It's a quiet Thursday night at Walnut Terrace, a public housing community near downtown Raleigh. Inside the community center, women sit around a table laughing and telling stories while young children play in the next room. Tonight, Regelyn Edwards—whom everyone calls Reggie—has joined the weekly gathering she launched more than a decade ago.
"She loves to get women together to talk and open up," says Shawnta White, who's been coming for three years and credits Edwards with helping her find a career and direction in life. "She reaches out to everybody."
Edwards' nonprofit, The Encouraging Place (www.theencouragingplace.org), hosts a 10-week program she calls "summer camp for women," with guest speakers and group discussions centering on topics such as self-esteem, relationships, health, finances and reaching for your dreams. This summer, 11 groups met weekly in Raleigh, Durham, Fuquay-Varina and Franklinton, reaching an estimated 500 women. In addition to the summer camps, weekly or monthly meetings like this one continue throughout the year at three locations in Raleigh.
"Women need fellowship," Edwards says. "We need a place where we can come and be, and get built up. And it needs to be somewhere outside of a church, just the girls getting together in a safe place."
While it seems to be a simple thing—chatting about life, work, family and the future over dinner—Edwards has found that reaching out to women, listening and encouraging them has a transforming power.
"People are happy to see you when you come," Edwards says, "and that makes all the difference. Everybody needs to feel accepted. Everybody has worth."
"She has a passion to show people they can make it, to help them stand on their own and see their value," says Helen Johnson, co-founder of Building Together Ministries, a Raleigh nonprofit where Edwards launched her women's outreach 15 years ago. "People at the end of their rope would come, and she would be able to see their gifts."
In the summer of 2005, White was abruptly fired from her city job. She sat at home for nearly three months, feeling lousy, before she ventured to an Edwards event. She kept coming back, and soon Edwards persuaded her to volunteer. "She's the type of person, if she calls you, you can't tell her no," White says.
One day, White made a floral centerpiece, and Edwards spotted a talent. "Reggie said, 'You have a gift, you have to do something with it.'"
White took classes in flower arrangements and began doing flowers for parties and weddings. Today, she owns her company, Affordable Elegance by Shawnta. "If it weren't for her, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing."
Encouragement can have a profound effect on women in tough circumstances, women living in homeless shelters, women coming out of prison or living with HIV and AIDS.
"I really try to target ladies who don't get invited to things," Edwards says. To bring these women into the fold, she builds relationships with people who work at shelters, institutions and community groups. "It's taken years to get these doors open."
The result is a mix of backgrounds—working women, single moms, grandmothers in wheelchairs—all sitting in the same room.
Once she gets them together, she puts them to work.
Faye Benjamin is a retired health care technician who decided to check out one of Edwards' gatherings five years ago after she got bored with bingo, the only social option for the seniors in her neighborhood. Soon she volunteered to drive a van to bring other seniors home from the meetings.
"I've met a lot of nice people since I've been going down there," Benjamin says. "Some of them got chances that they wouldn't normally have gotten, and they were skeptical of trying because they just didn't think there was any kind of way it could happen. And other people said, 'Don't feel that way, c'mon, you can do it.' A lot of times we give up too easy. I like that about them: Everybody's all together, and they'll help you if they can."
The summer camp idea came to Edwards as she looked out the window of her office at Building Together Ministries. One after another, the mothers of Halifax Court, a now-defunct public housing community, dropped off their children at summer camp, then walked back to their apartments.
"I saw a mother bring her child to camp," Edwards recalls, "and she either went back and sat on her stoop or went inside and looked at the stories all day. I said, she's got nothing to go to."
Edwards decided to set up a "ladies' rap session." She booked speakers, printed flyers and convinced people from local church communities to bring food.
"It started out small," recalls Johnson, "and then as women came and spread the word to neighbors and friends, it just grew and grew."
Edwards' mission is based in Christian faith. Speakers often quote scripture, and women share their personal stories in a manner similar to giving testimony in church.
"That's what drives who she is and what she wants to share with the women," says Fraley Marshall, a married mother of three who met Edwards 10 years ago. "But it's not proselytizing. She just tells them, 'People love you, you are worth something, and you are a creation of God.' It's how I think Jesus would have done it. It's just meeting people where they are."
"I want to let people know what Christianity really is," Edwards says, "We ought to know it before we hear it. We can bring it back to scripture, but the biggest piece of it is just being," she says.
A Raleigh native, Edwards worked in clerical jobs before joining Building Together Ministries as a volunteer in 1993. As her work there became indispensable and her hours full-time, Johnson and her husband, Freddy, co-founder of Building Together, helped raise the funds to hire Edwards.
This year, as Building Together struggled financially following the Johnsons' retirement, Edwards finally broke out on her own. The Encouraging Place—a name Edwards says "the ladies" came up with—incorporated this summer as a freestanding nonprofit. Edwards also works part-time teaching anger management to men at the Wake County Detention Center, a job she says she loves.
Marshall is Edwards' right hand, volunteering to help plan events and write grants. "She's training other women, some of whom come through the program, and she's tapping them for leadership roles," Marshall says of Edwards.
"It's interesting how you evaluate your success," Marshall continues. "I looked at a map of last year's programs and said, 'Look how we've grown,' and she looked at the map and said, 'How do I get there? And there?'"
"People need to share their stories," Edwards says. "I need to hear your story, and you need to hear mine. It makes so much difference once we see people beyond black or white, or that woman who lives at the shelter or that single mom. Once that person has a name and a face, that person can become your friend."