Though Dania Carter went to law school, she never ended up practicing law, at least not in a formal sense—she didn’t work at a law firm, for example, or as a clerk for a judge. Instead, she ended up working in the human resources department of large corporations for more than a decade. Little did she know, her law degree would serve to benefit her (and so many others) in ways she never could have previously imagined.
But let’s start at the beginning. Dania attended Penn State University, where she focused her studies on criminal justice. “I had always wanted to start a nonprofit,” she remembers. “By choosing to study criminal justice, I thought I might do something to help women someday, especially those who were in prison or struggling to rebuild their lives.”
Dania didn’t jump into the nonprofit world right away. Instead, she began her career in human resources. After working in the corporate world for over ten years, Dania felt a steady longing to do something new, something that made a difference. “I was used to being in corporate America and bringing in a good salary,” she said. “But this was my calling.” In 2013, she took a leap and founded that nonprofit she had always dreamed of launching: Heart of Courage, an organization that provides support and advocacy for mothers who have had their children placed in the Texas foster care system.
Though the inspiration for the organization was good, Heart of Courage sat by the wayside for three years. Dania had taken another job after her HR role, one in which she had a director’s position that left little time for passion projects. Dania’s focus was on her work until 2016, when a family member was diagnosed with cancer. Dania’s took that opportunity to reevaluate what is important to her and realized that you can’t continue to put off reaching your goals forever. “That season in my life spoke to me and encouraged me to get Heart of Courage going,” she said. “There was no time to waste.”
Prior to launching Heart of Courage, Dania had done thorough research about the issues facing foster children. “And then I started wondering—what about the mothers whose children have to go into foster care?” Dania said. “Who supports them?”
Dania loved that there were resources for children in the foster system, and she supported her church’s efforts to keep children healthy and safe while in that system. But her heart kept cleaving toward the mothers. “As I started talking to people, I found out that caring for the mothers was really a huge need,” Dania said. “I developed Heart of Courage as an advocacy organization for mothers to ensure that they are able to get all of the services that the court is requiring of them so that they can get their children back.”
Dania wanted to take her vision a step further by helping these women to be self-sufficient in other ways, including gaining employment and working on critical life skills. “We want to help them create the life that they envision for themselves,” she said.
Mentoring and advocacy are the main services that Heart of Courage offers. Representatives from the organization, like Dania, go to court with the women and help them navigate tricky legal waters. This is where Dania’s background in law really comes in handy; she has the knowledge and expertise needed to cut through legalese and red tape in order to ensure that the women she serves are getting the resources they deserve so they can get back on their feet and be reunited with their children.
Recently, Heart of Courage received a gracious grant from the Texas Bar Foundation that will help them provide legal consultations for the women the organization serves. “Our clients have a lot of questions and they need someone who can meet with them one-on- one and walk them through the details of their case,” Dania said. “This grant allows our mothers to consult with a licensed, experienced attorney with any questions they may have. The mothers in our program work extremely hard to better themselves and their circumstances.” With this added resource, they can do just that.
Next, Heart of Courage volunteers help identify and document the specific goals that each woman has. These range from getting their GED and overcoming learning disabilities to securing housing and working on their resumés. This past year, Heart of Courage hosted their first free career conference called Breaking Barriers, which provided attendees with workshops to attend, including those specifically focused on women who need to get past the barrier of having a felony charge but still need to break into the job market.
Dania’s next goal is to secure office space for Heart of Courage in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. “We would love to have an office near public transportation since many of the women we serve don’t have cars,” Dania said. “With a location like that, we can have a bigger impact in our communities.” Dania has big dreams for the space, one that she envisions will not only be the organization’s headquarters but also a community center—or, as she calls it, “a safe haven.” She’d love to have a kitchen that is stocked with healthy snacks and cozy spaces for the women where the organization can host peer support groups and classes on topics like anger management and forgiveness.
When asked how people can support Heart of Courage’s efforts, Dania gave some excellent, tangible ideas. “Gift cards to restaurants are great since we like to provide a meal to our potential clients during our initial meetings,” she said. “Gently used work apparel is great, too, as it helps the women dress well for court, GED classes, and job interviews. I always say that blazers and cardigans are the best courtroom accessories.”
Heart of Courage is celebrating its one-year anniversary this month. The organization has served 32 women in its inaugural year, an incredible feat considering that neither Dania nor any of the other Heart of Courage representatives draw a salary. Dania shared the story of a client who is also sharing not one, but two important one-year anniversaries that coincide with Heart of Courage’s celebration: her daughter’s first birthday, and the first anniversary of living sober.
“She cut off a lot of negative ties and worked successfully through the program,” Dania said proudly. “She did what Child Protective Services asked her to do to get her life back on track. She is doing awesome.”
Dania is too humble to admit that while her client certainly is a strong, bold, intelligent woman who has overcome so much adversity to reach her goals and be reunited with her daughter, Heart of Courage certainly played a role in her success, too. Without the support of the organization and Dania’s efforts, life could look so different for 32 women who have now been empowered to rebuild their lives and achieve their dreams.
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