Charrise Hart, Early Education Advocate
The good social worker doesn’t go on helping people out of a ditch. Pretty soon, she begins to find out what ought to be done to get rid of the ditch.” Mary Richmond, Founder, Families in Society
“It is our goal to eliminate ‘the ditch’,” said Charrise Hart, CEO of Ready for School, Ready for Life.
Charrise is at the helm of this ambitious nonprofit that aims to ensure every Guilford County child is ready to go to kindergarten by enhancing and expanding local resources while developing policies that support the work.
The High Point native was inspired by her mother’s career in social work to pursue a degree in sociology from NC State. As a college student, she followed her mother’s lead and volunteered for the YWCA Greensboro’s teen parent mentor program. She served as a mentor to two young mothers.
“It really gave me a sense of what’s happening in our community. In my work with teen parents, I was allowed to see all of the systems that impacted their day-to-day life and their ability to meet their goals to be good parents,” she says. “The program gave all of the young women a sense of hope and confidence that they could achieve.”
YWCA Program Director, Susan Cupito soon asked Charrise to come work for the program. Charrise had already been working an accounting job that she started while in undergrad.
“I thought about it, and prayed over it, and I felt that it was the right move. My parents said, ‘We have the feeling this is what you are meant to do.’”
In 2010, she started studying for her Masters in Social Work from UNC-Chapel Hill. She had worked at the YWCA for six years when Executive Director Lindy Garnette encouraged her to work for other organizations to broaden her experience.
Charrise did an internship at SHIFT NC, an organization that promotes teen sexual health. Later she took a job at NC Housing Coalition, where she worked on an assessment of teen parent housing needs, and became the marketing and development coordinator at Triangle Family Services. She learned what it took to fundraise for nonprofit organizations.
Charrise was at the YWCA when it almost closed its doors due to a financial crisis in 2008, so she learned the importance of fundraising and development for nonprofit organizations.
“If you don’t have ample funding, it makes it difficult to do the work. It becomes nearly impossible to help others over the long-term,” she says.
In 2014, Garnette called and asked her to consider coming back to the YWCA Greensboro – this time as chief operating officer.
“They were engaged in a five-year, $5 million dollar campaign and she needed someone to help them rebuild,” she says. Charrise worried she was not prepared for the responsibility. “I had an opportunity to engage with donors and build relationships with others in a way I had not before.”
While she was there, the YWCA expanded to add a new emergency family shelter, something that wasn’t offered in Greensboro at the time.
“We were maybe three weeks away from a grand opening and we received a call from a local community leader who said, ‘We just saw a family sleeping in their van.’ It was 93 degrees outside,” she says. We jumped into action to get the shelter opened early.
Charrise served about two years as COO when Garnette recommended her for a job leading the YWCA Lower Cape Fear, which is based in Wilmington and serves a four-county area.
“Our largest programs were early childhood education, afterschool and summer camp,” Charrise said.
Given the racial history of Wilmington, promoting racial equity also became a focus of the job. The YWCA’s mission is to eliminate racism and stand up for social justice while it supports women and families.
“My vision was to embed an equity approach within all aspects of the organization. I saw the difference it made,” Charrise says. “We addressed equity through race, poverty and health to ensure that women and children had access to healthcare support services.”
Charrise also expanded interest in the organization’s annual Stand Against Racism event and quarterly Community Conversations focused on racial equality.
She expected to be in Wilmington for a long time, but in 2019 she got the opportunity to move back home to Greensboro to serve as the CEO for Ready for School, Ready for Life (also called Ready, Ready), a burgeoning nonprofit that aims to build an innovative early childhood development system in Guilford County.
“(Ready, Ready) is not just focused on the direct services to families. It’s focused on systems-building and systems change,” Charrise says. “We have a bold goal. Our goal is to ensure that every child is prepared for kindergarten in Guilford County.”
Funded by numerous foundations and supporters, the organization seeks to enhance and expand capacity for early childhood programs that are already working well. In Guilford County, 6,000 children are born annually – and half of them are born into poverty. It also is developing a public policy agenda to support early childhood development.
Ready, Ready just awarded a contract to Children’s Home Society for a navigation program that will guide families through the complex network of services available to them. The program will go through a pilot testing phase before it is broadly available.
The organization is also looking to better evaluate data coming out of local early childhood programs.
“We know that the early childhood system needs to change to better support children and families.” We have some amazing programs in our local community, but we want to make sure that our collaborative approach is impactful and replicable,” Charrise says. “This data system is critical to proving that our intervention is working.”
Ready, Ready has a small staff – just seven people – but its potential impact could be huge, Charrise says.
“I’m happy to be working with our community and our staff to propel this change and ensure that every child has a fair chance to succeed in school and in life. Ultimately, we hope that Ready Ready will be a trendsetter for other communities across the country,” she says.