CEF is now five years old, and every year that we grow we work to refine the recipe for our “secret sauce.” The essence remains the same, and yet still somewhat a mystery–embedded in the relationships and collaborative work of our members and advocates. But each year, we as an organization continue to learn, grow and change together with all the unique members, advocates, partners, supporters, friends (and you!) who make up the CEF family. Thank you for caring for this community and for CEF, and making all the results shared through this report possible. We appreciate you!
“Family” is the word that comes to mind when I think of Ricky Reams— it means the world to him. When Ricky and I met two years ago at Housing for New Hope’s Phoenix House transitional housing program, the first goal we tackled was saving for housing. Ricky saved with remarkable fervor, stunning me by reaching his goal of $500 in just four months. But what I will never forget is that the only time he ever deposited less than planned into his Safe Savings Account, it was in the name of family: he wanted to give his grandchildren gifts for the holidays.
Family was also essential to Ricky’s ability to work. Two months after he successfully moved into his own place, we reconnected to work on job searches. After revamping his resume, drafting a cover letter, and practicing tricky interview questions, Ricky was able to find work – he just had trouble keeping it. He confided that ever since moving away from his hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, he had been struggling to hold a job: “I get depressed because my family always in Connecticut and I couldn’t go check on ‘em and see ‘em like I want to. So I just get isolated and shut the world down.” Knowing that being separated from his family made it difficult for him to maintain employment, my co-advocate Stephanie Colorado and I set about making sure he knew he could have “family” in Durham, too. Every Thursday morning, we met Ricky at Whole Foods to play cards, talk about life, share stories, and just spend time together.
Today, Ricky will have been employed as a Donations Ambassador at Habitat ReStore of Durham and Orange Counties for almost half a year and will proudly tell you, “Everything been going so good at that job! I love to go to work … I come in there smiling and happy every day.” He will also gush about the newest addition to his family, a childhood friend who he only recently found the courage to approach, “We gonna get married – I’m talking ‘bout we gonna jump the mop, we ain’t gonna jump the broom! Right now, we feel like we 40 years married. She’s a beautiful woman and I love her to death.”
Hanging out with Ricky was my small part in helping to make sure depression wouldn’t keep him from doing what he loves – but, selfishly, it was also my way of basking in his good nature. He’s the kind of person who, when I vented about people who I thought were being nasty, reminded me, “You know what you do to people who make you feel that way? You pray for them.” If you ask him his secret, he will shrug, “I’m like the same person every day, try to uplift people, ask them how their child doing, how’s your day – that’s just me.” It is infectious. Each time we met – whether it was to open an affordable credit union account, sign-up for e-statements to reduce fees, budget for his new housing expenses, file back taxes to avoid garnishment, stow the cash he had from selling his van into his Safe Savings account, or connect to Legal Aid for help dealing with an exploitative landlord – he uplifted me with his spirit. He became somebody I could call if stressed or angry. He became somebody who, when I share with him that I’m scared to head to medical school but am trying to be brave, he tells me “I’m proud of you, Anne” and I choke up. Ricky is family.
– CEF members, advocates, and staff enjoying Financial Independence Day!
By: Katie Wiley
Traveling alone, the climb toward financial independence can seem longer and higher, with brambles lining the curves of the gravel roads. Building credit and savings takes both time and persistence, as well as the grit to continuously set and work toward new goals, knowing that no step is insignificant. Yet, one does not need to seek this independence alone. Instead, members and advocates of the Community Empowerment Fund have chosen to recognize the strength in each other and in their relationships with one another through Financial Independence Day. On the evening of Friday, July 10th, 2015, the CEF community came together once again to celebrate each other. Under the cool shade of the trees at Chapel Hill Community Center, folks enjoyed tangy cole slaw, flawlessly charred hot dogs, brownies and other sweet treats at the picnic tables.
