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Pay It Forward 

Miriam Valle

Photo by Alex Boerner

Miriam Valle

Miriam Valle's childhood growing up in Durham isn't something she looks back at fondly.

Her father was an abusive alcoholic, she says, and her mother was unable to protect her family. Valle says she was molested twice by family friends. She fell into depths of despair that led her to self-harm and eventually try to take her own life.

"I was so ready to die," says Valle. "I wrote a letter to my parents saying sorry, and I told God I was ready to go."

But Valle survived her suicide attempt. And then she found a reason to live: at thirteen, she became pregnant with her fifteen-year-old boyfriend's child, whom she named Jenny. This sudden, life-changing development propelled Valle to leave her home in search of a better life. She lived with her boyfriend's family in Burlington and Durham until she was sixteen. After that came complicated custody battles and a fight to stay in school as a young, single mother. Valle remembers feeling lost and discouraged, but she says she was saved by folks within the local nonprofit community who put her on the right path by helping her get her GED and providing her with work.

Fifteen years later, Valle herself has worked her way through the Durham nonprofit sector and has been named the winner of the 2016 Schewel Award, which each year honors a Triangle resident under the age of thirty-five who does tremendous work for a local nonprofit. Actually, Valle doesn't just work for one nonprofit; she works for four.

After she had her daughter, Valle was assigned a social worker and a tutor to help her through school. She began taking classes at the Durham Literacy Center, where she met Lucy Haagen, who would soon become one of the several mentors in Valle's life.

"She encouraged me to keep going when I wanted to quit," says Valle. "She told me to go to college."

Valle and Haagen forged a close relationship, and Valle eventually began working for Haagen part-time, helping Haagen with a number of odd jobs and businesses that Haagen ran, including selling books online and making scarves. In the years that followed, Valle passed her exams and finally got her GED in 2005 after passing her math exam. Soon afterward, Haagen recommended Valle for an internship at Durham Congregations in Action, a faith-based nonprofit committed to bridging the gaps between different communities, which led Valle to take training courses at the nonprofit Year of Opportunity for Durham Teens, to prepare her for the position. The latter nonprofit, which later merged with another organization to become Partners for Youth Opportunity, is where Valle got her start in the nonprofit world.

"It's where I learned all of the skills needed to make it, like public speaking, professional dress, and time management," says Valle.

Valle still works at both DCIA and PYO, where she crunches numbers as an accountant and serves as liaison to the Hispanic community. Valle also works at two other Durham nonprofits: Rebound, Alternatives for Youth, an organization that helps suspended students reconnect with their schools, and the Coalition for Peace and Justice, which advocates for peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Valle, now twenty-nine, says she works about sixty hours per week, dividing her time as a part-time employee at all four organizations, all while raising her fifteen-year-old daughter. And despite the hard work and long hours, Valle says she feels at home in Durham's nonprofit community, because it was the place that accepted her in her time of need.

"They formed who I am now," says Valle. "I hold nonprofit communities close to my heart, because at one point I was a student that needed help and guidance, and they were there for me."

By giving her time and energy, Valle says she's able to pay back the community that helped her succeed. She used to feel bad about receiving help—noting the college fund that was set up for her daughter and the times when friends helped take care of Jenny while Valle went through school—but then a mentor told her that the way to pay everyone back was to do the same for others.

Eventually, Valle hopes to start her own nonprofit that will help girls facing similar obstacles to the ones she confronted fifteen years ago.

"I want to give them the opportunities and experiences to succeed like they did for me," says Valle. "I want to show them that there is a different lifestyle, that they have a choice."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Pay It Forward."

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