
As a child in the foster care system, she didn’t feel like she had a voice. Men and Women United, especially its Youth Ambassadors for a Better Community program, changed that.
“Because of the program, I gained a voice, I gained independence, and I gained a sense of wanting to do more outside of myself,” Delts said.
‘They’re all our babies’
As a part of the inaugural group of youth ambassadors in 2015, Delts earned money helping local farmers grow and sell their crops.
Since then, the youth ambassadors program has expanded to dozens of kids who speak at food policy conferences across the state, maintain five community gardens and travel to the beach to sell locally grown produce to vacationers.
And it’s all youth-led, instilling responsibility and work ethic in children as young as 10.
“It’s more than just earning the money. We want to teach them social responsibility and civic engagement,” said LaVonia Lewis, the grant writer and special events coordinator for Men and Women United. “We try to cover all areas, so by the time they graduate they’ve matured a lot without having to have gotten it negatively.”
Thirteen-year-old Latorrye Daniels has been a youth ambassador for years. Her family farms, and she enjoys helping other local farmers. But the program has led her to dream bigger: She wants to one day work in the medical field.
Cameron Blanks, 14, also has an uncle who farms. He’s not sure what his future holds, but the youth ambassadors program has taught him important life skills, such as registering to vote and writing resumes and cover letters. Professors and local leaders also join to educate the ambassadors on food and climate policies.
“It’s different to tell somebody that they can do it versus them being able to touch somebody who’s done it,” said the Rev. Keith Graham, who is on the board of directors. “You can see their spirits light up because they can see something other than, ‘What am I going to do this summer?’”
That’s why youth ambassadors come back year after year. “Being a rural community, our youth don’t have as many opportunities as kids in New Hanover [County] who have parks to go to 10 minutes from their houses or the pool in the summertime,” Lewis said. “Our youth have to be creative if they’re not guided to do constructive things for their own benefit.”
For example, years ago a local 16-year-old got into trouble and was facing jail time. Several youth ambassadors rallied behind him and wrote letters of support to the judge. As a result, the judge allowed the teen to avoid jail and instead mandated community service, which the boy completed with Men and Women United. Now, he’s a high school graduate who recently enlisted in the military.
“With a program like this, we’re trying to keep as many kids as possible out of that situation,” Lewis said. “We can’t keep them all out — because they’re not all going to be youth ambassadors — but, for those that do, they get that advocacy.”
Men and Women United has partnered with juvenile crime prevention councils in Bladen, Brunswick and Columbus counties to help reduce juvenile crime and sentencing.
“We just want to help them all,” Lewis said. “They’re all our babies.”
The nonprofit also helps older people, regardless of their criminal records, find jobs through its new tri-county job center. The center is a collaborative network of local businesses, community organizations, government agencies and community colleges that promote workforce development through continuing education classes, access to computers, food distribution and case management.
Locals in need participate in an intake process, when staff identify barriers to success, establish goals and create a plan. “We try to put things in place, so they can overcome those and be productive citizens,” Graham said. “They’re not stuck, being held back with no hope to feed their families.”
Fostering hope is the key to success, especially if someone or a family has multiple barriers to overcome. “If we could just help five of those needs, six of those needs, we could help build a foundation to give them hope to get out of whatever situation that might be holding them back,” Graham said.
Money is often the biggest barrier, but Men and Women United uses grant funding and donations to help. Now scholarships to two- and four-year universities are available. In 2019, the nonprofit awarded a total of $70,000 in scholarship money.
Devin Bowen, a former youth ambassador and recent high school graduate from Elizabethtown, was worried about paying for his education at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. At the end of June, Men and Women United gave him a $1,000 scholarship, which will help him purchase books and a laptop for school.
“They’ll definitely help you out with anything you need,” Bowen said.
Men and Women United has also partnered with colleges across the state to offer paid summer internships. Gabrielle Rousey, a Pender County resident attending the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and Molly Bennett, a Wilmington resident attending N.C. State University, currently run the youth ambassadors program.
Support from the nonprofit expands into adulthood. Staff like Keaton routinely touch base with Delts, who works at the Durham County Public Health Department and is pursuing a master’s degree. “There have been times when I felt like there wasn’t anything I could do,” she said. “They motivated me to keep going.”
Keaton hopes that kids like Delts who have gone through programs at Men and Women United will return to southeastern North Carolina to support the community that has supported them. “Although you’re going away to college, you need to come back home and use your talents here,” he said.
Keaton’s focus is on sustainability, to make sure the community remains resilient enough to last for generations. “We try to create leaders, so they can understand what their role is in making our community better,” he said.
Even though she now lives in Durham County, Delts is still trying to make the community that accepted her in 2010 a better place. She has mentored several local children, but wants more youth in need to join the supportive family that she’s found at Men and Women United.
“It’s an awesome opportunity that more people should take advantage of,” Delts said. “They provide so much to our community.”