Leadership Spotlight: Cara Belvin
Cara Belvin is the Founder & Executive Director of empowerHER, a nonprofit focused on young girls who have lost their mothers. She manages a staff of 5 part-time women and supports over 130 young girls. She never fantasized about starting a non-profit, but things changed for Cara when she realized she had something that no one else did – a way to help motherless young girls.
With a goal to make girls feel like part of a community, loved, and supported, empowerHER has grown into so much more than Cara could have imagined.
What was your first job?
Working with children with disabilities in Texas, which I absolutely loved. Then I went to graduate school at Texas A&M at Killeen and then became a school psychologist which I really enjoyed but was looking to get a more global reach than just working at one school district. So I then transitioned my career into non-profit management and fundraising by working for Susan G. Komen For The Cure. Most recently, I’ve been doing non-profit consulting with small and large non-profits, helping them fundraise and strategically plan.
You started empowerHER in 2015, was there anything going on in your life that prompted you to take that step?
To give some background, my mom passed away when I was 9 years old from breast cancer. And at the time, we had a ton of support from friends and family and the community around us. When I moved to a coastal town, people had found out about my story, that my mother died when I was young and I worked with breast cancer, and people in the town would put me in touch with people that were going through similar things. So I would grab a cup of coffee with fathers who had recently lost their wives and I would console them. And the next thing you know, I’m meeting their daughters, I’m going back-to-school shopping with them, I’m grabbing ice cream after a bad day. And other women would volunteer their time to do the same thing, connect with the daughters and support the family.
So my childhood best friend, who lives in Austin, called me one day and says “oh my God, I had this dream that you started this non-profit called empowerHER.” It was wild, she knew that every time we spoke, I had some ten-year-old girl in my backseat. Her idea was that I would start this non-profit for girls whose mom’s had died. She was a graphic designer herself, so she literally emailed me a logo at 6 a.m. I looked at my email and it sent chills up my spine. It isn’t the logo that we use today but it was stunning. Honestly, I just tucked it away for like a year. I said “you’re crazy, I would never do that”, since starting a non-profit organization is such a bold move. It’s such an undertaking and I’m a wife, I’m a mother, I work a full-time job. But the idea kept nabbing at me and I eventually pulled the trigger after a year. I decided to organize a trip for Mother’s Day and take daughters downtown, rent a hotel, and spend the night. I thought it was important to do some retail therapy, go swimming, and really connect with these girls. I wished so badly that I had that when I was a teenager. That was four years ago, and we just exploded — we went from seven girls and will have over a hundred attending our Mother’s Day Retreat this year. It’s grown so quickly but it’s obvious that we really hit a nerve with the community. People aren’t comfortable talking about death or loss, especially when a young mother dies in a community, it makes us all uncomfortable at out core.
Have you experienced any growing pains as you have grown so quickly?
Oh yeah. I could call everyday a growing pain. I originally envisioned an organization that would simply help girls not feel so alone. When I was younger, I had a lot of support, but at the end of the day I was the only girl whose mom died. I was the girl that everyone was whispering about. Within the first two years, I was able to achieve that goal. I didn’t just raise a little bit of money, I raise more than enough money in the beginning. We still didn’t hire anyone, we were completely volunteer-based. The mothers day retreat had such a huge impact on these girls and we decided to add more events to our calendar and now have 12 a year. My biggest concern for these families, was the question of what was happening throughout the year when we didn’t see these girls since they only come to one or two events. I decided to quit my day job and spent a year organizing a mentor program. With permission, I copied the model of Big Brothers Big Sisters and their mentor programs. When we rolled the program out, it was really challenging because most girls don’t think that they need a mentor so we had to seek them out. Once they joined, they were totally hooked. Part of our growing pains were that I didn’t know how hard it would be to find these girls across Massachusetts and I was surprised to know that I had a waitlist of mentors.
What was a defining moment for empowerHER?
Every single day. I am well versed in the non-profit world, I’ve spent 20 years working for non-profit organizations only. It’s all I know. But I have never had the experience of working for a start-up non-profit. We have every single challenge of a non-profit as well as a start-up. People don’t understand who we are because we are the only people in the country doing this, so I’ve had to educate a lot of people.
I have had so many a-ha moments where I’ve thought that was the ticket, that’s the way we’re going to raise money. I’ve had a-ha moments where I’ve realized that I have over 250 volunteers who donate their time to us. I have so many people at my disposal that make me feel like anything is possible.
Describe your day-to-day as Executive Director.