Whether cheering on the fierce competition at the corn holes, dribbling around on the basketball courts barefooted, or jamming to the summertime music playlist, everyone had the opportunity to step away from busy weeks to simply appreciate time with one another. A talent show also featured several artists, including a guitar solo, the reenactment of classic Power Rangers poses, and some joyful singing.
After tasting all of the food, everyone gathered for the Savings Raffle, in which CEF Savers were celebrated for their efforts in the CEF Safe Savings program and working toward their own financial independence. Everyone who had made a deposit in his or her account over the past month was recognized, receiving a prize from local Chapel Hill and Durham businesses.
Financial independence can mean different things for everyone. For Dorothy, financial independence is a car that allows her to drive wherever she hopes to go—whereas for Sharon, it is paying back her school loans. For others, it might be to save for a housing deposit, to declare independence from an unjust financial system, to pay back past hospital bills. It might be to get a laptop, to start a new business, or to save for a rainy day. Each of us may have different goals, but together as a community, we will continue to support each other as we climb.
Happy FID everyone!
– By CEF Advocates Yasmine Miao & Emma Caudle
The past six weeks at CEF have been an incredible learning experience and have given me a new outlook on the world that many members face. Before this summer I had never stepped foot in a CEF office and only had the slightest idea of what it even was, however it did not take long for me to realize that CEF was much more than the typical nonprofit seeking to alleviate poverty and homelessness. Perhaps the aspect of CEF that stuck out most to me was how committed advocates and staff were to be more than just teachers or mentors to the members, but rather friends and companions along the journey towards financial freedom.
Member meetings have been one of the highlights of my time at CEF this summer. I have enjoyed building relationships with other members of the Durham community and have appreciated the experiences they have shared with me. I have been able to work with members as they applied for jobs, created budgets, started saving, and so much more. Although 6 weeks is too short of a time to see big changes I was able to see little ones week to week with many members. Moments as simple as a members enthusiasm for depositing money into their safe savings account or a member working diligently to figure out a new budgeting technique assured me that CEF was in fact helping members reach financial stability.
Aside from the more concrete ways I saw CEF make a difference in the lives of many members, it is evident to me how much CEF means on a more emotional level. CEF is one of the first places many members go in times of crisis and advocates often become trusted confidants. This was one of the most incredible parts of CEF to me because it showed me how successful an organization can be when it cares for an entire person rather than just aspects of their life.
I am very thankful that I had the opportunity to spend a part of my summer with CEF this year. I learned more from the other advocates and staff as well as members than I ever could have expected and gained a newfound appreciation for the kind of work that CEF does. CEF makes a great investment in members who do not always benefit from investments made by the community or government. Therefore, the work CEF does is critical for the lives of so many in the Durham and Chapel Hill communities. Thank you CEF for all you do!
by: Yasmine Miao
Before I came to CEF, I was more anxious than excited.I had no idea what my daily routine would be like for the next six weeks. I had no idea what was expected of me. I simply felt like I was wandering into the known.
I had the vague impression that at CEF, I’d be helping people who are experiencing homelessness or poverty, but again, I had no idea as to how.
First day at CEF was the orientation. CEF rented a nice conference room at the American Tobacco Campus, and offered us a full-day “crash course” of CEF, which introduced CEF and its core programs, gave us detailed training on how to be a CEF advocate, and began planning some weekly projects.
I was a bit overwhelmed by all the information thrown to me, some of which I knew little of, such as the differences between banks and credit unions. As to the core programs, one of them would become the main part of our daily work- the “Member Advocates” program.
At the orientation, we were given some examples of what advocates do. In the past, advocates have helped members write a resume or a cover letter, apply for jobs, find housing, figure out future career path, deal with welfare programs, etc.
