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Member Story: Pee-Wee

Re: Lease Renewal — “Dear Nathaniel, It’s been a pleasure having you as a tenant and we would like to thank you for choosing to renew your lease.”

Wow. It is hard to describe how much this one little sentence means. For Nathaniel, or “Pee-Wee” as he has been known by friends and family since birth, this letter from his landlord represents the rst time throughout over a decade of homelessness that he has called a place home for a whole year — much less two!

Pee-Wee is 72 years old, has lived in Chapel Hill his whole life, and was a skilled brick mason for decades — building dozens of the buildings we see to this day. After su ering a stroke in 1995, he lost his ability to walk and speak temporarily, and his acute motor control — leaving him unable to practice his trade. Through rehabilitation he regained the strength to walk and the ability to speak, but the loss of acute control was permanent and he retired due to this disability. After losing steady income, he could not a ord a home in Orange County and was homeless on and o for over a decade — sleeping in the woods for much of this period, and staying at the shelter for the nal two years.

He worked diligently with CEF while in the shelter to save his retirement income, and was able to build up a nest egg of $3,000 towards his move. Because of this preparation, when he and his Advocate nally

— after months of searching — found an a ordable studio apartment posted online, he was able to jump on the opportunity. He paid the security deposit and signed the lease the exact same day, bought furni- ture, and was all moved in by the end of the week!

Since his move-in, Pee-Wee has continued to budget and save with CEF, using his CEF savings

account to make sure he always sets aside enough of his xed income for rent and utilities. “I’ll put it like this: My feet was in the dirt. Now my feet is not in the dirt. I’m on my way up, and the good Lord willing I’m going to keep going up. My sister I hadn’t seen in about 3 or 4 years, she said, ‘I’m so proud of you! You doing good, you doing good.’”

His two sisters, from whom he was previously estranged, surprised him on his birthday this year and rented a great big room at Golden Corral, with 25 members of his family and friends. “And next thing I knew, all these people I knew… I was eating steak and a piece of chicken. I had to put it down, because I was so much in joy, I hadn’t been with them in years. I didn’t want to cry in front of all of them, but I got tears in my eyes.”

“You know what they used to call me? The mayor of Franklin Street.” To this day, judges, business owners, and all kinds of folks greet Pee-Wee every day, whether he’s having co ee at Sutton’s or sweeping up outside one of the businesses. They are greeted in turn with his ready full-toothed smile and snarky sense of humor. Looking around his apartment, you can see this community of support represented in every beloved object, as he calls by name each person who was so excited to see him in housing. The co ee-pot given by a lawyer, the throw rug given collectively by the police department, the microwave given by a UNC employee… this is a true home.

We are proud of Pee-Wee, too, and proud to have this honorary Mayor’s stamp of approval:

“If you want help, go to CEF. If you need anything go to CEF.”

“I’ll put it like this: My feet was in the dirt. Now my feet is not in the dirt. I’m on my way up, and the good Lord willing I’m going to keep going up. My sister I hadn’t seen in about three or four years, she said, ‘I’m so proud of you! You doing good, you doing good!’”


Member Story: Sue and Howell

Spend as little as five minutes with Sue and her son Howell Brown III and be prepared to fall immediately and deeply in love. Little Howell, with a thick Appalachian accent and black cowboy hat covering his head, talks in that lively way that only a 12-year old boy can about the RC cars that he races at Northgate Mall and his service dog Bo. He is the epitome of exuberance. He is one of those rare people you feel blessed to meet, who breathes in the same air as the rest of us, but then manages to breathe out pure joy.

Sue and Little Howell came to Durham when Howell was diagnosed with a brain tumor. They left everything behind at their home in Asheville, and were sleeping in hospital waiting rooms at first. Howell shares, “When I got diagnosed, we had to leave right away – no messing around.” After relocating to Durham, Howell and Sue were very fortunately connected with the Ronald McDonald House to live while Howell received his first year of chemotherapy and treatment.

During this time of upheaval and crisis, Sue ran into financial troubles. Howell’s oncologist encouraged Sue to “put everything on hold” while taking care of Howell through his treatment, meaning that Sue has been unable to work consistently. To help with bills, she took out a payday loan, not knowing the neverending debt trap the loan would lead to. Since then, Sue has received numerous threatening collections calls – and paid back her loans with exorbitant interest – all the while navigating the complicated health system and making sure Howell was receiving all the care that he needed.

Sue has been an amazing advocate for her son throughout his treatment – seeking out resources within the hospital and within the community that could support her son’s well-being as well as their future as a family. She learned about CEF when attending a resource panel offered by another local organization, and jumped at the opportunity to work with CEF to get her finances back in order.

