Author Archive | Stephanie Bui

Featured Partner: CTI and CEF


By: Barbara B. Smith, LCSW

Clinical Assistant Professor, UNC School of Social Work

In the fall of 2011, I was working with a woman who was homeless. In one of our sessions, she mentioned that some “college kids” had given her a laptop. Who were these college kids, I wondered? Over the next year, I was very pleased to learn about the Community Empowerment Fund and the great work being done in our local community.

I had a more formal introduction to Jon Young and Maggie West through the 100K Homes Task Force. In January 2012, I started participating on this group, and offered to provide mental health assessments to people who might need them through the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health. CEF advocates took me up on the offer, and brought in a woman they had been providing outreach to for a couple of years. They provided incredible support to her which allowed her to engage in treatment.  We created a team around one person, and helped her access housing through Shelter Plus Care, and to successfully navigate a disability claim. She now has an apartment and income.

In July 2012, Gary Cuddeback, a colleague at the School of Social Work, and I received a grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust to implement a pilot of critical time intervention (CTI). CTI is an intensive case management model that is designed for people with mental illness who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. We work hard to engage people in treatment, and to make sure there basic needs are met. Our CTI team depends on community partners for success, and CEF is a key partner. Many of the people we are working with in the CTI project had untreated mental illness. For those who need it, getting connected to mental health treatment can improve the chances of being successfully housed and employed.

At a time when our formal systems for supporting vulnerable people in our communities are faltering, our connection to CEF gives me hope. I’ve found energetic, committed, smart, and creative people who understand what it takes to help others change their lives: practical tools for financial empowerment, and social connection and support. I look forward to a long and mutually helpful partnership!


A Different Search: Succeeding in our Job Partners Program


If you would like to get involved with JobPartners as a participant or partner employer, please email us at


By Victoria Castillo

A job search can often be a difficult and tedious task. More difficult yet, is the search for the job– your dream job.   Whether you grew up dreaming of becoming an astronaut or a receptionist, your dream job is a treasure that most of us tend to take for granted. Some of us tend to believe that our dream job is simply out of reach. Whether it is due to a lack of education, the correct skill-set, self-confidence or a blemished record, we simply don’t try to go after our dream job.

The vicarious talk show host, Oprah Winfrey, once said, “The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams.” We at CEF believe that it is never too late to go after your dreams. It is never too late to go after that adventure.

Our Job Partners program aims to unearth the dusty and forgotten dream jobs that belong to some of our members, and create a path on which they can arrive to them.  Job Partners was created by the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness (OCPEH), “a community effort to fight poverty and eradicate homelessness in Orange County.” CEF is one of several organizations that partner with this county initiative to pair work-ready individuals with an available job in the community.

The Job Partner process begins with the community members serving as employer liaisons who network with local business owners to learn of available job positives and willing employers. Liaisons then refer job openings to the partner organizations, like CEF, who match qualified candidates with those positions. Our Job Partners graduates receive no preferential treatment from the employers. They fill out job applications and schedule interviews, just like everybody else. Their strength, however, is found in the personal recommendations that they receive on our behalf – a voice of support that lets the employers know that we truly believe that our candidate will succeed at their business.

The Job Partner Program motto reads, “Prepare, Place, Prosper,” and we at CEF believe that the program lives up to these three words. We prepare our candidates through job coaching sessions and Opportunity classes, we place them in positions in which we believe they will succeed and we carry the hope and faith that they will prosper in their new job position – in their new adventure.

Q&A with Job Partner Graduate Loretha Greene

When did you first start working on becoming a Job Partner candidate?

I began the process early in 2012.

Understanding that the program was a long term commitment, how did you remain motivated through the process of becoming a Job Partner graduate?

I was starting from scratch in my life. I saw a lot of opportunities in the program, like the Opportunity Classes, that I knew would help me, so I kept a positive attitude. I know that when you have a positive attitude, good things will happen, so that’s what I tried to do.

Were there difficult moments in the process?

The most difficult experience was simply not being able to find a job right away. But I kept going – every day, I filled out job applications and maintained a good attitude about it.

How did the Job Partner program differ from a regular job search?

I found more connections to local employers, through Job Partners. I felt that my job search became a little easier in that way. I would get to know more people in the community because the people involved in the program had a lot of connections. This helped me land more interviews, and though I did not get a job right away, I was able to meet a lot of people.

What was your biggest take away from Job Partners?

The desire and motivation to help other people who need work. Job Partners made me want to become an advocate myself and help other people.

I also learned to accept suggestions and act on them. My advocates would give me advice, and point out things that I had never noticed! I learned to take these suggestions and work on making those changes in my life.

What advice would you give to others who are unsure about joining Job Partners?

Just try it, and stick with it. Don’t give up, because it is an excellent program.


Featured Member: Amalfi


I remember the first time I met Amalfi.  It was a Saturday morning at Mike Wood’s opportunity class; Amalfi poured me a cup of coffee, pulled out a chair for me, and took a minute to introduce himself.  He was there to learn with everyone else, but it was his enthusiasm and participation in the class that made him memorable.

