A crowd of supporters gathered in the sunshine outside a quaint, white house at 1209 Market Street Wednesday to celebrate the next chapter for Communities In Schools of Cape Fear.

Staff of the youth serving non-profit looked on proudly as New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple and Senator Michael Lee reflected on the successful legacy the program has enjoyed over the last 20 years.

“The folks in this organization make the real difference on the ground, on the front lines every day, and we couldn’t do a lot of things in the area of education without organizations like this –Communities In Schools in particular,” said Senator Michael Lee.

Board members, school principals, and friends of CIS listened as CIS Governing Board Chair Jim Busby stood behind the ribbon and shared his appreciation and hopes for the future of Communities In Schools of Cape Fear.

The traffic and sirens on Market Street were drowned out by the cheering crowd as the organization’s longtime staff members took hold of the ribbon and officially ushered the non-profit into a new era with one snip of the ceremonial scissors.

The fanfare from the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce Wednesday was a full circle moment for executive director Louise Hicks, having taken the reigns 17 years ago at a time Communities In Schools of Cape Fear was a Chamber of Commerce Initiative. The modest office CIS operated out of before it departed the chamber in 2005 now serves as a storage closet.  

“We’re very excited to settle into our new office. The larger facility will provide our New Hanover County staff the space they need to collaborate on how to best serve our region’s students,” said Executive Director Louise Hicks in a press release. “It’s been incredibly rewarding to see our programs and staff grow to where we are today.”

In the last 17 years, CIS Cape Fear has grown to employ 70 staff members, with student support specialists in 27 schools across Pender and New Hanover counties. In addition to the school- based student support staff, the organization runs free after school programming, summer camps, a program to support young parents, and a myriad of restorative justice programs that prevent at risk teens from entering the criminal justice system.

The organization spent the last 14 years in the Harrelson Center, a campus of nonprofits next to the courthouse downtown. Leaders had planned for the continued growth of CIS Cape Fear for years, but the vision came to life much faster than anticipated. The influx of financial support to support students coming out of the pandemic, the $1.5 million gift from philanthropist Mackenzie Scott, new grant opportunities to help McKinney Vento Students, and a partnership with New Hanover County’s Port City United allowed CIS Cape Fear was able to add 30 new staff members and expand into seven new schools in the fall of 2022. Many of the new staff understand the weight of the work because they were CIS students themselves a few years before they made the decision to return to the organization and give the next generation the same encouragement and support that shepherded them across the stage at graduation.

With a more robust staff, came a need for more elbow room at the New Hanover County CIS office. As leaders focused on onboarding the new hires, the opportunity came to move into 1209 Market Street with a new nonprofit. A generous donor allocated the funds to upfit the white house right next door to New Hanover High School, and bring a new trauma therapy model to Wilmington, The Trauma Institute and the Child Trauma Institute (TICTI).

“We help troubled students put their trauma behind them and move on with their lives,” said the TICTI founder, psychologist Ricky Greenwald, of the group’s mission. “Trauma and loss can cause school under-performance as well as behavioral issues, substance abuse, anger, anxiety, and depression.”

Students meet one on one with a skilled and caring trauma therapist for up to six hours a day for up to five consecutive days at a time.

“Whether it’s gang violence, self-harm, or dropping out of school, not showing up, we know at that point that these experiences from the past are creating symptoms that are derailing their success in school. So it is really timely that we intervene when we do,” Clinic Director Kymberly Lasser-Chere told reporters Wednesday.  “So, rather than the next generation of folks who are incarcerated or, you know, struggling in other ways, this is a great opportunity.”

CIS and TICTI differ in the approach to helping local students, but they’re united in their mission to walk with students as they overcome the obstacles in the way of a brighter future.

Two decades in the making, Communities In Schools of Cape Fear is bigger and stronger than ever and ready to put caring adults in the lives of as many students as possible.