“We are overwhelmingly grateful for the opportunity to grow with the over 1,000 Members and 250 Advocates who show up every day to care for each other. It encourages us to learn from and lean on one another as we move forward together. Thank you for believing in this community of boundless support as we grow towards the abundant possibilities we have before us.”
Regina and her four kids’ lives changed rapidly with the onset of company layoffs, a serious illness, divorce, and loss of their home. Previously, she had built a stable career in military and corporate life. “Don’t ever think that you can’t ever be sitting in the bottom,” she shares.
Regina first met JV, her CEF Advocate, while she was saying at Families Moving Forward, an emergency shelter for families in Durham. Each meeting, she worked on new goals, from building savings and credit to pursuing housing stability and professional growth. “While I connected with CEF, I was also able to take time not only letting my body heal, but letting my family heal. And through that, I gained a career that I love to death — or love to life!”
Now, 1.5 years after joining CEF, Regina has rebuilt a professional life that is driven by passion. After earning certifications in wellness and recovery, she is now an independent recovery coach. She regularly connects her clients with CEF. “I’m a huge advocate! It’s like family … [And] a good connection for whatever you want to grow and be in life.”
Having found stability, Regina is finding ways to weave her success with that of her community’s, by creating job opportunities and leading community change. She founded a successful cleaning business that is dedicated to hiring single parents and people with conviction histories and substance abuse histories. “We’re fighting the same fight,” she shares of the company’s 4 employees.
She also serves on the Board of Recovery Communities of Durham, volunteers as a youth mentor, and advocates for mental health policy and equitable wages. “It’s good to be a part of that change.”
In their home in Chapel Hill, Mussasa and Denise share pictures of family members and loved ones, many of whom are strewn across the globe by war. Their son Joshua looks over his mother’s shoulder at the pictures, saying, “This is sad. Oh my gosh, I miss it.”
Mussasa and Denise are both from Congo, and met in Burundi while both were fleeing war in their home country. It was 1996 and they were in their early twenties. As war continued, they moved to South Africa as refugees, where they were married and lived for 14 years. For a long time, they held out hope that they would be able to return to the Congo.
Across borders and amidst isolating, uprooting experiences of leaving family and home, Denise and Mussasa have restarted their lives again and again in the pursuit of a safe, stable home for their family. Denise has begun and built a number of careers, including law in Congo, business management in Burundi, and adult education in South Africa. Mussasa is an incredibly skilled welder, working in welding in every country they have lived, even teaching welding and skilled trades to unemployed youth in Capetown.
In 2016, after 20 years away from their homes and feeling that there was little chance they would ever be able to move back to the Congo, they made the bold decision to move to Durham, North Carolina.
Denise shares, “When we got here we didn’t know where to start, and transportation was a big problem.” With their busy schedules juggling work, school, and family, relying on public transit was significantly limiting their opportunities.
They heard about CEF from a friend and started saving in CEF’s matched savings accounts for a vehicle while working with Advocates to find better-paying jobs.
Denise reflects on what it means that they trust CEF with their personal savings, sharing that, “Being Congolese, it’s a bit difficult because… In 1994, they changed the currency in Congo and the banks just decided to say, ‘Well, you don’t have any money anymore!’ So all we had worked for, just gone back then.”
Despite these experiences with banks abroad, they trusted CEF because of the testimonies of friends, and because of the “emotional connection.” Denise says, “For example, when we got here, everything was too much, and then you get someone to have your hand and say, ‘we can work on goals that you have. We can address certain concerns that you have. Let’s do this one, then the next one, and the next one.’ There’s an emotional connection.”
After saving for several months and working with Advocates to get insurance and licenses, they reached their goal and were preparing to buy a car. Right at that moment, one of CEF’s campus partners surprised the family with a donated vehicle! Professor Jim Kitchen’s entrepreneurship class at Kenan-Flagler raised thousands of dollars through their own micro-enterprises in order to purchase a vehicle for the family.
“And when you get a car, it changes your life,” Denise shares. “Suddenly, [Mussasa] could come back home early, and could plan around getting the children from school on time… That is not just a car. It’s that kind of a connection that you’ve got with a place or a person.”
Meanwhile, both Denise and Mussasa have made incredible progress towards better jobs. Denise is now working as a C.N.A. and studying nursing to build a new career here, while Mussasa is working overnight as a welder at AKG and attending English classes during the day.
Here in the U.S., sadly they have still had to worry for the safety of their family. One of their sons struggled with bullying at his first school, which prompted Denise and Mussasa to work with their Advocates to find a new place to live in a different school district. Their son is much happier in this school, and they are hoping to “settle down” now.
Looking forward, their big goal is to own a home. Denise says, “I believe it’s better to work toward your own house than renting someone else’s house.” Because of their refugee status, “That is something we could not do in South Africa,” which will make this achievement even more monumental for their family.
What will your role be at CEF?
