“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.”
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.
🐖One giant pig. One million dollars saved.💰
Thank you so much to everyone who came out to the Piggy Bank Bash to celebrate CEF Members’ amazing accomplishment last night. We’re proud to be part of such an amazingly supportive community and extremely thankful for all of the warmth and encouragement shared and received last night. We’re also filled with gratitude at the generosity of Grub, who generously hosted and fed us all for free, and all of our West End neighbors and friends, who pitched in with raffle prizes ( Pauli Murray Project, The Cookery, and Steel String ) and supplying a sound system (the Durham Co-op Market 🎤).
Partners from Families Moving Forward, Self-Help, Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, Vimala’s Curryblossom Café also came out and shared their support in full force! If you want to continue partying it up with CEF this year, we hope to see you at Steel String on Wed, November 14 at CEF’s Night Out at Steel String
“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.”
Romeo, Romeo! Ms. Laverne adores her Romeo
She showers him daily with belly rubs and bacon bits. “If you rub his belly, he’ll go to sleep,” Ms. Laverne intimates. And Romeo has stuck with Ms. Laverne through thick and thin, including the years when they were sleeping in her car, and in and out of hotels or friends’ homes. “Romeo would let me sleep, and when I woke up, he’d sleep. We would both watch out for each other.”
The day they first saw their new home, Romeo raced up and down the long hallway with barks of approval.
Ever since she moved into the new apartment this past June, Ms. Laverne has been relishing the daily things: “Opening the door is a blessing. Closing the door is a blessing. Laying in my bed is a blessing. Cooking. Decorating a house. It’s just a blessing not wondering where your next step is going to be.”
Even through homelessness, Ms. Laverne never stopped fighting for what is right for herself and others. She worked with CEF and her support networks to find her stable home! Photo collages of beloved family members adorn the walls of the living room and hallway, side-by-side with school photos of her children and grandchildren, their ribbons and certificates of achievement, baptismal certificates, Bible verses, and a poem written to her by her son. Her home is filled with the people she honors and loves, making space for memory and hope for loved ones who have passed on or are locked away.
Ms. Laverne’s favorite room is the bathroom. It’s large and luxurious-feeling, with a floral shower curtain and plush towels folded in neat stacks. “I came a long way from going around and taking bird baths.”
How Ms. Laverne Found Her Home
Ms. Laverne connected with CEF when she came to a public meeting of the Homeless Services Advisory Council in Durham to advocate for her needs as an individual experiencing homelessness — bearing witness to her own experience and the experiences of so many others, while making a prophetic call to action.
After 9 years of faithfully paying rent on time, Ms. Laverne had been evicted after a dispute with her landlord. For two whole years, Ms. Laverne and Romeo navigated homelessness together — finding food and safe places to sleep, taking “bird baths” in public restrooms, and struggling to find a healthy, non-abusive place to recover from back surgery in the midst of this experience.
“I’ve never been homeless before. This is my first time,” she shares. “I didn’t give up on myself. More people did me wrong, I kept pushing myself. More people lie on me, I kept defending myself. I’m not a bad person, I’m a good person. I live for God, and I like helping people.”
At that public meeting, CEF and Ms. Laverne connected and have stuck together ever since. She connected with staff at the Durham Housing Authority at that same meeting, and worked through the process to secure a permanently affordable apartment with DHA. With CEF, she connected to legal services and addressed credit issues that were preventing her from securing housing. She also got a job at Harris Teeter, where her co-workers have been a wonderful community of support. She gives a special shout-out to all of these groups, and Angela Holmes (Chair of the Homeless Services Advisory Council) for helping with her transition into housing.
About CEF, Ms. Laverne shares, “[CEF] made sure I was okay, and we started working on everything.”
“[CEF] don’t do the talk, they do the walk. And since I’ve been coming here, all I see is friendly faces glad to help you. [They] ask you, ‘What do you want?’ and take everything you say to the heart. And they love my dog.” (Indeed, Romeo charms the entire office when he comes in with Ms. Laverne.)
What’s Next for Ms. Laverne?
Ms. Laverne has new goals to share with CEF. “I’m going to take computer classes, to get a laptop, so that when I go to school I can have it… I want to get my GED.”
She hopes to eventually use it in support and advocacy of other people who are experiencing homelessness. Even while she slept in her car and struggled with issues of discrimination, Laverne never stopped fighting for what is right and helping others. “When I was homeless, I helped homeless people. I paid for a hotel room for a family. So, though I was down and out, I still helped, and I didn’t ask for nothing back in return. I just told them, ‘Do it for the next person.’”
Ms. Laverne dreams of managing her own shelter one day. “I wish I had money to build a place. This would be my shelter: a lot of flowers. A lot of love. Respect. Trust. And a church inside my shelter.” In a way, she has already built this sanctuary space inside her home.