Every single day is completely different. However, every single day is emotionally charged. I’m constantly dealing with girls who have gone through something horrific, hopefully the most horrific experience they will ever have. I’m moved by the experiences I have with our 134 families, and it’s emotional, particularly for me since I have experienced it. It often feels like I am reliving some of my early grief, everyday. But I do a lot of other work– I work closely with donors, I speak on women’s issues, and do other valuable outreach. A lot of my time is spent working with the girls and their families. Just yesterday, it was an hour long call with a father, a cup of coffee, and talk with a maternal aunt who just lost her sister. From one hour to the next I’m writing a grant for $25,000, then I move to a gala meeting (we have one annual gala that raises $250,000 a year), I walk into a retreat meeting, everyday is completely and totally different. And I am so ADHD that I wouldn’t have it any other way.
How do you handle working so closely with children with are dealing with loss, when you experienced this yourself?
A friend (who had also experienced loss at a young age) said to me, “for you, I can understand it. You’re not going to want to retire as Executive Director, you cannot spend your whole life as a grieving child.” He’s right. I’m willing to do it right now, but for my own health and well-being, I will need to pass the baton eventually. I want to give this program to the community.
Just to give some perspective, when my mom passed, my household moved full speed ahead. We didn’t really talk about it until I left for college and by that point, it was almost to late to feel it. So grief was something I never really comfortable with. To give you an example, I started empowerHER and a local magazine asked me to do a story for them, and ending up putting me on the front cover without telling me. It wasn’t flattering, it was terrifying. We had just started, we had only raised $40,000. I had spent years not grieving my mother, and then as soon as I started to, the eyes of the whole community were on me. I had chosen to speak out for these girls, when I had never done it for myself. There was no turning back for me, I decided to do it, do it really well, learn everything, and eventually give it back to the community.
What is a personal strength that you apply in your professional life?
Empathy. I was a school psychologist, I knew that I didn’t want to build an organization that was therapy-based because therapy doesn’t work for everyone. Don’t get me wrong, I pray that these girls find their way to therapy. I just knew that this had to be so real, it had to be looking at the girl’s natural environment. She had to go every single day for the rest of her life knowing that her mother is gone, she’s angry about it, or she’s unbearably sad about it and desperately wants to talk to her mother. She needs to get good grades, she needs to think about getting into college and leaving her father behind, she’s needs to worry about a boyfriend maybe, she needs to explore her sexuality, she needs a day off to shop or go to the beach, and she will also have those days where she watches her friends with their mothers during every milestone. With all of that going on in her natural world, once a month therapy is not the ticket, it’s trying to teach the girl how to live with it. Her mother needs her to be happy, she couldn’t leave this world knowing that it would destroy you. My hope and prayer for her is that she can still see the joy and beauty in this world. It’s going to take a lot of work, but that’s where empathy comes in. You watch so many people help and support you after tragic loss and there is beauty in that. That kind of support breeds empathy, because you want to do the same thing for someone else.
What motivates you to keep going?
The incredible people that I have surrounded myself with. The families are superstars, the 250 volunteers are men and women donate so much of their time and resources. The volunteers believe in the mission and they know that this position feeds their soul. There is something special about being in service to others. I often look around the room and think, “how did I attract such selfless people?” We have a lot of people who are donating their time and their mother is still here.
What do you NOT let get in your way?
Nothing. I’m serious. I love the pity party but every cheesy cliche you’ve ever heard is true. My mother was 37 and had to accept her fate- that she was dying, knows that she is dying, and had to say goodbye to her precious daughter and son and husband and a life she loved. I’m pretty stubborn anyway, but I definitely don’t let anything get in my way. I heard this quote that says, “jealousy and envy are incurable diseases” and so oddly enough, when I started this non-profit, when I receive accolades and awards, I always get a hater who thinks I’m just a do-gooder. And this has been really challenging for me, because sometimes it is your friends and family who feel that way. I don’t let that get in my way, but I was letting it get in my way. I have nothing to lose at this point, and I am so maniacally focused.
What is one thing you would tell your 20-year-old self?
Quit that job. In my 20’s, I had a couple jobs that were defining positions. I thought that I had to stay in my career but I ended up transitioning my career and ended up loving it and feeling more fulfilled at age 30. I would tell my 20-year-old self that you’re going to be okay. That was when I was really grieving my mother and starting to miss her more. This is when I was wondering how I would go through my wedding day without her, how I would have a baby without her. So I needed to know that it was survivable, I would’ve benefited from someone pulling me aside and telling me that they got through the same situation.
What are three things you would want other women to know?
Photo by Lauren Wakefield Photography
Cara Belvin is a social entrepreneur and founder of empowerHER: a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization for young girls who have experienced the early loss of their mothers. empowerHER is community, not counseling, and hosts year-round group events in tandem with an intensive one-on-one mentor program with positive role models from the community.Cara is the lead producer of HBO’sThe Conversation: Stories that Matterspeaker series about women powering through their grief and her efforts to support young girls who have lost their mother have been featured onPBS NewsHour with Judy Woodruff.