Circle de Luz: Lifting Up The Latina Community in Charlotte

This month, in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we are thrilled to feature the Charlotte-based organization Circle de Luz, a nonprofit that radically empowers young Latinas through extensive mentoring, holistic programming and scholarship funds for further education. We learned about Circle de Luz from Michelle Serrano-Mills, a mentor, original donor, and funder of the organization, and also a founding member of NEXT Generation of African American Philanthropists’ Giving Circle

Michelle is a passionate advocate for philanthropists of color, and she seeks to broaden perspectives on what constitutes philanthropic giving–individual, institutional, collective, collaborative, giving circles–in all aspects of her work. Importantly, she has directed resources to Circle de Luz since the day the organization was launched. From investing in several scholarship giving circles, to offering workshops to Circle de Luz’s hijas, Michelle has been a champion of the organization’s work, helping Circle de Luz better execute their mission while raising awareness of their programming.  

We are humbled by Michelle’s philanthropic efforts in the Charlotte community and nationally, particularly given Doris Buffett’s own philanthropic roots in North Carolina. When Doris founded the Sunshine Lady Foundation, she started by enlisting friends and family, or “Sunbeams”, to bring recommendations for funding needs from their own communities, and oversee the distribution and use of grant funding. 

Below, Program and Communications Manager Lorena Priego shares her insight on Circle de Luz’s mission, program, and indelible impact on the Latina community in Charlotte: 

Q. What does the Circle de Luz program look like for the hijas?

A. Circle de Luz is a dynamic Charlotte-based non-profit that significantly impacts Latina youth. We offer crucial support to an under-resourced population through programming, mentoring and scholarship funds, work that renders us unique in the community–no other youth development or educational program in our area spends six years with its members in such a comprehensive way.

Each year, we choose a new class of approximately eight Latina students in 7th grade and mentor them through their graduation from high school. Additionally, beginning in 10th grade, we layer in an intensive college preparedness program called Adelante: College and Career Pathways, in which adult mentors work closely with the girls to identify realistic post secondary opportunities, complete the application process, and secure funding. We provide our girls and their families nearly 80 annual program experiences, serve as advocates on their behalf in the schools, and assist with mental and physical health concerns. The goal is to provide them with options to dream and explore so that they can enter post-secondary education as first generation college students with a wider view of the world.

Q.How do staff/volunteers make sure hijas achieve their goals?

A. With each new class of hijas, we invite four female volunteers to join together as Class Captains to create and execute the Circle de Luz experience for that class. Our Class Captains are the heart of each class’s experience. These passionate and principled women provide input to design the programming each year, and participate with our hijas in every single outing. They reinforce concepts learned in our programming, develop a close relationship with each hija and her family, and as a team work together to complete future programmatic goals. At the heart of the Class Captain role is experiencing the joy of watching a group of young women recognize the possibility before them while growing into their best selves. 

Q. Where do these girls first get connected to Circle de Luz?

A. Circle de Luz works closely with the Charlotte Mecklenburg School District to identify schools that would benefit greatly from Circle de Luz programming. After working with them and their leadership to select a middle school that meets our criteria (at least 15% Latino, and 75% free and reduced lunch) sixth-grade teachers nominate students for the program. Rather than prioritizing academic all-stars, we look for young women hovering in the middle. 

Pulled between their aspirations and the social pressures around them, these young women could go down the path to successful high school completion or get lost in a system that is not capable of fully serving them. We balance a class by selecting girls who are struggling with social issues such as anxiety, along with girls whose boisterous behavior may create challenges for them. We construct a cohort that can help each other by modeling different ways of thinking and acting but all of whom are at risk of falling through the cracks. Circle de Luz becomes a family for them over the six years and we find that they truly want to be with us so, typically, program participation is not a struggle for us.

Q. How does Circle de Luz respond to the needs in your community, specifically those of young Latina women?

A. We offer our services to students in 7th through 12th grade, with an emphasis on ensuring that these young women are receiving the resources they need to be successful middle and high schoolers. We help them gain the confidence and concrete skills needed to navigate the post-secondary landscape. Circle de Luz provides the support young first-generation women need, not only to pursue post-secondary education, but also to unleash their own potential so that, as they walk into the world, they are prepared with life-skills, cultural knowledge, and social skills that will allow them to build vibrant and diverse networks. 

