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Improving the lives of the less fortunate

Ringuette uses her singular talents to make nonprofits shine

The desire has always been there – to look out for others, to be there when others aren’t, to make other people feel worthy and special, especially those who are often overlooked.

Even before it became a career, before her job was to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry and clothe the poor, Christine Odom Ringuette ’90 was opening up her heart for others. And the needy and vulnerable have always gravitated toward her.

As an elementary-school kid, Ringuette used to walk out of church on Sundays to find some of the less fortunate members of the congregation waiting on her to brighten their day with her enthusiastic goodness. “There was an older man who was schizophrenic, an older man who had Down Syndrome, and a younger man who had Down Syndrome,” she says. “They would kind of wait for me to come out, and we would talk.”

Then there was the neighbor who’d had a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair and couldn’t speak. “Mr. Meadows. I would just talk to him, entertain him,” Ringuette says. “I loved making him smile. It made me happy.”

And she’s continued making people smile, or at least feel more comfortable. Every position Ringuette has held in the 32 years since she graduated from Wingate has been geared toward improving the lives of others. She’s worked for nonprofits big and small. She’s worked every job on the nonprofit ladder, not so much ambitious as simply curious and eager to help.

Ringuette – known widely as “Chicken” at Wingate, a nickname she picked up as a counselor at Camp Caswell – has twice led a branch of Habitat for Humanity, the housing charity, first rising to president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity Valley of the Sun in Phoenix and later starting Habitat for Humanity North Carolina and serving as its president and executive director.

Ringuette’s first foray into the nonprofit world was to help HFH Valley of the Sun develop relationships with faith organizations. Arizona was a long way from her native Greensboro. In search of adventure, she had left North Carolina for the desert soon after the turn of the millennium. With no job lined up, she sold her house, stepped down as a program coordinator for Urban Ministry in Greensboro and headed west.

“I jump and then look for the parachute,” she says.

It’s less reckless than it seems: Ringuette gets a substantial amount of guidance from The Voice, which helps her stay true to herself. “Somebody told me there’s three voices in your head: God’s voice, your voice and the world’s,” she says. “You’ve got to make sure your voice isn’t matching the world’s.”

For about a year Ringuette worked as a victim witness advocate with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office – again, helping people – but the work was soul-destroying for a bright light like Ringuette. Besides, one morning she heard The Voice, as clear as day. At 10 a.m. one workday, it told her to call Habitat. After a couple of hours she finally relented, and it turns out that she was exactly what Habitat needed. Within 20 minutes, she got a call back with information about an opening they’d been trying to fill.

“They said they needed somebody to talk to churches,” she says. “I said, ‘I was raised Baptist. I can talk to churches! I can do this.’”

Boy, could she ever. Within nine months, Ringuette had outgrown her role and was named development director. Less than two years later, she was president and CEO, a position she held for nearly seven years.

Coworkers and vendors call her “a dynamo,” a “bundle of energy” and a “visionary.”

“She exerted a stabilizing, calming influence on those around her largely due to her upbeat, cheerful attitude,” says Phil Regulinski, a site supervisor for Habitat. “Professional yet approachable, she managed somehow to be both my supervisor and my friend.”

Under Ringuette’s leadership, Habitat exploded in Arizona. She grew Habitat for Humanity Valley of the Sun into a $10 million operation that built nearly 50 houses a year in nine cities. The staff grew from fewer than 10 to 55.

Globe-trotting helper

The growth of Valley of the Sun became too much for Ringuette. Her blood pressure had been creeping up for a while and was now dangerously high, possibly a byproduct of her undiagnosed attention deficit disorder. Being pulled in so many directions at once was stressing her body out.

The head of fundraising for Habitat International asked her once how she was doing. “Not good,” she told him. “Doctor says I’m going to die. He grabbed me by my arms and said I wasn’t going to make it to 2008.”

I’m still always looking for the next hill to climb. There’s always something more I should be doing.

The fundraising chief saved her, offering her a position as director of Habitat’s Tithe Giving Program. They needed someone with global experience, and Ringuette could provide it. Her parents had started a charity when she was just a child, providing and arranging room and board for international college students during extended breaks from school. For that, the Odoms became among the first Americans to travel to China after Chairman Mao’s reign ended. The experience was life-changing and whetted Ringuette’s appetite for overseas travel. After graduating from Wingate she spent several months in Ghana on a mission trip.

The international travel made her comfortable in unfamiliar environments, and she could already talk to anybody. Within a year at Habitat International, Ringuette was senior director of global engagement, traveling the world, raising money and getting locals interested in building houses for the homeless.

She visited some affluent countries, trying to Robin Hood them out of some cash, but mostly she found herself in less developed environs, some not always safe for a young American woman.

In Tajikistan, on the Afghanistan border, Ringuette was told that if Tajiks were being kidnapped (which they were), then she didn’t stand a chance. When she and her minders reached checkpoints, she’d hide under blankets in the back of the truck.

“We’d come to a stop and I would sit there and listen to mumbling voices and pray like hell that things didn’t start being taken off of me,” she says.

They never were, and those nerve-wracking moments were worth living through if it meant getting even one more family off the streets and into their own house.

Eleven years ago Ringuette came back home to North Carolina to be closer to her ailing mother, using her experience as a Habitat CEO to bring all of the state’s Habitat operations together under one umbrella. After four years, her mother’s health had worsened, so Ringuette took on a role at a smaller nonprofit, Dress for Success’s Winston-Salem operation, so she’d have more flexibility in her schedule. Three years ago she jumped over to Urban Ministry Greensboro, for whom she handles all marketing and communication.

Ever the helper, for many years Ringuette focused first on others. Although she’d been in relationships over the years, it wasn’t until five years ago that she got married, and she’s never had children. She says she never really felt that she would be the nurturing type.

But she has been.

“I have been nurturing,” she says. “The people who have worked for me have been very fond and loyal and sweet to me, and the way I’ve helped grow them as leaders and encouraged them and empowered them in some ways felt like raising kids.”

Through all the nail-biting excursions, time spent away from home and battles with boards of directors, Ringuette has never had any regrets.

“If I died today, I would die happy,” she says. “But I’m still always looking for the next hill to climb. One teacher said that the reason I’m so good is that I’m afraid of falling on my butt, so I go over and above. But I always feel like I haven’t gone over and above. There’s always something more I should be doing.”

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