But after hearing all these examples, I was even more worried. I myself didn’t even know how to do some of those things. For example, if a member wants to attain a certain certificate, how should I distinguish among the dozens of ads of related training programs that would pop up at once on the Internet? How could I find the one that’s best for the member? I’ve never searched for housing in Durham, and so how could I find the best match for a member seeking help with housing? Thinking about all these, I was simply afraid that I wouldn’t have the extent of expertise that members tend to see in me as they walk into the office.
Now it’s been 6 weeks. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed working at CEF. Most of my worries proved to be unnecessary and it’s been a great experience of learning while helping members. It’s always been very rewarding to know that things that might’ve taken others much time and effort could now be done easily with my help. At non-profits like CEF, the accomplishments are always very real and tangible, in the sense that they could be seen directly.
CEF has also given me the chance to see issues I would’ve never thought about otherwise. I’ve been able to see the struggles people face, as well as how much they’re doing to improve their lives. It’s also been a great way to know Durham (outside Duke) in the most direct way.
Working at CEF, I’ve been given a lot of trust even on the first day of work. CEF is a great place where everyone feels useful and can actually contribute. I’ve been very lucky to co-work with a group of tightly knit and absolutely amazing people. CEF provides the friendliest environment to advocates as well as members, and I’ve received just as much help as I’ve been giving.
It’s crazy that my program here has come to an end and that I’m leaving this week. I’ll definitely miss everyone here!
Julius Alston has been working with CEF’s Chapel Hill office since February of this year, and is just weeks away from graduating the CEF Opportunity Class. Mike Wood teaches the Saturday class and helped Julius to connect with the literacy tutoring that he offers through Orange County Literacy Council (OCLC), helping Julius turn obstacle into opportunity. Please enjoy Julius’ poem, a tribute to Mike Wood and the work they are both doing through CEF and OCLC.
By: Julius Alston
Mr. Mike is a person
That some of you may know
But he’s not the same person
He was a long time ago
He’s looking towards the future now
And not his past
He now holds a pen
Instead of a glass
This I know and I’m the one to tell
Because he is the one that’s teaching me
To read, to write and to spell
He doesn’t brag about it
And he doesn’t boast
But the old Mike is history now
Little more than a ghost
When Mike get tired now
He can go to his home
Not like when he was at the shelter
Now he’s got a place of his own
So listen to Mr Mike now
And you can do it too
He’ll have you doing things
You never dreamed you could do
I got to go now
Back to Mr Mike’s class
Because I want to do more with my future
Than I did with my past
– By CEF Member Agyei Ekundayo (AJ)
I never knew what invisible illnesses were until 25 years after I needed to. No one in my family spoke openly about sickness or disease other than colds and flus. I always knew something was wrong with me, but couldn’t exactly put a finger on it. Kids at school said I was crazy and family members teased about what I later understood to be manic episodes. What’s really interesting is how my mother raised me while in denial about her own illness. Culturally speaking, African Americans turn a blind eye to mental health issues, surmising symptoms to be nothing more than attention seeking behavior. By the time I was 30, doctors diagnosed me with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder, in addition to ADHD. Unsurprisingly, my family still has yet to accept the truth about the illnesses they passed on to me or how multiple diagnosis, not character flaws, strain family relationships.
Two more diagnosis have been added to my medical profile since 2011 in addition to three more prescriptions. Day to day life is like an oil slicked hamster wheel. Some days I feel like I’m running to keep up with myself. Other days I feel like I’m moving in slow motion-drifting between side effects and a constant fog. My therapist tells me not to be so hard on myself. That persistent mental illness is just that, persistent. That sometimes when I think I’m no longer having episodes, I’m really just experiencing a long span of stable moods. I wish I could predict when my moods will tank or understood my triggers better. I also wish my ex- boyfriend was a non-factor and something stronger that liquor will make him go away. So, am I crazy? It depends how crazy is defined and whose opinion you ask. Let’s just say I was in the dark for a lot of years until a judge signed off on a check that the rest of my life is mandated to cash. That’s another story.