My fellowship at CEF will focus on workforce development and employment in the Chapel Hill Office. A job is a source of income, stability, and security, but it can also be a source of dignity and purpose. We know that an employment search depends on more than a resume — it depends on criminal histories, credit, transportation, and housing — and so my work will touch on these issues as well. I will also lead convenings of service providers, local governments, and employers in the county, working to connect organizations, share data, and create spaces for advocacy.
What strengths and perspectives do you bring to CEF?
I studied Public Policy and Economics at Duke, and hope to combine a racial-equity lens with my training in policy and socioeconomic determinants of life outcomes. I’ve also spent time working on access to HIV/AIDS treatment in South Africa, social policy research at the Brookings Institution, and government/non-profit partnerships in low-country South Carolina. After graduation, I worked at the NC Department of Justice, focusing on predatory loan practices, the opioid epidemic, and sex trafficking, and then spent time at a consulting firm in Washington, DC. I’m new to CEF and know that I have lots to learn; but I am surrounded by members, staff, and volunteers who are brilliant and compassionate teachers, and I hope to draw from their wisdom as I find my grounding in this new work.
What led you to this work at CEF?
What struck me about CEF was not only its effectiveness, but its unique relationship-based approach to service. Relationships make CEF work, and that’s the kind of organization I wanted to join. CEF is also uniquely positioned in anti-poverty work: we really do see everything. There’s no better way to do this work than at the ground level – in the trenches with members every day — there’s also no better way to learn. I’m incredibly fortunate that my role lets me be creative – designing new systems, building community partnerships, and testing new ideas. Our Members bring incredible ability and potential, and I’m lucky to work alongside them to realize their goals.
Where do you find energy for your work at CEF?
I find energy every day in our team – Jon, Sarah, Diiv, Leah, Yvette. I also get a lot of energy from Members. Our wins are shared together as a team, and the victories are deeply energizing. Sometimes those wins are big, like finding a job or a home. Sometimes they’re small, like finishing a resume or securing an expunction. When the caffeine wears off, it’s sharing these moments with the CEF community that keeps me going.
Where do you expect to find challenges in your work?
Barriers to finding employment are real and substantial. At times, I feel frustrated. I can’t always convince an employer to hire someone with a criminal history or find a simple way to make a living for a highly qualified senior. I can’t fix every problem. The work is high stakes, and so it can be emotionally draining. But CEF’s approach offers an answer for this challenge: it is trauma-informed, relationship-based, and supportive of self-care. It seeks to build on strengths, not dwell on challenges. We have fantastic community partners and resilient Members, and with that, there will always be a path forward.
Anything else you’d like us to know?
IF YOU ARE AN EMPLOYER, contact me! (firstname.lastname@example.org) Let’s talk about who from CEF would be a good candidate. It takes partners on all sides to do this work, so join us.
“When you are with CEF, you are a part of the thread that makes us all one community.” Chinita is a CEF graduate, and her poetic statement during a CEF celebration perfectly describes the palpable connectivity in this community.
Whether we’re weaving together programs and resources to form a holistic network of support, or connecting our Members and Advocates together in people-centered relationships, CEF is steadily crafting a beautiful, interconnected, and interwoven community.”
What inspires you?
What inspires me to work for CEF is when I complete a task with someone. It does not matter whether it is a large or small task that helps the person. When that person says to me, that I made a difference for them—their direct feedback and their energized eye-to-eye contact beaming back at me are what inspire me. There is a wide array of diverse people, from all walks of Chapel Hill who visit our office. Just because I am able to help write or re-construct a person’s resume in a new and refreshing way—I see that person before my eyes become energized and ready to seek employment.
What projects are you excited about right now?
I’m working to modify present systems already in place at CEF to support members looking for employment. My goal is to help people to easily access and navigate employment opportunities in Chapel Hill. Sometimes, there are not that many options out there for a lot of our Members. We are trying to make employment opportunities more connected, and build more relationship with businesses that see the value in employing CEF Members!
Why is connecting with people important?
I think connecting with people is important because you need people in order to make things work. CEF—as I’ve learned—has a pretty cool model in terms of how we help and support people who are struggling with different issues. It’s like being able to take your individual support and be a part of a collective—in a larger community context. The difference is that as a collective, CEF can reach into so many different directions; homelessness, families looking for services, hunger, employment and all kinds of things. It’s a “one-stop-shop” in many ways—one organization that can help many types of people.
Tell us about your background!
I have a two-year training certificate in fund development from the University of San Francisco, a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from JFK University (New College of California), and a Master’s in Social Work from North Carolina Central University. I presently work at Central as a Clinical Adjunct/Field Faculty Liaison in the social work department.
What has been your greatest challenge working here?
The greatest challenge working here is not being able to help the people with issues that are so much larger than I could ever figure out. There’s a lot CEF does to help people, but then there are people whose issues are large and difficult to get handled in a short period of time.