Sue and Howell truly joined CEF as a family. Sue and Howell worked with their advocates to strive through their financial crisis as Sue focused on her son’s healing and treatment. Of CEF, Sue shares, “They’re helping me find hope by getting my financial security back… Before, we were struggling so much, and now I feel like I am breathing again.”

With CEF, Sue has opened a new account at Self-Help Credit Union, allowing her a fresh start with banking, and she is also working towards a personal savings goal through CEF’s Safe Savings Account. She has also connected to many local resources, filed back taxes, and better understood her credit situation. Her Advocates also help to investigate when she suspects she is receiving phone calls and emails that are financial scams. With her tireless CEF Advocates, “I can reach my goals,” says Sue.

And Sue has made this progress and tackled these issues concurrently and alongside traveling back and forth to Florida for special treatments for Little Howell, countless appointments at Duke Hospital, and dealing with news that is sometimes good and sometimes not what they hoped to hear. What’s more, going above and beyond super-mom status, she has found ways to give Little Howell the opportunity to be the exuberant, joyous, full-of-life child that he is, approaching a glimmer of normalcy, by doing everything from racing RC cars to attending Duke football games through the Ronald McDonald House.

Sue and Little Howell have been a joy to work with in CEF, and we are delighted to share a little bit about their journey here. As they reflect on their time with CEF, Little Howell shares, “I just hope we can do something for them some day, they’ve really helped us out a lot.” We hope he knows that they already have.



Meet Anthony: “CEF All-Star”


(Anthony sporting his CEF “People Helping People” hat in front of his new home!)

Anthony raised four boys as a single father – two his sons and two of his sons’ friends who he raised as his own. He was an All-American football star at Chapel Hill High and went on to coach football for 19 years. In his own upbringing and as a parent, Anthony emphasized “Hard work, showing them you can do anything, and family – I was always at their events, reading, football games, I was always there.” With all 4 of his sons now grown and successful in business and public service, you can tell when talking to Anthony that family is at the center of his life.

Anthony became homeless after a large lay-off at the assisted living facility where he was housekeeping manager. “I had an apartment, a car, and slowly I started losing those things.” After spending some time staying with family, Anthony moved into the IFC shelter.


(Anthony’s 2014 Holiday Party Graduation)

He shares, “I found out there was a lot of social help here in Chapel Hill. Of course CEF was one of the first groups that I was led to… I mean, I had become kind of down in life, things not going well for me, and thought nobody really cared about what happened to Anthony Sharp. But when I walked into CEF it just changed. The enthusiasm the college kids had, you know they’re wiling to help, and just the care that they had – that made me feel different about myself.”

Anthony began working with Karla, a CEF advocate and current senior at UNC. Karla shares, “In our first meeting, he had so many plans for himself, ranging from academics, finances, employment, business, and service. And of those things, I feel like he always emphasized the service he would perform.” Karla and Anthony built a resume, completed countless applications, and connected with legal services to address issues on Anthony’s background.


(Anthony goofing around with fellow CEF graduate Robert at the 2014 Holiday Party)

Anthony highlights that in his struggle to “defeat homelessness… you know it wasn’t just me or one group, it was the whole community that came together.” He engaged in Orange County Literacy programs, many groups that meet at the shelter, and all of CEF’s programs, including Opportunity Classes. As he accumulated certificates along the way, he began including those with all of his job applications – and it all paid off!

Anthony secured a full-time position at UNC with health insurance and retirement benefits, and quickly saved with CEF to move into an apartment of his own. But even more, “For me, I found out I was smarter than I thought I was… I found out how to live again. As a term I have heard a lot from others, I’ve turned out to be who I was really supposed to be.”

Anthony gives back way more than he received. “It has just been a great life change for me, and I want to give thanks to a lot of people, and my community most of all for showing me a different way to live. It’s just great to be able to give back to this cause in Chapel Hill of ending homelessness.”

Anthony+State Sen

(Anthony with State Senator Valerie Foushee at the ribbon cutting for the IFC at SECU Community House where he is a new board member — Anthony delivered remarks about his journey out of homelessness)


Living Generously: Demonte’s Member Story


Demonte Newsletter Picture

Demonte teaches us all to live generously. While living in a tent in the woods of Chapel Hill, he showed up bright and early every Saturday morning to the CEF Opportunity Class, making coffee for everyone and helping with classroom set-up. With a gift for photography he quickly became the resident photographer at CEF, capturing fun daily moments in the office, where he spends time every day of the week. He routinely snaps photos and then runs right across the street to print the pictures and give copies to everyone.

Demonte came to Chapel Hill after his home in Maryland burned down. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go… When I came here all I really had was the clothes that I was wearing.”

