Meet Circles USA’s Regional Coaches: Cheryl Williams and Shavonne Vasquez

As Circles USA continues to expand, the national office is grateful to add more infrastructure and reach to our system of chapter support. To that end, regional coaches now support the West, the Midwest, the South, and the Mid-Atlantic Regions. Working across geographic, economic, and political boundaries, each regional coach hosts monthly regional community of practice calls for mutual support and collaboration, coaches their regional chapters on a regular basis, and advises new chapters in their early design phase before launch. They also support regional collaborations to expand local Big View efforts so as to have a greater impact on systemic change and inform the national office of regional trends and needs.

This blog series introduces you to Circles USA’s Regional Coaches: who they are; where they come from; and how their leadership helps realize CUSA’s vision, in which all individuals live in equitable, thriving communities where poverty no longer exists.

Cheryl Williams and Shavonne Vasquez, who will co-facilitate Circles USA’s Southeast Region, including chapters in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. The Southeast is CUSA’s largest membership region, with more chapters serving communities than in any other area of the country.

Cheryl: I identify as a community educator and use my training to connect with people on a deep and personal level. I’ve worked at the Atlanta Mission as a Family Advocate, helping women and children develop personal goals and assisting many adults with GED preparation and job readiness. I developed my own curriculum, “Parenting through Stress,” for the mothers at the shelter. In addition to working with Open Door Community House and the Circles program, I lead After Church Connections. My own experiences of facing disparities after leaving a church service gave her a real understanding that people need help outside the church walls.

Joining the Circles team has been incredibly exciting, and I have thoroughly fallen in love with the systems and programs it offers to people experiencing poverty!

Shavonne: In 2022, I took a leap of faith and relocated from New York to South Carolina to join the Deep Well Project in launching Circles Hilton Head Island. Today I continue my work in the Lowcountry while also serving as a coach for the Southeast region of Circles USA. 

What I appreciate the most about my Circles experience is the community I’ve gained. I’ve had the opportunity to connect with changemakers across the network. There’s nothing more encouraging than knowing there are so many others out there committed to this initiative, zealous about the eradication of poverty, and devoted to the communities in which we each serve. Circles has provided an opportunity to deepen my purpose as a social worker and therefore I am grateful. 

Important life experiences, journeys, challenges and accomplishments include…
Cheryl: My most significant life experiences revolve around being a mother to two amazing children: my daughter Brilliant and my son Promise. I married the same man twice, totaling 27 years of marriage. I am the author of four published books, one of which I completed during my dark time of homelessness. I owned and operated a commercial daycare for 10 years. I have faced divorce, homelessness, and loneliness. While I have always been dedicated to serving others, these challenges opened my eyes and pushed me to achieve incredible accomplishments. I completed my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and my experiences fueled my passion to pursue, advocate, and help individuals push past poverty.

Shavonne: I was born in Brooklyn, New York to a family plagued by generations of poverty. I know what it’s like to go without the basics. As I reflect on my childhood, I can recall the trials of a family who relied heavily on government programs and social services. I remember navigating high crime neighborhoods and frequent challenges in our education system. Our family lacked opportunities and experienced barriers they just didn’t understand how to overcome. One could argue they didn’t know any other way. 

Fast forward to my adult life, when I had the opportunity to meet positive influences who inspired me to seek higher education as an option. I earned my first degree in business administration and took a job at a local school for children with disabilities. It was there that I first felt the fulfillment of helping others. Working closely with educators and clinicians, I developed a passion for social work. So I decided to return to school to earn a degree in social work. I’ve been working to help underprivileged populations ever since. 

During my career, I played a key role in the startup of an innovative program designed for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Like Circles, primary objectives included strengthening life skills, vocational skills, self-sufficiency, and independence. Experiential learning and increased social capital are also key components in both initiatives. 

Over the years, I’ve gained insight and understanding of how adverse experiences affect the development of children and families. With an understanding of how vital external influences are in breaking a cycle of poverty, I hope to serve as a catalyst for change for future generations. Through my work within the Circles initiative, I hope to help move families out of cyclical poverty while increasing their ability to thrive.

Something special you should know about our region is…
Cheryl: There is a great number of resilient people who reside in this region. In spite of the rising numbers in low wealth communities, people still have a fight and a want to do better in their spirit.

Shavonne: Our region is rich in wisdom, skills, and talent. Each community in the Southeast has its own share of advantages and we’re all working to unlock that potential for good. With every person I meet, I consider how we can expand our chapter to collaborate with [them]. We’re always considering ways we can expand our Circles to include each other. Together we can strategically align our efforts and broaden our impact.

A major challenge we face in alleviating poverty in our region is…
Cheryl: In 2023, 276 people were experiencing homelessness in Columbus, up from 243 in 2022 and 239 in 2021. There are limited resources available to impact the communities in need. The funds are allocated to people and places who are not dealing with the problem, only [managing] the symptoms of poverty, so we will constantly see a rise in poverty.

Shavonne: While the beauty of the South continues to attract retirees and investors, the cost of living soars. I recently stumbled upon a random post on social media that read “it isn’t paradise if locals can’t afford to live there,” and that resonated with me. The families engaged in our local Circles chapters represent a large demographic of hard-working people who make up the labor force. These are the folks who are tirelessly serving our community. They’re always seeking better opportunities and making sacrifices to enrich their lives. 

There often seems to be stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots here. And while it may be one person’s dream to retire and move South, it serves as another person’s opportunity. What we hope to do is minimize the collateral damage of these adjustments. Our communities are shapeshifting with every new development and Circles is here to support the families trying to navigate it all. 

Recently, our region has accomplished…
Cheryl: Recent economic development successes have Columbus poised to outperform the state and the nation in 2024.

Shavonne: Our former regional coach was recently promoted to coach nationally. Addie Hartnett has served the Southeast region and gained a plethora of knowledge through this community of practice. They will now take the wisdom they’ve gained locally and apply it across the entire Circles USA network. We’re proud to see one of our very own achieve this promotion and look forward to witnessing their success. It’s like watching someone from our team make it to the big leagues. Go Addie!

One thing we want potential Circles participants to know is…
Cheryl: That we are creating a space to help you navigate poverty with real tools and intentional friendships. This is not just a job! Circle[s] of Columbus has been established for real people offering real solutions. We want to create a Circle you can really use and count on.

Shavonne: You can! Simple as that. You possess more strength and power than you can ever imagine. Apply yourself, never give up, and you will be great. I tell [Circle] Leaders in my chapter all the time: “If I can do it, you can do it.” And we’re rooting for you. The journey might be long, and it will certainly be challenging, but with each step you will grow exponentially greater. So, embrace the difficulty and remind yourself every day that you are capable of more than you know.