“Six months ago, I was a person that lived in the trees. When [Hurricane] Matthew was running, and you were home safe, I was in the trees. Thinking about if they fell on me, would anyone find me? I was in the trees. I was in the trees because I could no longer afford housing in this city that I had lived for 6 years. I had an income. I was homeless, but not hopeless. I only wanted to trade trees for keys.”
Now, from her new, affordable apartment, Chinita is still surrounded by the trees, but she has keys. She remarks in bursts of joy to see the chipmunks scurry past her window, to see nature as her neighbor, but not her shelter.
Chinita grew up in Greensboro, and received degrees in Journalism and Education from NC A&T University. She built a career based on service and a love of people, working as a teacher and as a Hospice caregiver, and even for several years as a publicist and media sales.
In 2010 Chinita relocated to Chapel Hill to be closer to her doctors, and shares, “I had been living in the same place since I came to Chapel Hill — for six years. It wasn’t the best place, but it was home, it was comfortable, it was safe.” Each year, Chinita says, “I would go through the annual time to renew your lease and it’s nothing abnormal, normally it’s anywhere from $20 – $25 more but nothing shocking. Last year was shocking.”
Last year, her rent went up from $680 per month to $2,110 at her lease renewal. More than triple. This was more than she could possibly afford, and forced her to seek new housing with short notice. She moved into her housing of last resort: her Jeep.
“In this city, I found trees that would cover me, that would protect me, so that I could be close to my doctor.” The social worker at her doctor’s office actually first referred her to CEF.
Chinita describes using a fan plugged into her car lighter as her source of cooling down in 100 degree summer weather. She describes meeting the “golden warriors” of the Meals on Wheels team that delivered her daily meal to her in a parking lot. And she describes coming to CEF each week during the two months of her homelessness to find the resources to move back into a safe home.
About her work with CEF Advocates, Chinita shares “Every element that I’ve needed them to assist me – glasses, legal services, housing, food…I think they look at the whole person, and their whole needs, and if they don’t have an answer, they have a wealth of resources.”
“When you go to other services you feel like you’re given a band-aid. But the difference is with CEF it’s more of a healing process.”
For Chinita, this meant staying connected to CEF while finding an apartment she could afford, and eventually signing a lease with a senior housing community where she can sustain her housing for the long-term.
“I appreciate you being here at my lowest point, but I’m more appreciative of helping me find the resources that I can hold my head up again, and hope again. I don’t think there’s anything more grateful than feeling like you’ve got someone’s hand that’s holding you through the storm, and that’s what CEF has been for me… They have been the anchor in my life.”
To listen to Chinita speak is to listen to the voice of a poet, whose first love and first refuge was found in words – the world of words a place of connection and relief ever since she was a young girl. To listen to Chinita speak is to hear the “caged bird” sing, to quote a sentiment she references often, as you hear in her lyricism and in her powerful voice the influences of Dr. Maya Angelou (or “Mother Maya,” as Chinita lovingly calls her).
And Chinita is sharing the gifts of her inspirational speaking and her love of stories with the CEF community. Chinita now volunteers to lead CEF’s new member orientation sessions every week, to help others gain the financial stability she has found and to be the first person to welcome people into the community she loves. She shares, that for her, “The faith is restored, the hope is restored, the homes are obtained, the jobs are obtained, the glasses are obtained. I feel better about me. About life. I feel so great about it that I want to tell everybody about it. And I enjoy being orientation coordinator working with our new members in orientation, because they get to see Chinita over and over again. And I get to see individuals who come and they look like there’s no hope, but I get to tell them that there is.”
Chinita encourages you to join her in supporting and being a part of CEF. “When you can be with an organization that pulls out dreams that you’ve never even considered, that’s priceless.”
“It’s tax deductible, but it’s priceless too. I think that all of our givers should know that giving to CEF is not just putting band-aids… I want to say my spine and my neck is up higher, and I feel more confident and my faith is restored, and not only can I make it, but I can be a hand for someone else.”
CEF matched savings accounts support Members in reaching goals all along the continuum from homelessness to homeownership! We launched a new program in 2016 to support first-time homebuyers with Reinvestment Partners and the Duke Homebuyers Club.
Paige was one of the first 5 CEF Members to successfully purchase their own home! Paige worked incredibly hard and with amazing focus to reach her goal in just ten months. In addition to her full-time job at Duke, she worked extra jobs in order to stay on track with her financial goals. She participated in CEF’s Financial Coaching program and was able to pay off debts and improve her credit score, qualifying her for an affordable mortgage. Meanwhile, she successfully saved for her down payment and closing costs, receiving a dollar-for-dollar match from CEF!
