Finding Their Place

Halla Banafa, '13, and Kat Carrig, '16

Halla Banafa '13 and Kat Carrig '16 earned their psychology degrees at USC Upstate at different times, but their career paths led them to the same place – Pendleton Place.

Banafa, director of residential youth services, and Carrig, program manager of Smith House, work with young people who have come to the facility in Greenville with housing needs. Banafa oversees Smith House, the foster home for youths ages 12-21; an emergency shelter for homeless youths; an alumni cottage; and transitional housing for young people up to age 24. Carrig manages Smith House, which has 10 beds and prepares its mostly older teen residents for independent living.

There are plenty of challenges to deal with every day, but, Banafa says, the job “brings joy to my life.”

“The best thing in the world is being able to work with them,” she says of the young people in the program.

Both Banafa and Carrig found their calling through the child advocacy studies program at USC Upstate. Banafa had always known she wanted a career helping others, and under the guidance of her faculty mentor discovered she enjoyed working with youths. Carrig, a mother of three who came back to college later in life, says a “light went on” for her after she took a child advocacy studies class.

Banafa’s first internship after graduation was with Pendleton Place, and she kept working there while she earned her master’s degree. Even while holding positions with other organizations, she’d come by to teach the teens how to drive or take them to an apartment complex to walk them through the rental process. “This agency has always been where my heart is,” she says.

Carrig, too, interned at Pendleton Place while getting her degree, and quickly connected with the people who worked there. Her work involved evaluating programs in all areas of the organization, but it was Smith House that spoke to her the most.

“I feel like if you’re going to be in this line of work, then you need to take it pretty seriously,” Carrig says. “If I can see that the team and I are all going towards that purpose, and they are just as serious about making this difference, that is when I feel I am at my best.”

Having worked at Pendleton Place for eight years, Banafa often hears from the now-adult residents she once worked with, and how their lives have changed as a result of the program. Banafa and Carrig say they witness these transformations regularly at Smith House.

One 15-year-old girl was determined to leave as soon as she turned 18, the women recall. She didn’t trust anyone, wouldn’t do her schoolwork during the COVID quarantine, and was very headstrong. One day, after an incident that required Banafa’s intervention, the teen had had it, and began packing her bags to leave.

It was late in the day, but Banafa went up to the girl’s room, sat down on the floor, and told her she was going to stay there until they’d worked this out. “I know you really believe you can make it without us, and I know you can,” Banafa said to the teen. “But why make your life harder? Let us be on your team.”

Her appeal worked. The girl, who seemed surprised Banafa wasn’t giving up on her, changed after that day. She caught up on all her classes so she could graduate early from high school; earned her nail technician certificate; got two jobs and earned a promotion in one; and is planning to go to college. And though she turned 18 last year, she’s stayed on at Smith House.

Those “light bulb moments” are always inspiring, Banafa and Carrig say, but often it’s observing a teen’s small triumphs – learning how to drive, successfully cooking a meal – that makes them feel lucky to have the jobs they do.

“We love all the kids we work with, they’re all so incredible,” Banafa says. “We know the things they’ve been through, and that they’re able to allow themselves to be a teenager even for a couple of minutes, that’s huge. And we get to be a part of that.”