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Q and A with Carol Hardison

by Mark Peres

November 7,2008

Carol Hardison is CEO of Crisis Assistance Ministry, having served since July 2000. Carol began work at Duke Energy as a computer programmer and continued her career in information technology management for 18 years. While at Duke Energy, Carol was involved in numerous community ventures such as Charlotte Emergency Housing, The Uptown Men’s Shelter, Habitat for Humanity and the United Way. She currently serves on several boards, including Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont, Homeless Services Network, Alliance Consumer Credit Counseling, Crossroads Charlotte Accountability Task Force. Carol was raised in Tallahassee and Jacksonville, Florida and came to Charlotte in 1982 after graduating from Furman University with a BS in Mathematics and Computer Science.

Tell us about your mission.

Our mission is to provide assistance and advocacy for people in financial crisis, helping them move toward self-sufficiency. We were founded in 1975 when the country was in deep economic recession, not unlike today. A group of local clergy came together to pool resources to more effectively meet the needs of families in crisis. We provide emergency financial assistance to prevent eviction and utility disconnection. Additionally, we make available donated items such as clothing, essential household goods, furniture, and appliances in our Free Store in hopes that our clients can save their money for other basic essentials. The agency served 81,060 people in Mecklenburg County last year.

How is the current economic crisis affecting the work of the Agency?

The line of people outside the door in the morning is up 30-40% over last year. That is a dramatic increase of people and families who cannot pay for the most basic of bills and who are living week to week or day to day. We’re seeing people who are suddenly out of work who never dreamed that they would be standing in line desperate for help. These may not be mortgage bankers, but they are mortgage underwriters. We’re seeing former middle and lower income people who were in the financial services or housing related industries who are suddenly unable to pay for their rent or utilities.

How extensive is the challenge of poverty in our region?

There are many different gradations of poverty, from homeless individuals and families to those who are financially stable enough to afford a Habitat for Humanity House. The federal government defines poverty as approximately $20,000 of annual family income for a family of four. That’s each member of the household living on $5000 gross income or less a year. At this time, it is reported that 11 percent of our County is in poverty – that means almost 100,000 people struggle to keep a roof over their head. If we include those at the 200% level – just over $40,000 of family income for a family of four – then we estimate 180,000 people are living in the County who are economically fragile. At our current rate, we may see over 100,000 people in our line alone in 2009.

You left a career as an executive at Duke Energy to serve the poor. Why?

I have gotten to know many people over the last few years because of my work here and this work is the context of our relationship. Yet my passion for serving people in poverty has been with me as long as I can remember. I grew up in Tallahassee and Jacksonville in a household that cared deeply about justice and equality. In the corporate world, I believed I could volunteer enough to fulfill my desire to serve, but as I approached mid-life I just had to make this change. I’m so privileged to work beside a team of people dedicated to service each and every day.

How did you come to Crisis Assistance Ministry?

When I was at Duke, I served actively in the community. I couldn’t wait until the end of the workday so I could volunteer at night. Helping others energized me. Then I took a workshop at Anchors Consulting about personal skills and aptitudes, and aligning my core values and passions with my career, and it reinforced that concerns about justice and fairness, and helping the disadvantaged, were in my blood. When Caroline Myers, who founded the agency, decided to retire, I put my name in the hat. What I lacked in formal social service training and education, I made up for in passion. Board members believed in my transferable skills from the corporate world and took a risk, and I’m so grateful they did. I’ve been here 8 years now, and I’m fulfilled every day. When I go to bed at night, I can’t wait to wake up the next morning and help fellow citizens who are reaching out to us.

What larger opportunity do you see in Charlotte?

I wonder if we can address the issues of poverty and homelessness differently in Charlotte. Over the last few decades we have invested in many excellent leadership training and leadership capacity building organizations like Leadership Charlotte, and more recently we have invested in social equity and bridging cultural divides in model organizations like Crossroads Charlotte through the Community Building Initiative. I think we are ready to put them into action in a big way – something that could help soften the blow for those truly in need during this economic crisis. Something that would allow us to assemble talent, maximize existing services, and optimize resources to serve people who have been uniquely impacted. I think the opportunity exists to create a significant public/private/faith-based coalition that is broad-based, yet focused, doing innovative work on the ground until we get through the worst of this crisis. When we return to an economic recovery cycle, we will have discovered new partnerships, relationships and models for working together that will serve our community well into the future.

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