I will say that my overall health, although unpredictable, is as well as to be expected. I pop pills when I wake up and before I go to bed. Dr. Mac gives me a good reality check (and on again off again motherly advice) every Thursday. Gym visits are my new frenemy when I’m not binging and writing this stuff down until my wrists fall off manages to keep me sane. If I can offer any advice to those suffering with mental health issues or struggling to understand those for whom we care, it’s this. Know that mental illnesses are valid medical problems that require medical attention. They do not simply ”go away on its own in time”.
There are no quick fixes and tough love does more harm than good. Offer a listening ear from a non-judgmental stance and never feel afraid to ask for help-even if you can’t fully explain what you’re feeling.
BIG NEWS! And we hope you will join us to celebrate!
Chapel Hill Office
Housewarming & Fundraiser
When: Friday, May 29, 2015 5:00-7:00 PM
Where: At the new office, 108 W. Rosemary St, Chapel Hill, NC
Housewarming & Fundraiser
When: Friday, June 12, 2015 5:00-6:30 PM
Where: Public Square in front of 331 W. Main Street, Durham
Introducing the Durham Office!
Our sunny new Durham office is in the historic Snow Building on Main Street!
CEF has been working in Durham since 2011, meeting members directly at the partner shelters & transitional housing programs where they stay. While advocates & members will continue to meet there, we now have a consistent hub for members to remain connected to their CEF advocates & savings accounts after they move out of the shelter.
We are grateful for the warm welcome into our community’s spaces, and we look forward to welcoming you into ours.
Expanding & Improving the Chapel Hill Office!
Our new Chapel Hill location is not just a new office for CEF. It represents the launch of an exciting community partnership. With our expanded space, we will be co-locating services from partners who provide mental health services, supportive employment programs, recovery groups, housing support, and more – collaborating even more closely to ensure that members are connected to the support they need to make their goals a reality. Embedding the services of partner organizations within CEF’s programs enables our members to access these services in an environment they trust and in a holistic, streamlined manner.
And at long last, we have a Chapel Hill office that is handicap accessible. We were located at 133 ½ E. Franklin since 2011, in a quirky little spot up a flight of stairs that was often compared to Platform 9 ¾ from the Harry Potter series… in its fractional address, lack of a sign and its entry into a magical world. Now, while we get to keep the CEF magic, we are in a visible, handicap accessible spot!
Be a Part of this Big Moment in CEF History!
Here are several ways you can support CEF in this big move:
- Celebrate with us! Join us on May 29th in Chapel Hill and June 12th in Durham for ribbon-cutting celebrations at our new offices (Click the links for details!).
- Become a Sustainer by pledging a monthly gift to sustain transitions out of homelessness. Give $10, $25, $50, or any amount every month to make transformative change happen every day.
- Make a kick-off contribution by making a one-time gift to support this big move.
By: Maggie West
The UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity – one of the founding institutional partners of the Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) – is being threatened with closure by the UNC Board of Governors. This Center helped to launch CEF when it was barely even a dream, and beyond their support for CEF, has worked to combat the causes and effects of poverty in our state and to improve the circumstances of working people. This Center is now recommended for closure because of thinly veiled, politically motivated retribution for the vision and leadership of a center that won’t stay quiet in the face of blatant attacks on poor and working people from our current General Assembly.
The Poverty Center has provided invaluable support to CEF since we were founded in 2009, with staff acting as faculty advisors to UNC undergraduate volunteers as we were starting the organization, and since serving on our Board of Directors. Through their ongoing partnership with CEF, the Poverty Center has continued to empower undergraduate students at both UNC and Duke to engage meaningfully in addressing the issues of poverty in our local community. Through CEF student volunteers provide relationship-based support to individuals experiencing or at-risk of experiencing homelessness to assist towards achieving goals of gaining employment, securing housing, and building savings. The Poverty Center has acted as a source of teaching, research, and supportive service all throughout our development. Additionally during the past year, the Poverty Center extended their reach to provide direct legal assistance to CEF members, assisting ex-offenders to reenter the workforce.