Amalfi is compassionate, determined, and creative, and it shows in how he carries himself.  Originally born in Cuba, he came to America in a raft with his brother and father when he was 23 years old.  He left his family, friends, and his nursing job in Cuba, and landed in Guantanamo Bay after a large missile carrier picked them up in the waters.  Since arriving in the States, Amalfi has moved to Chapel Hill where he is working towards becoming a nurse – his passion.

Amalfi first heard about CEF while staying at the shelter, and got involved right away with opportunity classes, CEF events, and our Safe Savings program.

He’s especially known around our office for making a paper mache sculpture for a CEF Art Walk event – an art piece that stood out because it was a melding of a woman’s body, a dinosaur limb, and an apple.   In all the chaos and crises that often lead people to come into our office, Amalfi has shown me what being a member of the CEF family can look like in spite of the other commotion.

A couple of days ago, Amalfi came into the office and I asked him a few questions to pick his brain:

What was your first impression of CEF?

I saw that it was a community that wanted to help people out.  I owe them a lot.

How was opportunity class? What did you get from it?

It was a really good experience, I learned a lot there.  I learned how to correct my resume, handle my money, and how to take opportunities in life.  I learned a lot from my classmates and the different cultures.

What kind of relationships have you built with CEF?

I’ve built close and compact relationships.  More than a relationship, I feel like a family member.

In what ways have you been able to give back to CEF or the CEF community?

I would like to give back more than I have received, so that way I can help with financial things or any type of work.  On Saturdays when I have to work, I come before class to set up the tables and make coffee.  Humanity is part of my personality, I like to set things up for others as a service.

Do you have any advice to future our current members?

I want to offer encouragement.  Just follow what CEF has arranged to help you out.  Don’t just take the food stamps and materials and leave, get into opportunity classes and get more involved with CEF.



3rd Annual Financial Independence Day


Signing the Declaration of Financial Independence


View the full Declaration of Financial Independence here!

By: Kate Leonard

On June 29th, CEF celebrated our third annual Financial Independence Day!  Not even the threat of rain prevented members and advocates from coming together and enjoying each other’s company.  Attendees munched on hot dogs, sweet tea, and cupcakes while listening to our multi-talented members sing their hearts out at a talent show.  As if anyone needed more entertainment than that, there were also giant bubbles (seriously giant) and sparklers, as well as the first of many raffles for CEF savers.  At the end of the evening everyone had a chance to sign the original Declaration of Financial Independence!  Thanks to all who attended and we hope you had as much fun as we did!

A big “thank you” to all our wonderful sponsors: Chick-fil-a, Buns, PTA Thrift Shop, Elmo’s Diner, and Harris Teeter.


Parker Palmer and Discussing Philosphy

By: Yuman Wang

philosophy time

CEF leadership philosophy encourages “meeting each other halfway” where members and advocates struggle side by side. As the boundary between members and advocates fade, personal matters become community issues. I realized that in the CEF community, leadership takes many forms, from the simplest gestures to dedicated efforts to help others get back on their feet.

 “If you can’t get around it, get into it…. Having relationships in which we protect each other’s aloneness” – Parker Palmer philosophy reading

In the office, we work on tangible, practical aspects such as job searching, housing and anything else members need. It seems that we seldom directly help members probe their inner selves. But realistically, helping someone self-reflect is difficult and quite honestly, daunting. However, there are definitely snippets of Palmer’s idea in action, whether through exchanges between advocates and members or conversations in opportunity class. Sometimes it can be as simple as listening to another’s inner thoughts or figuring out why someone’s life has been the way it is. Even solving problems side by side can be very healing to one’s inner self.

I found that most of these inner discoveries are coincidental and natural outcomes of conversations. Once, I was helping a member make a decision that seemed straightforward enough: choosing whether to attend a school or not. However, the conversation turned to inward reflection when we started to list pros and cons of going to the school. When I asked my member for some possibilities, he struggled to pinpoint them. I realized that he never really thought through the decision. As we progressed further in analyzing the decision, he started to slowly realize that he makes decisions in a fast and absolute fashion. As a result, compromises were often left out of the picture.

This discovery was a mutual effort and as unintentional as it was, I found it extremely rewarding to be someone’s companion in inner reflections. For once, the external world is not the focal point and the member can finally sit down with himself and have a conversation. I realized that to protect this “aloneness”, I could not tell someone who he is or what he should do, but I can be there step by step, asking questions that may lead to self-reflection.

There was one line in Palmer’s reading that struck me as a very fitting description of CEF: “the community we share beneath the broken surface of our lives”. Many, if not all members have suffered tremendous trauma, but to gather in a small space to share stories and take steps toward recovery is a powerful communal healing process. As Palmer has stated, this community is the result of overcoming darkness and our care for one and another.

