As certain industries struggle to fill jobs, a Charlotte nonprofit is poised to be part of the solution.
by Cathy Martin | photograph by Justin Driscoll
At the end of 2021, there were more job openings than unemployed workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While explanations vary, including a pandemic-related surge in early retirements, companies are more likely than ever to explore nontraditional sources to fill vacant roles.
One Charlotte nonprofit could be part of the solution. For nearly 50 years, the Center for Community Transitions has helped individuals with criminal or conviction history obtain the skills they need to reenter the workforce. Before the pandemic, CCT served more than 1,200 people a year. In 2020, that figure was closer to 550, says Patrice Funderburk, executive director of CCT. Amid the tight labor market and with new “clean slate” state legislation in place, the organization is positioned to play a key role in helping fill vacant jobs.
CCT traces its roots to the basement of First Presbyterian Church in uptown, where it was started in 1974 with the help of a VISTA federal anti-poverty program grant. Then called ECO, the program helped prepare men coming out of prisons to reenter society and the workforce. In the 1980s, the organization expanded as its leaders began to recognize the impact of incarceration on women and families.
Today, CCT serves the community through three distinct programs. LifeWorks! offers career development, networking, soft-skills and other programs for individuals with criminal records and is based at the Goodwill Opportunity campus in west Charlotte. Families Doing Time serves children and other family members impacted by the economic instability of incarceration through school-based support groups, caregiver support and more. The Center for Women is a residential work-release program for women within three years of parole.
The women’s center opened on Park Road in 1987 and moved to its current east Charlotte location in 2010. On a morning last fall, Halloween decorations adorn a covered patio where female residents relax or host visitors. Inside, double-occupancy rooms are reminiscent of college dorm housing — only much tidier. One resident cheerfully peels potatoes for dinner, while another is busy making tie-dye T-shirts. Others rush to and fro, heading out to catch the bus or light rail on their way to work.
The center houses 30 women, who range in age from mid-20s to mid-60s. They’re not just from Charlotte: The center has served women from about 40 North Carolina counties, Funderburk says. The women, who must meet certain criteria to apply for the residential program, are free to come and go as they please between 5 a.m. and midnight.
“Most of the women that transfer here have spent a minimum of seven to nine years in prison before they came, and some have spent as many as 15 to 20 years in prison,” Funderburk says. Being apart from society for so long can create much anxiety regarding reentry, according to Funderburk. A grant enabled the center in 2020 to add a part-time licensed social worker to provide individual counseling and group therapy.
“It’s a preparation from day one that they get here until the very last day,” says Delilah Montalvo, program director at the women’s center. The former Charlotte corrections officer has worked at CCT for 11 years. “We even help them with technology. We have some folks that have been in for 15-20 years, so cell phones weren’t even a thing. Having them prepared on the technology — that’s a big deal, even using a debit card.” The center allows the women to purchase cell phones for use about two weeks before their release.
“We’re the prison that prisons want to be, just in terms of truly embodying reentry and transition pathways that really prepare the ladies to return home to their families into the community,” Funderburk says. She joined the board of CCT in 2017 and became executive director in early 2020 after longtime director Myra Clark stepped down. Her background in corporate human resources at companies including Belk and Lowe’s gives her a unique insight into hiring practices and the obstacles facing individuals with conviction history as they prepare to reenter the workforce.
“Bringing corporate processes into a nonprofit environment is a really delicate balance,” she says. “We get to test — and we’re small enough that we also get to fail together and be adaptive.”
The North Carolina Second Chance Act, legislation passed in 2020 with bipartisan support, provides “clean slate” relief by expunging certain misdemeanor and felony charges that have been dismissed or for which a person was found not guilty. The bill also expunges some juvenile convictions and certain nonviolent convictions. It’s an impactful law, given that as of December North Carolina had about 105,000 adults in the corrections system, including more than 75,000 on probation or parole.
“Our real sweet spot is providing a talent pool to small and medium businesses who are ready to receive and become a part of not only changing narrative but having an impact on the labor shortage,” Funderburk says. She’s also seen an uptick in interest from larger companies interested in learning more about the process of hiring individuals with a history of justice involvement.
“This is absolutely the hardest work I’ve ever done, but in a very short period of time, it is also absolutely the most rewarding,” Funderburk says.
After more than a decade at the center, Montalvo, too, has fallen in love with the work.
“Even if you touch one person here, it’s enough. These women have had it hard. Just being compassionate and knowing that you’re able to help not only them but their families — you’re impacting so much more than just that one person, you’re impacting their whole circle.” SP
The Center for Community Transitions is currently conducting a Second Chance Fund Campaign with a goal of raising $1 million. Visit centerforcommunitytransitions.org to learn more.
Photo: Delilah Montalvo, program director at CCT’s Center for Women, and CCT Executive Director Patrice Funderburk