We believe that a young woman cannot dream of something unless she knows it exists. So much of what prevents Latina youth from moving beyond a high school education is their limited exposure to life outside their neighborhoods. Many of our program members are the childcare providers for their younger siblings while their parents work. They go to school, come home, babysit, prepare dinner, do homework and go to bed. On weekends and in the summer, they stay close to home helping their families. The professions they are familiar with are the few that they see from family members and neighbors. Circle de Luz’s mission is based on the notion that broadening their horizons will help develop new goals and skills and, as a result, build their self-confidence as they tackle new lifestyles and challenges. 

Q. What impact has this program made on the hijas? On the staff and volunteers? On the families? On the community?

A. Today 100% of our seniors have graduated from high school, which is 30% higher than the national average for Latinas. Nineteen young Latina women comprise our alumnae group and twelve of these individuals are currently enrolled in a post-secondary education program; this is an 85% success rate in relation to our post-secondary education enrollment goal. Our students have enrolled or have graduated from UNCC, Queens, Guilford, CPCC, Emory, and the Paul Mitchell Cosmetology School, and one of them has joined the US Military.

One of our alumni shared her experience with her mother, who was so inspired by her daughter that decided to go back to school, get her GED, and work towards a Master’s Degree in Education. Our community continues to defy the odds and fight through obstacles, fears, and unexpected life situations that hold back so many young Latina women in Charlotte. Most of our hijas are currently enrolled in post-secondary education and some have become the first in their families to either graduate from high school or receive any form of post-secondary education.

Q. What brought you to work in the philanthropy/nonprofit field, and what prompted you to start/participate in Circle de Luz?

A. I came back to the U.S. at 13, and found myself struggling with some of the processes and expectations from my new home environment. The language, educational system, and cultural norms became a challenge during my first years of high school. Everyone had an idea of what I was supposed to become, but that image was not always clear to me. I had so much to worry about that my future was not even on my radar.  As time went by, I encountered people that would influence my life, and guide it towards my true passion, but I never had a true mentor that was truly invested in me. 

When I decided to dedicate my life to social services, I knew that I wanted to create a true impact on our community, and wanted to be the person I needed when I was growing up. After working within the non-profit sector in Los Angeles, CA, I knew that the focus of my work had to be Latinas and their families. I wanted to create pathways to success for each family member, and ensure that as a group, we learn to lift each other and together reach our goals. I knew that if we became stronger as a community, we could accomplish anything.

Education has been one of the driving forces in my life. It has opened the doors for my career, it has changed the mindset of the people I’ve worked with, and has facilitated the attainment of life long goals. When I discovered Circle de Luz, and the work that was being done with young Latinas through education, I knew it was the place for me. I see myself in each one of our hijas. I have been through some version of what they have experienced, and have an obligation to share my experiences and what I’ve learned. Circle de Luz’s program allows Latina girls to take in their environment, form their own opinions, see themselves in the world around them, and connect with their inner strengths.

Q. What is one piece of advice you would give the hijas?

A. Never give up, and that hard work at the end of the day will be worth it. As a Latina woman, I tell this not only to the girls, but to myself everyday. We have to inspire our girls to continue striving for the best, and to never give up on their dreams. Our hijas are so resilient and strong–they’ve lived through so much at such a young age, but still fear their own potential. They need to see what we see in them. It is my biggest hope that each of them continues to move forward, achieves greatness, and is able to give back to the generation coming behind them.

Learn more about Circle de Luz here:

After working in the California nonprofit sector for over 10 years, Lorena wanted to continue the work of guiding underserved Latinas towards a path of personal success and higher education. She knows first hand some of the challenges Latinas face, and wanted to make sure the future is brighter for our younger generation. Lorena is extremely proud of the work she has accomplished with Circle de Luz, especially moments created while working one-on-one with our girls and their families. She is honored to be part of their lives and cherishes being able to work towards a better future for every single family member. Lorena hopes Circle de Luz is able to lift up our Latino communities in not only Charlotte, but in the entire nation.