Charlene Traynum – Photo by Farrah Gabrian, Development & Marketing Officer at The Boys & Girls Clubs of Newport County

Charlene, you came to our attention reading the interview you granted Newport This Week, a publication we read regularly to keep abreast of developments on Aquidneck Island. Let’s start with your position at the Boys & Girls Club of Newport, or BGC. Give us an overview of what you do there.

I am the Family Outreach Coordinator and SNAP Outreach Coordinator at the BGC. I have worked for the BGC for two and a half years this February.  As the Family and Outreach Coordinator and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) Outreach Coordinator at the BGC, my role involves fostering community engagement, supporting BGC families and facilitating SNAP Outreach initiatives in Newport County and Washington County.

Give us some more detail about the Parent Advisory Council.

One of my responsibilities when I started this position was to form a Parent Advisory Council.  This was a factor in the BGC receiving a five-star BrightStars RI rating last year. This rating demonstrates the commitment to quality care and learning for young children. This includes organizing events for the community, as well as supporting BGC family-oriented activities. I collaborate with program coordinators to host Parent Council events throughout the school year. The Parent Council just hosted their first Black History Month Celebration with partners from Learn365RI; there were over 30 families in attendance. We ended our event with a family swim in our saltwater pool. I don’t think people realize that saltwater pools aren’t as harsh on the skin and eyes, unlike chlorine. The pool is one of our best-kept secrets. I think people will know now.

When parents engage with their children during BGC cultural and family events, it shapes and improves the club’s success but also the overall experience for the children involved in programs. The Parent Council’s efforts contribute to building a vibrant and inclusive environment for BGC youth and their families. We are the only BGC in Rhode Island that has a Parent Council and we have eight members who are committed to the club’s mission. There is a lot of work to be done and we welcome any BGC parent who wants to become involved.

Some of the members of the Parent Advisory Council – Photo courtesy of The Boys & Girls Clubs of Newport County

And about your role as a SNAP (Supple­mental Nutrition Assistance Pro­gram) Outreach Partner.

As a Boys and Girls Clubs SNAP Outreach partner for the State of Rhode Island, my job is to actively engage with the community, providing education on SNAP benefits. My responsibilities include assisting individuals in the application process, guiding them through change reports, interim reports and offering support to fill out applications, ensuring accessibility and understanding for those seeking assistance. My focused outreach is towards individuals aged 60 plus veterans, the homeless population, college students, those in rural areas, and the LGBTQ community. I also provide support and information in multiple languages to provide accessibility for individuals to navigate and benefit from SNAP.

I am also the office administrator at Camp Grosvenor, the BGC camp in Saunderstown. I play a critical role in supporting the Camp, staff, and campers. My responsibilities include addressing any problems, issues, or concerns that arise in the office. I have the flexibility to move around the camp to provide assistance where needed, ensuring a smooth operation and a positive experience for everyone involved in the BGC summer camp program.

How did your passion for helping people facing poverty, food insecurity and other inequities begin?

At a young age, I had a passion for food and loved to watch my elders cook in the kitchen. I grew up with a small garden in Newport at my grandparents’ house. I remember going to various orchards and farms around Rhode Island to pick fresh fruits and vegetables. We would bring them home to pickle, can, and made jellies and jams for the winter. In my family, there was always a lot of happiness around food. During Christmas season, family members would always look for a gift of jelly or jam.

Which leads to you background. We understand your father was a Baptist minister.

Most people are not aware that I am a preacher’s kid. I grew up attending Congdon Street Baptist Church in Providence, the Oldest African American Church in Rhode Island. It started in 1819.  My father, the Rev. Robert L. Carter Jr., was the longest-running preacher at the church serving the community for 23 years. The church is situated on a hill on the East Side of Providence. The church is surrounded by institutions of higher education such as Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design, and Johnson & Wales University. We always had college students come to our church and many were from diverse backgrounds. In the ‘80s, it was a tradition for parishioners to invite the pastor’s family to Sunday dinner. Many of the families were from different areas of Africa. I would always ask to go home with them to watch how they prepared their meal. This was the beginning of my food journey.

Some of the students that came to church were hungry. We knew this because after church, we noticed how excited the college students were to come down to eat the light refreshments. So the church started to serve meals after church for people to gather and eat without the stigma of making them feel uncomfortable about being hungry. Having a strong religious background and being raised in the church helped shape my passion to address the inequities that underrepresented groups face around hunger and poverty. 

