Grit, Determination, and Hope: Building a Pathway to College and Career

What if every child living in poverty had access to the same opportunities as their wealthier peers?

Photo of Lauren Stephenson
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

Close your eyes and imagine the most distressed neighborhood in your city. In ours, it’s East Durham. Five years ago, East Durham had some of the city’s highest rates of crime, adult poverty, teen pregnancy, and child maltreatment. Residents still struggle with these challenges today. When journalist Paul Tough released his 2008 profile of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Whatever It Takes, several community leaders were inspired to action. At a community meeting where only a handful of attendees were expected, nearly 100 people showed up. It quickly became clear that the idea of a cradle-to-career initiative for at-risk youth in Durham resonated strongly. The East Durham Children’s Initiative (EDCI) truly got moving when President/CEO David Reese was hired in 2009 as EDCI’s first employee. Born and raised in the Bronx, as well as an MBA who has dedicated his career to the nonprofit sector, David understood well what it means to lose a son or daughter to the streets. His personal history, commitment to building partnerships, and an innovative approach to creating programs has helped EDCI realize its own version of doing “whatever it takes” to put East Durham kids on a path toward college or career.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • North Carolina

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • North Carolina

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]


Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

EDCI provides a pipeline of high-quality services from cradle to college and career for the children of East Durham. East Durham residents face multiple challenges to their long-term success, including high rates of crime, adult poverty, child maltreatment, and food insecurity. EDCI works with children and families living within its 120-block service area, referred to as the EDCI Zone. Our vision is for every child in the EDCI Zone to graduate from high school, ready for college or career. We believe that college and career preparation are essential for breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty among our families. To make this vision a reality, EDCI has partnered with more than 30 organizations to create a robust ecosystem of supports that provide children and their parents with the tools they need to be successful.

Low-income children and families engaged in EDCI’s pipeline of services are connected to a robust ecosystem of supports from birth through high school graduation and beyond. Working in partnership with more than 30 organizations, EDCI does whatever it takes to help families be successful.

Kids growing up in poverty are survivors. They have plenty of grit and determination. EDCI aims to give them hope for a different future, one in which they thrive and lead.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Childcare
  • Child and Family Services
  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Education
  • Other

If you chose "other," please share the sector you work within here:

Health and nutrition

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Established (the solution has passed the previous stages, and has demonstrated success)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Leydi is mom to three kids: Kevin, 9; Abril, 14; and Adiel, 2. An immigrant from Mexico, Leydi speaks some English but prefers Spanish. When her son Kevin was in third grade, he was in danger of being held back because of poor reading skills. Leydi heard about EDCI Parent Advocates after attending a workshop at Kevin’s school. She quickly enrolled. Leydi and her Advocate attended a conference with Kevin’s teacher, where they created a plan of action. Her Advocate helped Kevin enroll in free tutoring at his school to improve his reading. Leydi also began taking ESOL classes, offered by Durham Literacy Center in partnership with EDCI, so she could help Kevin with homework. By the end of the year, Kevin caught up and graduated.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

In the EDCI Zone, there are approximately 3,000 children ages 0-17. In just four years of operation, EDCI has enrolled more than 1,000 children living in the Zone in its pipeline of services. Families and children participating in EDCI services have demonstrated improved kindergarten and school readiness, parenting attitudes, immunization rates, decreased summer learning loss, and decreased food insecurity. Of the total number of children enrolled in EDCI programs, 51% are engaged in at least two programs, while nearly a quarter (24%) are engaged in three or more. More than half of all children (58%) have been engaged in EDCI’s programs since they began in 2011, indicating a deep level of engagement. Children with the deepest levels of engagement--those participating in three or more programs--made summer learning gains in literacy after participating in an academic intervention.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $1mil - $5mil

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Sustainability is a key goal in EDCI’s efforts. In the last fiscal year, EDCI has worked to diversify its funding base by developing and implementing new strategies for increasing corporate and individual gifts. In addition, we continue to increase our annual budget each year, demonstrating a strong trend of growth. Finally, EDCI regularly collaborates with partner organizations to pursue joint funding opportunities.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

EDCI is far from the only cradle-to-career initiative in the nation. What sets us apart from other efforts are several things: 1) our efforts to create systemic change at the city and county level that will impact families for years to come; 2) Parent Advocates who empower children and families; 3) a partner-based approach that allows EDCI to tap into the expertise of other service providers and offer its own programs; 4) a “school-blind” approach to serving children at both traditional public and charter schools; and 5) a business model that can be replicated and scaled for other contexts.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

One important step in helping low-income children is providing special training for teachers who work with kids living in poverty. Teachers need help navigating the effects of transiency, language barriers, cultural differences, and other factors that often arise in low-income schools. Most importantly, these schools need additional resources from community organizations that can provide outside supports for challenges that schools cannot be expected to address alone.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email


Join the conversation:

Photo of Nicole Forsyth

"EDCI has partnered with more than 30 organizations to create a robust ecosystem." Nice! I love the "robust ecosystem" term and that you are collaborating to create such an amazing support network for these kids! I'd like to know more about how this works: "Parent Advocates who empower children and families." What kind of training or methods do you use to facilitate a sense of empowerment? 

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