Of course, it’s not an easy feat, considering the danger of projecting shadows rather than light upon others. Projecting light is not challenging because it is a difficult concept but rather that it takes time and solidified trust between individuals. If I am not mindful of these aspects, I may fall into the path of “setting someone straight”. A better approach may be pausing for pockets of casual conversation during meetings with members, even if they seem irrelevant. Though it’s inevitable that I will project shadows from time to time, I want to leave a little room for mutual understanding and story-sharing. After all, those are the moments we remember and connect to the most.


Learning Community Through CEF

By: Audrey Boyles

When I entered college, I was determined to become a travelling doctor. I thought I would never settle down, that I would have a nomadic life and that my friends from home would play, “Where in the world is Audrey now?” The idea was very romantic to me (just think of the souvenirs!).

Four years later, I find myself bawling my eyes out at the CEF Graduation ceremony, never wanting to leave the beautiful community of which I have become a member. During the past four years, I have learned what community means to me through CEF. Learning the meaning of community has unexpectedly shaped my post-grad decisions, the relationships I have with my family, friends, and neighbors and even the context of how I see myself.

When I look back over the past four years, some of the happiest memories that come to mind include HOPE Gardens potlucks, having bratwurst and talking about CEF’s future at Milltown, going to see “It’s a Wonderful Life” with CEF-ers at Christmastime and … of course, wobbling at most community events (what would a community event be without the Wobble?).  I come away from these events feeling hopeful and thinking, “now this is what it’s all about.”

A little over a month ago, I was in a car accident and sustained relatively serious injuries to my face and neck. This past month has been a bit of a strange and scary time for me, but there are many silver linings, including experiencing my community showing me a whole lotta love. This is not something I could have gotten through alone and I am extremely fortunate that I have not had the chance to try and take it on alone.

When I woke up in the Emergency Department, my bed was surrounded by my family and beautiful friends made at CEF (also considered family!). I have received countless visits, cards, phone calls, texts, and emails from members of the CEF community and beyond… old babysitters, neighbors, past school teachers, high school friends, parents of friends and friends of friends. It has truly been amazing to receive an outpouring of support from the people I have had the very good fortune of meeting over the past 21 years.

Writing does not come easy to me, so I will stray away from defining community or trying to articulate exactly what it means to me. But what I can say is that I don’t know where I would be without it (read: I don’t know where I would be without you all!). While I hope some traveling here and there is in my future, I don’t believe the nomadic lifestyle is for me (nor is medical school for me! I’m very proud to have graduated in nursing). A beloved community is what I’m here for.


How It Works – "Enlightened Self Interest"

mike wood pic

How It Works is a monthly column by our very own (Member, Alumnus, BBQ Master, CEF Opportunity Class Teacher, Sage of Sayings) Mike Wood.

If we were to poll all the members of CEF as to what they feel the key to their becoming more self reliant, the number one answer would almost certainly be that they need more income. While this is a good answer and one that I do not necessarily disagree with, there are other aspects of our strategy going forward that we would all do well to consider.

If I were asked to characterize the life I led prior to my association with CEF I would have to acknowledge that my most conspicuous defect was that I was so completely self obsessed. The drugs and alcohol that would eventually bring me down with a resounding thud were merely a symptom of a life consumed by ceaseless self-interest. I wanted what I wanted when I wanted it and cared not a wit as to who it might harm.

When the consequences of my self-absorbed behavior resulted in rehab, prisons and eventually homelessness, there was but one thing that I knew for certain. What I was doing was definitely not working. While some might consider it to be counter-intuitive, I came to believe that it was in my own self interest to try to help others. As the song goes, “when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.” With this realization I became willing to change.

Believe me I did not wake up one morning and decide that I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Gandhi or Mother Teresa. But through my association with the people at CEF and other volunteers there at the shelter I could observe that their lives seemed to be going a lot better than my own.

I knew that when the only person in my world that mattered was me, the results could only be characterized as tragic. I was determined to change that trajectory. Now it didn’t happen all of a sudden and my life not unlike the rest of us remains a work in progress. But what I am most grateful for is the opportunity I have been given by CEF to try to make a difference in the lives of others and that gratitude has turned to optimism and that optimism to achievement.

The transition to a more meaningful life is never an event, it is a process and part of that process for me is trying to be of service to others. By living a more selfless lifestyle the results have been fabulous. Not to say that I am this heroic figure or anything but compared to the hell I came here from and with all things considered, my life is pretty cool. As one of my favorite humans, Muhammad Ali once said; “Service to others is the rent we pay for our room here on earth.”

Money is good stuff and there is no shame in aspiring to get more of it. But I would encourage anyone wishing to carve out a more meaningful life to consider how they might help others to do the same. Don’t waltz through the door of opportunity only to slam it shut behind you. You would likely end up in a room full of meaningless things that don’t work the way you had hoped they would.


CEF: Community Empowerment Fund

Chapel Hill: 919-200-0233 Durham: 919-797-9233