So, my passion started early on and I think my first adult experience was a Homeless Advocacy event through United Way that took place at a church almost across from Crossroads Shelter in Providence. I spent the day volunteering to hand out hygiene items and helping individuals find services that were being provided that day: for example, free haircuts and blood pressure screening. I had the opportunity to be an RI Campus Compact AmeriCorps VISTA and worked with the University of Rhode Island’s Feinstein Center for a Hunger Free America talking to local businesses about donating food and volunteering at the Jonnycake Center of Peace Dale. This led me to my next venture; the Jonnycake Center. They invited me to work with the RI Food Bank and Drexel University School of Public Health in Philadelphia to become a “Witness to Hunger.” This was a movement to increase women’s participation in the national dialogue on hunger and poverty (WIC, SNAP, Childcare, and Medical Assistance programs). There were eight of us in the RI Witnesses to Hunger group. We were given cameras and told to take pictures of what we thought hunger and poverty looked like through our lens. I remember the year 2012 very well: it was the year of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the shoreline in South Kingstown and there were power outages for days and weeks in some areas. After taking pictures of what I thought hunger and poverty looked like they were submitted to Drexel with descriptions of the scenes captured. Once all the pictures from different “Witnesses to Hunger” from around the U.S. were gathered, we presented them to state officials in Washington, Philadelphia, Boston and Rhode Island advocating for better access to food and to emphasize the importance of maintaining financial resources available to address this growing concern.

Fast forward to present day. I have had the opportunity to join the RI food Recovery Program from URI’s Cooperative Extension, which has given me a plethora of new food initiatives. I am also involved in advocacy work with the RI Food Policy Council, which is lobbying for bills around recycling, food recovery, farm-to-school programs and composting, just to name a few priority areas.

Tell us about your education, including the master’s degree you earned at the University of Rhode Island.

In 1994, I began my college career as a non-traditional student at the Community College of Rhode Island. After a year and a half, I transferred to URI’s Talent Development Program. I graduated with my B.A. in psychology and a minor in elementary education in 2001. During my junior year, I received a scholarship from an essay contest I won to support studying abroad in Jamaica for a semester. I was a Teacher Assistant and Case Manager, at M.I.C.R.O. Teachers College, University of West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica. This experience gave me the means to look at hunger and poverty through a worldwide lens from other countries’ perspectives. In 2007, I graduated with my M.S. in Human Development & Family Studies – College Student Personnel Program at URI.

You told Newport This Week that “Newport is facing a lot of different challenges.” What are they?

Newport is facing a lot of challenges, for example, youth and mental health – there are not enough therapists to meet the demand and therapy is desperately need in the schools while students are present. Youth have reported social and many emotional issues especially coming out of the COVID lockdown. School absenteeism is another huge issue and educators along with non-profits are trying to work hand-in-hand to get youth back in school and get grade levels back on track. Homelessness is at an all-time high and part of the problem is limited affordable housing in the area and the lack of rent control. Representation of our children is not correctly reflected in the racial makeup of our teachers and staff in Newport. We are seeing more challenges getting high school students to fill out the FAFSA form for student financial aid to go to college. Lastly, we have seen a large increase in the Hispanic population here in Newport.  When I was growing up there may have been three or four Hispanic families; now there are Conexion Latina and Hispanic run business in Newport. This is great — it brings diversity and character and adds richness and depth to the community. It would benefit the community to have Spanish classes for English-only speakers. It would promote cultural understanding and enrich the community’s connections.

And these are challenges facing many others throughout Rhode Island, correct?

Yes, these issues are not unique to Newport they are being seen throughout Rhode Island. 

Where do the solutions lie?

It is critical to have licensed therapists available during school hours to support the mental health needs of students. There is also a need to address truancy in a meaningful way to hold adults accountable in getting their children to school. Of course there is a need to build affordable housing on Aquidneck Island. Ensuring affordability for those with lower incomes is essential. Moreover, it is critical to recruit educators of diverse backgrounds to accurately reflect the richness of diversity within the school community. Introducing incentives could be a proactive approach to attract a more diverse range of educators to the school district. Finally, improving the communication between the guidance counselors and teachers is essential to getting parents more involved with their children’s education. There should be more events at the high school level promoting colleges and universities, trade schools, and certificate programs. Introducing college and career tours throughout a student’s high school journey starting in freshman year and continuing through senior year can provide valuable exposure to various educational paths and career opportunities. We take our BGC teens from the Florence Gray Center on college tours throughout the year.

What advice do you have for residents of Aquidneck Island and Rhode Island who would like to become involved in helping others?

For residents of Aquidneck Island and Rhode Island, if you would like to become involved in helping others there are many avenues you can take. First, you have to figure out what you are passionate about or where you would like to see positive changes. It can also be a topic that you are curious about. What is your social justice issue? Once you figure that out, there are many ways to seek volunteer experiences. You can call United Way’s 211 line to see what they may have to offer. You can go online and look up specific opportunities to cater to your specific interests. Create awareness by sharing stories and information about causes that need support to raise awareness and inspire action.  Organize a community event to bring people together for a common cause. Look for opportunities on social media about volunteering. Collaborate with local organizations: you can call your local non-profits to see if they have opportunities. There are personal and societal benefits of helping others. It has a positive impact on mental well-being and it allows you to interact with like-minded people.  It is rewarding and therapeutic and adds a new skill to you repertoire. Personally, I find immense rewards in what I do, and it is a privilege to share with you the gratification of giving back.

What I do for a living is very gratifying and I am blessed to have this opportunity to tell you all a little about me and the reward of giving back. Prioritize selflessness, invest time in volunteering, cherish moments with your children, and practice mindful presence.