However, I do not write today solely in my role with CEF. I write as a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Class of 2010, who was profoundly impacted on a personal level by the leadership, light, and unwavering commitment to public service of the Poverty Center. Forgive me, but the threat of closure to this center has found me waxing nostalgic about the many ways this center’s staff, research, and, yes, dare I say it… advocacy, has shaped me irreversibly.
I credit the Poverty Center with introducing me to the work of the North Carolina Fund, which under the leadership of Governor Terry Sanford and George Esser, and with activist-leaders from poor and minority communities all across the state, worked to address the crippling poverty facing NC in the 1970’s. In 2008, the Poverty Center helped facilitate documentary screenings and dialogues with former leaders of the NC Fund in partnership with the student organizationthat I led. The experience of listening to Ann Atwater, longtime community advocate in Durham and leader during the NC Fund, helped to form my understanding of the collective power of a community standing together in unity and across differences, and moreover, the endurance for change present in communities struggling for justice.
I credit the Poverty Center with introducing me to Rev. Dr. William Barber, when the center co-sponsored a keynote address by Rev. Barber in 2007 as a part of our organization’s annual Poverty Action Week. Eight years ago, his oratory shook me to my core and left me believing anew and faithfully in the possibilities and potential for opportunity for all people here in our state. Because of this faith, I’m still here, and again this past Saturday at HKonJ Reverend Barber reminded me why.
I credit the Poverty Center with introducing me to the devastating depth of the racial wealth disparity in North Carolina and the implications for building economic opportunities for all North Carolinians. The Center published critical research in 2010 analyzing and documenting in detail the level and nature of the racial wealth disparity in NC, as well as the causes of and strategies for addressing racial wealth inequality. This research, demonstrating that for every dollar in savings in a white household in NC, an African-American household held only six cents, was nothing short of a call to action for me.
I credit the Poverty Center with introducing me to the wide world of community development finance, stewarding a connection to leaders of Self-Help Credit Union in 2009. This connection completely transformed my understanding of the role of financial institutions and financial service providers in advancing economic opportunity and ownership for all people. As a result of this connection, CEF was able to launch our matched savings program, which has since enabled 298 homeless and near-homeless individuals to save over $300,000 towards personal savings goals.
And all of that was just while I was an undergraduate student – I won’t even get started on how their work has continued to shape me since I graduated.
As I reflect on the countless ways the Poverty Center has “serve[d] as a center for research, scholarship, and creativity” with “lux, libertas – light and liberty” in my own journey at Carolina, I can think of few centers that fit more closely with the mission of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, seeking “to improve our society and to help solve the world’s greatest problems.” And I suppose, that as I reflect further, that is exactly what the current members of the Board of Governors are taking issue with – a mission of education that seeks to bring light and liberty to the state of North Carolina, when the days of darkness and slavery were so much more profitable.
So when Jim Holmes from the Working Group of the Board of Governors says, “I struggle to see how the poverty center fits with the academic mission of the UNC law school to train the next generation of lawyers,” and I juxtapose my own experience as a student so deeply affected by the Poverty Center’s teachings, research, and service to the people of our state, I know that there is no mistaking the true motivation behind the board’s proposed action.
And so, it is with a heart full of gratitude that I say to the staff of the Poverty Center: You changed my life. And because of that, one of the worst fears of these members of the Board of Governors has come true: I’m properly educated, and I will never stop fighting.
Click here to see a slideshow of pictures from the CEF Holiday Party 2014!
Slideshow of pictures from the amazing party held on December 4, 2014 and co-hosted with Love Chapel Hill (major thanks for their sponsorship of the great food at the event!).
Thank you to all the members, advocates, partners, and friends who attended, and major kudos and congratulations to all of the CEF graduates who were recognized during the ceremony.