Renae Brame’s life has always been about helping others

Sherye S. Green
Special to The Black Mountain News

Renae Brame, who retires Tuesday, May 31 after 14 years as executive director of Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry, has always seen her work as a calling and a natural extension of her faith in God.

Her work with the less fortunate and the displaced began a long time ago. When she was 4, her mother died. She remembers how she and her siblings lost, in her words, “the one who loved us slightly less than God.”

During elementary school, Brame was especially sensitive to the wounded spirit of other children. She was drawn to those who seemed to feel unloved, left out or invisible to others. “I tried to encourage them and to remind them that they were special, and they were cared for,” she said.

In 1974, at the suggestion of friends, Brame applied for and got a job as personal secretary to the administrator of the Western Youth Institution in Morganton (it has since closed). The job was the beginning of a career that spanned nearly three decades with the N.C. Department of Corrections.

Working hard and earning promotions, Brame learned much about the intricacies of building a cohesive staff unit. Conflicts she witnessed arising over competing views of incarceration - punishment vs. rehabilitation – would later serve as bridge-building models.

Her last assignment with the corrections department was a 12-year stint as superintendent for the then-Black Mountain Correctional Center for Women (the center was closed in 2008, and inmates were transferred to the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women).

“This is where I felt I really made a difference,” she said. “I learned our lives were much the same.”

While following policies and procedures, Brame was committed to, in her words, “creating an atmosphere for positive change in the lives of the incarcerated women.” At the prison, she gained valuable experience working with community volunteers.

Elizabeth McCubbin, the late superintendent of the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, often chided people to be what God had in mind when he first thought of them. McCubbin, who once chaired the Black Mountain Correctional Center for Women community resource council, shared the thought with Brame, who never forgot it.

“Elizabeth reminded me how important my leadership was to these women,” she said. “They needed to be reminded of God’s love and hope.”

Brame’s pain over losing her mother enabled her to empathize with the women at the prison who had suffered great trials in their own lives. “I was not tested by the women. They trusted me,” she said. The trust was similar to the trust Brame has fostered among the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry’s clients.

Like prison inmates, many of the ministry’s clients suffer from poverty, abuse, addictions, mental health issues and a lack of education and/or support systems, Brame believes. Few people choose to be homeless, she recalls being told by the director of the Buncombe County Homeless Coalition.

Earlier this spring, Cheryl Wilson was hired to succeed Brame as the ministry’s executive director. Brame said her advice for Wilson is to “remember this position is a gift God has given you. It requires a great deal of responsibility, especially in the winter months. Take care of the clients, but also take care of yourself.”

When Brame walks away from her job on May 31, she’ll step into a retirement which she plans to spend with friends and family. One goal is to take better care of herself through walking and exercise. A popular women’s speaker, she looks forward to having more time to devote to speaking engagements. A women’s retreat, which Brame will be leading at Christmount, is already scheduled for early June.

A devout Christian, Brame for years has kept written journals of her walk of faith. The discipline is part of her daily quiet time, a practice that has resulted in a 365-day devotional guide, “Daily Devotions with Our Beloved.”

A singer and songwriter, Brame with her husband Jamie have written and released three CDs. The latest one, “Peaceful Waters Flow,” was released in March. The duo is well-known in this part of Western North Carolina. They anticipate the opportunity to share more of their music with others.

“I’m not sure where God will lead me, but I’ll be open to his call,” she said.