Equity, Inclusion and Hope in Southeastern NC: Kewanda Merritt

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.

I was born and raised in Lumberton, North Carolina. I knew I wanted to be a teacher and then a principal in my hometown from a young age. I’ve held various roles in public education, including work overseas. Experiences outside of my hometown opened my eyes to the lack of opportunity and resources in a small, rural town. Without knowledgeable caregivers, an adolescent may not reach their full potential. This concern led to my work with Black girls in the community and now with adolescents (10-24) and their caregivers. We must support our children in a holistic way, which includes involving everyone in the child’s life.

What are the significant needs in your community, and how are organizations and individuals working to meet those needs?
The community served by CONNECT Community, Inc. has limited access to programs that foster adolescent development and even less that support their caregivers. Our community is made up of impoverished, disproportionately marginalized groups, so this type of programming is essential to ensure higher rates of successful transitions from adolescence to adulthood and to end detrimental cycles such as generational poverty. CONNECT establishes strong relationships with community organizations, institutions, and service providers to implement programs such as workshops for caregivers about communicating with young people and mentorship opportunities for adolescents.

Why is this work personally important to you?

Lumberton has grown since I was younger, adding more stores and restaurants. Yet, it has declined in areas such as economic growth and opportunities for youth. The work of CONNECT is essential to me because it serves my community—it’s home! I feel very strongly that as one learns and grows, they should reach back and grab the hands of others. For me, that means making sure those growing up in the community that raised me have the knowledge of and access to resources and opportunities that set them on the same playing field as those from more urban areas.

What obstacles have you faced while getting the work established? What did you do to overcome them?

Breaking down the stigma of receiving parenting support, especially among minority communities, is a significant obstacle.  When one seeks support as a caregiver, there is a feeling that they are a ‘bad parent’, and they ultimately feel judged and inadequate.

To combat this, we are soliciting the help of community caregivers with whom we have previously built relationships, and they act as CONNECT ambassadors. People tend to be more accepting of support when it’s presented to them by those they know and trust. Secondly, through community collaborations, we are pairing our services with support caregivers receive from other entities. Lastly, we participate in community events and trusted spaces caregivers frequent.

When thinking about your work, what gives you hope?

The ‘vision’ of how this work will change the entire town gives me hope! Knowing first-hand how caregiver support during an integral time in a child’s life can significantly impact not only on the developing child but the entire family excites me. When families thrive, whole communities thrive!