Paige is proud to be a homeowner. Some of the best parts? Her mortgage payment is actually cheaper than her rent payments were, and she is building an asset for the long term!
Antonio tells a story like no other, weaving in about four other stories on the way to telling the one he started with. The son of a teacher and a veteran, he loves history and has a passion for helping his community.
Antonio came to Chapel Hill after losing his job in Kinston. He moved into the IFC shelter and quickly connected with CEF through two other residents. A chronic health condition prevents him from working full-time, so Antonio’s Advocates helped him navigate the application for disability benefits while also supporting his search for part-time employment.
His benefit application was approved! Next, Advocates connected him with Caramore, a supportive employment and housing program where he now works and lives. “Y’all helped me to save money. Y’all helped me acquire affordable living.”
Antonio loves music and grew up playing by ear on his aunt’s antique piano. He was one of the first to join the CEF Advocacy Choir, sharing, “I think being a part of CEF is a way of showing that you want to make a difference in your community.”
CEF Members reached an exciting milestone earlier this month, saving a combined total of over $800,000! CEF’s Safe Savings Accounts started in 2010 (origin story in our TED Talk), and today Members save for an amazing range of goals, including housing deposits to move out of homelessness, emergency funds to sustain housing, and even to purchase their own homes!
Growing up and Getting Started
No Matter What. That is what the bracelet on Earl’s wrist reads. Earl has been sober for 15 months and counting but his memories are fresh from when that was not the case. Earl has been meeting with his Advocate Steven in the Chapel Hill office, pursuing savings and securing employment alongside a 12-step recovery program.
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Earl grew up in a large family. “My mother and father had 12 kids, my father was a hardworking man… I’ve seen a lot of things in a young stage that’ve helped me become the person I am today…There was a lot of love,” shares Earl, but “I grew up in an unstable home.” Earl recalls how certain things shaped his relationship with finances. “Where I’m from it wasn’t just about savings, it was about trying to survive… my father never had a bank account, never wrote checks so my mother didn’t either.
When Earl first came to CEF in March of 2016, he was skeptical. “You know, I wasn’t sure about what, you know, I could get from CEF. But I found a lot of students from UNC—they really care about the community. They volunteer their work. I know that when people volunteer their work, they’re here for a purpose… I remember my first day at orientation, it started right then and there. There was so much that they offered me to do. They put the guidelines for what I can and can’t do but it was up to me as an individual to follow those guidelines. It was like being in school, if you don’t do the assignment, what’s the good of being in class. “
Finding Work and Financial Stability
At CEF, his consistent Advocate meetings manifested into a successful job search where Earl secured full-time employment at the Carolina Ale House. “The job search it was an experience, most of the jobs I had were daily paid labor. I understood I didn’t want that type of job anymore”. Although the restaurant recently closed, he feels more prepared now for the job search than he did before. “We’re not finished yet. We’re looking for a job. But now I know how to approach it. He’s (Steven’s) already setting the guidelines for me, he’s already helping me prepare for tomorrow… That’s what I learned from CEF. Preparing myself for the future.”
Earl also spends his meetings with Steven working on finances, which includes disputing debts and created payment and budget plans. By making consistent savings deposits, Earl has saved just shy of $4,000. “I came by Tuesday and put $500 in my savings because I know it’s the right thing to do. I love the idea, I really do, of having a savings account.” Earl also opened a bank account at Coastal Federal Credit Union to build even more savings and have access to a checking account! “Now, I go to a bank and they know my name. ‘Hey Earl, how you doing Earl?’ Even when I’m not there to cash a check I still go in there, talk my banker, talk about ball, talk about how my life is going.” Earl told us that his banker even offered to be a reference for prospective employers, “she sees something in me that I didn’t see when I first started to open my bank account.”
It’s About Relationships and Family
Earl is paired with Steven but that does not stop him from building connections with other CEF Advocates. “I gave a couple of advocates some names like ‘Sarah Salad,’ ‘Sarah Hotdog,’ ‘Chocolate Ice Cream’, you know, because that’s the kind of bond I built with them.”
Earl only has words of praise for Steven. “It’s all about the relationship that I built with Steven has helped me focus on things in life that I know I am able to achieve…he always has great things to share with me. He always gives me that positive motivation.” More than anything, Earl believes the key to success is partnership. “I don’t want a handout. Just give me a hand… Show me, guide me, pull me along the way. Just give me that, “you can do it.” That is the hand I need.”
So what exactly is Earl saving for? Family. “I have 3 sons, 3 grandsons and we have never all been together at one time…We’ve never been together. Every day I get a little older. We’ll get together and play a game of basketball…That’s one of the reasons I’m trying to save some money too. One day man, one father’s day man, there’ll be that love, that unity.”