The Charleston community is filled with incredible women making strides toward a stronger community and a more compassionate world as they lead some of the city’s most influential nonprofit organizations. They fight for women and children, those with disabilities and health challenges, people of all backgrounds in need of support and they do it all with the grace and style of true Charleston women.
Remembering the Caregiver: The ARK of South Carolina
Peg Lahmeyer serves as executive director of The ARK of South Carolina, an organization committed to serving people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias along with their families and caregivers. In 1996, Lahmeyer worked alongside St. Luke’s Lutheran Church to establish The ARK after becoming the primary caregiver for her own mother who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 76. With two teenagers and a toddler at home, Lahmeyer experienced firsthand the need for caregivers to receive support and respite. Though her mother passed away at the age of 93, her legacy is carried forward through her work. “Her legacy as a care-receiver and a wonderful, nurturing mother lives on through The ARK,” Lahmeyer shared.
For Lahmeyer, who previously worked in the business sector, nonprofit work is unique in that it offers an opportunity to wear many hats — regardless of your position — to get creative in achieving the mission of the organization. “It is overwhelmingly emotional to see so many community supporters attend, participate, donate and volunteer for special events and projects because they believe in The ARK’s mission. Each day I get to go home knowing I made a difference in a person’s life.”
Being a leader in the community has helped Lahmeyer to understand the value of investing in her team. “Encourage staff to be proactive to learn about their job by being inquisitive, developing their knowledge and using it to bring a smile or a special moment for the families they serve, and to the community. Create a team that values their contribution of service to the community.”
The ARK’s “Family Taking Care of Family” outreach is multifaceted, offering fun-filled respite days that are as beneficial for care-receivers as they are for caregivers. “Respite days keep the care-receiver engaged in socialization and feeling a part of the community,” Lahmeyer shared. “Caregivers can have a much needed break to do something for themselves that they enjoy and are unable to do while caregiving.”
The ARK also offers classes for caregivers to provide tools for coping, communicating and engaging other family members on the care team, as well as a class leader training program for professionals to bring caregiver education to their communities. Their Family Caregiver Advocate (FCA) and support groups are available on an ongoing basis to support caregivers in the community.
“The ARK staff is here for the caregiver here and now,” Lahmeyer urged. “Always remember, you are not alone!”
Giving Autism a Voice: Just Bee
Layla Luna is a mom on a mission to make the world a kinder, more accepting place for people with Autism and their families. After being asked to leave a restaurant where her autistic son, Rio, was having a sensory overload meltdown, she decided to do everything she could do to help businesses and community helpers become more aware of neurodiversity and equip them with knowledge and tools to provide autism-friendly spaces and services.
“The most important part of Just Bee’s mission that drives me is the uncertainty of the future for Rio and any individual that has autism or is neurodivergent,” Luna shared. With Autism affecting one in 36 people, and rates expected to surpass that of diabetes by 2025, Luna looks to the future with concern not only for Rio, but for all people on the autism spectrum. “85% of people with autism are unemployed and are six times more likely to commit suicide,” she explained. “I believe everyone has the civil right to have dreams and a place in this world where they can thrive and be happy.”
For Luna, working with donors and companies that believe in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) for neurodiversity and in corporate social responsibility is a highlight of running a nonprofit. She sees her initiative as a grassroots movement for autism equality and inclusion — a civil rights movement. “I won’t stop until South Carolina becomes the first certified autism-friendly state in our nation,” she said, “and for all the other states to follow in our footsteps.”
Overcoming self-doubt to be a voice for her son, and for all people with autism, allowed Luna to find her strength and make a difference. She urges others to do the same. “If you have a desire and you believe in something wholeheartedly, then you can do anything. Lead with your heart and God will guide you. At the end of the day, I am here to make a better world for my son.”
Protecting Mental Health: NAMI Charleston
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Charleston is led by a team of women who are deeply passionate about mental health support. Aashini Shrivastav, board of directors president, was initially drawn to volunteering with NAMI to reduce the stigma of mental health diagnoses and treatment, but has stayed as a result of the organization’s unique “NAMI spirit” that ignited an excitement and passion for the work. “Everyone who works or volunteers with NAMI -Charleston Area has a strongly held conviction that mental health is health,” Shrivastav said, “and that mental health support should be available for all. Working alongside such passionate people makes all the difference in the world.”
As an attorney by day, Shrivastav has found that working with NAMI in her current role has helped her to grow professionally in unexpected ways. “Over the course of my presidency, I have had to develop my collaboration and teamwork skills,” she shared. “As an attorney, I am quite used to handling everything myself. With NAMI, no one walks alone. I have had to understand that NAMI work is always a team effort.”
