GREENVILLE — Her desk and office are immaculate, with nothing out of place. Her appearance and demeanor speak of someone accustomed to order and organization.
But it’s when she leaves the office that things get messy, when the overflow of love and kindness and giving overtake that orderly, professional air.
Bernita Demery is an eastern North Carolina native and has been Greenville’s chief financial officer and director of financial services for the city since 1989. She is the first black to hold the position. She balances a multimillion dollar budget for the city and wins awards for doing so.
Her hands folded neatly on her shiny desk do not betray the spirit of a woman who has opened her home to seniors and the youth from her church. Only a few framed photos offer insight into a life of a mother who woke up her children in the morning singing hymns and now takes children who are not her own to see the ocean for the first time.
“I want them to remember when they grow up to lift somebody else up,” Demery said. “One of my mottos in life would be, ‘If I can help somebody else as I pass along the way, that my living would not be in vain.’”
Demery said she is trying to build a legacy of hard work and hard-fought success balanced by a life brimming with joy and love.
Demery and her husband of 30 years, Ricky, have been members of Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church since 1988. She is dedicated to serving the youth ministry.
When she’s not conducting business at City Hall or in the sometimes-grueling sessions with City Council, she can be found on a Wednesday taking kids to the movie theater then back to her house for birthday cake.
“We’ve learned more that it’s not bragging to bring people in our home,” she said. “It’s not a showoff as some people may think. It has blessed some children. They need to see how you live, they need to see what you do, because then it becomes possible for them.”
Demery joked that it’s often difficult for her to leave church each Sunday without bringing kids home for movies, meals and fun.
Beach trips that started with her daughters and their friends have evolved into trips with kids from the church, she said. For some of them, it has been their first time to see the ocean.
It’s among many experiences she believes kids should have, and she and her husband are more than happy to help make happen.
Demery, 51, was raised by a single mother — the daughter of a sharecropper — and was the youngest of five children. Demery described her “tough, resilient” mother who worked at a sewing factory for 21 years to support her family.
“She never missed a day of work; she was never late for work,” Demery said. “Our household was clean and neat and we were always clean and neat and she did not want us to be on welfare. Although the lady from the welfare office would come and visit us and tell her she could get a bigger check than she got from going to work at the sewing factory, she said no. She’d dress us up and say we were doing just fine.”
The Halifax County native described a sick day while in elementary school when her mother brought her to the factory. From a seat in the cafeteria, she watched her mother work furiously.
“I never knew before that day why she would come home so exhausted. But that day I saw what my mother did all day,” she said. “It almost makes me cry now to know that’s how hard she had to work and she still made sure we had a happy home and that we enjoyed life.”
Demery said her past keeps her humble and helps her appreciate that anything is possible through hard work and perseverance.
“I do want the youth to appreciate the little things in life,” Demery said, “and know that they can do whatever they want, be what they want to be, whatever they dream of becoming. The sky is the limit. The only limits are those they put on themselves.”
With degrees from East Carolina University and North Carolina A&T State University, Demery has nearly 26 years of experience in government and financial management.
She was among the area’s first black CPAs and said she faced discrimination based on her race and her gender. Those interactions were exacerbated when Demery took on leadership roles, but the hardships made her more determined to succeed, she said. Now, thankfully, more people value diversity, she said.
Demery said she would love to see future generations know more about how to manage their money and how to, once they become successful, sustain that success by making good choices.
“If there’s anything I would like to leave, it would be a legacy of financial freedom,” she said.
In the black community, Demery said there’s still work to be done “in building our own legacies, building our own wealth. I think other races have made maybe more strides than we have in this country with it being OK for us to build wealth with each other.”
After she completes 30 years in local government, Demery said she hopes to open her own company for government and nonprofit auditing, with a further focus of greater financial literacy in the community.
A large part of the legacy Demery hopes to leave behind is already growing in her daughters. Requita is in her second year of medical school at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine. Bridget attends North Carolina A&T and is majoring in accounting.
“They are a great example of what I think a great young woman should be like,” Demery said.
But Demery said she has no plans to slow down any time soon, and the best is yet to come for her in both her professional and personal endeavors.
“I don’t believe Greenville or the world or the community has seen all that I can be,” she said.