Second career tracks parents’ legacy

By Laura Williams-Tracy

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Moonlighting isn’t an uncommon way to find a new career.

But for Carol Hughes, who virtually made a second career of volunteering among Charlotte agencies that help the poor, leaving corporate America for a position helping the cold and hungry was a path to fulfillment.

After 18 years working in information technology for energy company Duke Power, Hughes stepped off the corporate ladder five years ago to head up Mecklenburg County’s Crisis Assistance Ministry.

The local charity helps low-income families experiencing temporary financial setbacks buy food, pay rent, keep the power on or get basic furnishings.

It is the lead agency coordinating the county’s emergency financial assistance and helps 46,000 people a year.

Hughes grew up in Florida, daughter of an Episcopal priest and a county health department worker, in a household where service to the poor was an expectation.

She remembers riding with her mother in the car while taking voters to the polls on Election Day and seeing poor housing conditions.

“I vividly remember seeing no furniture and darkness because they had no electricity,” she says.

The family’s Thanksgiving dinner was shared with mental health patients at her mother’s workplace.

Carol Hughes

Job: Crisis Assistance Ministry, Charlotte, N.C.

Hometown: Jacksonville, Fla.

Education: B.S., mathematics and computer science, Furman University; associate of arts, Tallahassee Community College.

Boards: Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont, A Way Home, CharlotteSaves; member, advisory panel, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

Favorite place: Next to a creek, Smokey Mountains, reading a book.

Currently reading: Blood Done Sign My Name, by Timothy Tyson.

The Christmas parties Hughes remembers were the ones her father helped coordinate at a local prison.

By the time Hughes was considering college, she assumed she’d be a social worker, too.

But college professors discovered her aptitude for math and nudged her toward a career in information technology.

On her father’s pragmatic advice to not come back home without a job, Hughes had a position waiting with Duke Power long before graduation.

While at Duke, Hughes filled the hours after work with the roles she had learned as a child.

She served meals at a homeless shelter, helped build houses for Habitat for Humanity, and found the Charlotte Junior League was a wide avenue to volunteer opportunities.

But Hughes says it wasn’t long before her career and volunteer activities consumed her life.

She had less than six hours a night for dinner and sleep at home with her family.

“I felt empty,” she says. “My blood inheritance was to help people. I felt like there was injustice out there and I wasn’t doing anything to help.”

Hughes enrolled in a 10-week career-counseling course that explored personality traits and recommends lines of work.

Hughes’ assessment showed she should follow her heart.

About the same time, Caroline Meyers, the longtime Crisis Assistance Ministry director, announced she would retire in a year.

“I felt sick that the Mother Theresa of Charlotte was leaving,” says Hughes, “but within the next 30 seconds I was saying, ‘I want that job.’”

Hughes started work at Crisis Assistance Ministry in June 2000.

Under her leadership the charity has increased private funding by 9.5 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively, in the last two years.

“I thought my career at Duke was all technical management, and I didn’t think it would help me at all,” says Hughes of the switch to nonprofit work.

“But it was such a good company,” she says, “that I learned public relations, human resources techniques, customer service, and all the things you need to run a large organization.”

And she realized that running the organization would not be the most challenging part of the job.

The hard part, she says, is creating awareness in a community of plenty of those working poor who are living paycheck to paycheck.

Crisis Assistance Ministry channels donations into direct care, so there’s no money for a marketing budget to spread the word.

Despite a career of hands-on work among the city’s major charities, Hughes says, moving out of corporate work and into the realm of nonprofits brought surprises.

“I was almost disappointed in myself that the problem was so much bigger than I though it was,” she says. “I thought I was an informed and educated volunteer when it came to understanding people living in poverty. I had no idea.”

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