For Erica Beauchamp, a board of directors member, it was a personal experience with mental health that led to her role with NAMI. “As someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder late in life, I needed someone or something to help me navigate this uncharted territory,” she shared. “My therapist told me about NAMI and it seemed like an organization that had a lot to offer someone like me. That was in 2012, and I’ve been involved with the organization ever since.” Now, Beauchamp is grateful for the opportunity to give back to the community by offering support and education to others.
When a family member was diagnosed with a mental health condition, Kelly Troy, development coordinator, discovered NAMI and has been a part of the organization for over 20 years. “I learned that NAMI was founded by four moms around a kitchen table who also needed help with their loved ones,” said Troy. “It has made this journey less painful because we are a family. No one chooses to be a part of this club but when you are in it, you realize that you are not alone.”
Malinda Witherspoon-Terry, NAMI’s community outreach coordinator, founded NAMI after a family member’s suicide attempt. “The need for mental health warriors has never been greater, and NAMI is an organization dedicated to advocating for those who don’t always use their voice,” Beauchamp said. “We work to educate and support individuals and families who, at times, feel there is nowhere else to turn. In short, NAMI saves lives.”
Caring for Charleston’s Children: Charleston Hope
Emily Kerr, founder and executive director of Charleston Hope, discovered her passion for helping local children living in poverty during her senior year in high school. When her older sister, a first-year teacher in a high-poverty school, shared that many of her students wouldn’t be receiving Christmas presents, Kerr decided to organize a toy drive. “As I pursued my studies in early childhood education at the College of Charleston, I became increasingly aware that the same gaps in support and resources that I witnessed then would persist when I eventually became a teacher myself,” Kerr shared. “I was determined to take action.”
Instead of entering the classroom, after completing her degree, Kerr took a leap of faith and embarked on the journey of building Charleston Hope from the ground up. “At the time, we lacked programs, structure, staff and financial resources,” she shared. “However, I hit the ground running and take immense pride in the fact that, over the past six years, we have grown into the thriving organization we are today.”
With a mission to improve mental and behavioral health programs in Title 1 schools, Charleston Hope is dedicated to being school-based, bringing essential support, including trauma-informed therapy and empowering afterschool programs directly to students. “When children undergo difficult circumstances, it is unrealistic to expect them to independently process and overcome these challenges,” said Kerr. “However, we can provide them with a secure environment, staffed by trained and licensed professionals, who can assist them in working through their struggles.”
Serving as the executive director of Charleston Hope has meant so much more to Kerr than a list of job duties. “It is a uniquely purpose-driven experience where every action is geared toward making the world a better place by combating systems of oppression and injustice,” she reflected. “It’s something that stays with me every night as I go to bed, often leaving me with a sense of not doing enough and a constant desire to do more.”
Eliminating Racism and Empowering Women: YWCA Charleston
LaVanda Brown brought 25 years of passionate commitment to serving people in need to her role as executive director of YWCA Charleston. After working in programs supporting under-resourced youth, families, the unhoused, those impacted by HIV or AIDS and people impacted by mental health and substance use issues, Brown saw an opportunity to make lasting, systemic change through her role with the YWCA. “Our mission statement reads: ‘We are dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all,’” she shared. “What resonates most to me is the ‘for all.’ We all deserve dignity, respect and equitable treatment.”
Working collaboratively has been a hallmark of nonprofit work in Brown’s experience. “No matter what issue we are trying to address, we cannot do it without working with other systems,” she relayed. “It is unique and can also be frustrating. We often spend a lot of resources addressing social problems on an individual level, when the barriers are at the system level where we have very little control or can make very little impact.”
While working within society’s systems can be a challenge, relationships with other organizations, corporations, educational institutions and government entities are integral to the YWCA’s mission and success. “All of our programs began and are sustained through collaborative relationships,” Brown explained. “We are eager to work with more faith groups and would love to work with any other groups who are looking to address equity and inclusion training, evaluation and support.”
While the work of eliminating racism and promoting equity can be uncomfortable or unfamiliar for some, Brown is grateful for the way her role has allowed her to develop diplomacy skills to build community. “Being diplomatic has helped me bring people together to work on a common goal, regardless of where they are on the spectrum of cultural competency,” she said. “I have been blessed that the Charleston Tri-County community has been open to collaborating and building bridges.”
That’s what every woman discussed here has aimed to do. They are just building bridges from one person to another, so that in a land made up of barrier islands, no one is ever truly stranded.
By Heather Rose Artushin