Running through a list of all the ways he has worked with CEF, Demonte shares, “When I came down here, everything I needed help for, if they couldn’t help me, they referred me to somebody that could. They just basically helped me put my whole life back together.”

His list of goals he accomplished with CEF includes: Getting his social security card and birth certificate after losing all his documents in the fire; connecting to doctors and mental health; getting help with managing his benefits; and finding housing.

On top of all that, Demonte points to the lessons he has learned from CEF’s Opportunity Classes. “I learned how to budget. I had never made a budget before coming to CEF; now I plan… I had never done that before. Demonte graduated months ago at this point, but he still continues to go to class every week to keep learning and also share with others there what he has learned, “Just to give back, plus I like helping people.

“CEF, it’s just been a lifesaver for so many people. It helped me out a tremendous amount. I just love the people here. I have a lot of friendships here… It is great to have people who you can call your friends, sit down and talk to when something is on your mind. I advise anybody that needs help with finding a house or a job or writing a resume to come check it out.”

Demonte was in a car accident in 1995 and suffered brain damage. As a result, Demonte is permanently disabled and not able to work formally, but he certainly still works hard. He got ordained as a minister and has served churches as their music director, volunteering locally with Love Chapel Hill church. Music is a long-time passion for Demonte from his time in the church as a kid, where he and several other youth started the “Seven Jewels Youth Choir.”

Out of the woods and now in an apartment, Demonte says he is “more restful now, because when I was out in the tent I would always wake up and it was hard to sleep.” Being in an apartment has also allowed him to get a long-awaited knee surgery that was not medically possible when his circumstances were different, as his doctors could not in good practice discharge him from the hospital to rehabilitate in a tent.

So what’s next for Demonte? “Basically all the goals that I had set for myself, I reached them all. The only goal I haven’t reached is the goal for my Safe Savings Account and my goal to get a laptop, but I’m working on that right now. Everything else I set as a goal is pretty much done, mostly from the help of CEF.”


Education + Housing

Made for the Orange County Commissioners as they weigh the value of housing in Orange County, NC.
“The risk of having all the funding support education but not support housing means that you are going to be cutting certain children off from access to that education, and those are the children that are already facing greater challenges. Those are the children that need it most; those are the children that are already at risk for not developing the education they need to live a full and healthy life when they grow up.”
Jennifer De La Rosa
BOCCLetterfromVideo copy


CEF Member: Ms. Denise


Home health was the vocation for Denise Rush. Her upbringing shaped her to care for the elderly in ways that afford them dignity, but finding work with bene ts and regular hours had been a long-standing struggle. Denise moved her family into the shelter following an accident on black ice that caused her to lose her job and home.

Each week in the Genesis Home living room, Denise and her advocate Quinn Holmquist, a Duke student from Charlotte, NC, met to complete job applications. Their perseverance paid o when Denise was offered two positions, but they came with challenges: “People don’t know that you have to go through a lot to be a [Certified Nursing Assistant].” She worked 50-75 hour weeks, and spent time and gas driving to clients’ homes, which was uncompensated by her employer.

Denise’s kids worried, “Mom, we haven’t seen you for a week.” Even Quinn grew anxious over her lack of sleep. “So I started saying ‘no’ to the hours. My employer’s attitude was, ‘How dare you not want to work all these hours?’ They sent me an email saying, ‘Your services are no longer needed.’” Fortunately, Denise and Quinn had been applying to better-paying jobs. Shortly after her dismissal, Denise called Quinn, exclaiming,“Duke called me!” She had received an offer for a salaried CNA position at Duke Hospital, with benefits and consistent hours that made it a keeper.

Denise’s experiences have given her a powerful voice in Raise Up for 15, a national movement campaigning for a $15 minimum wage. She has given speeches in Durham, Chicago, and Atlanta, and was featured in the New York Times. “My mentality is that we come together and pull each other up. That’s how I was raised growing up in the Caribbean – there is unity.” At Raise Up for 15 events, she has met college professors who live out of their cars, and civil rights activists who marched alongside Dr. King. “Back then, their working conditions were horrible, and because they fought, conditions improved.”



Member Story: Ricky Reams

IMG_0671by Anne Yeung

“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 Member: Jasper


Jasper has a great deal to be proud of. “Today I have my own apartment, I have transportation, I have a job, I’m on the board for IFC… And I have a great job. I’m a cook for UNC.”

Jasper came to Chapel Hill in January 2014. Born and raised in Kinston, Jasper left his hometown to shake addiction. “I was about 14 when I started down that road of drugs and alcohol.” Now at the age of 55, he is feeling “grateful and blessed,” and clean and sober for over a year. He shares, “I just think that if I had kept going, I wouldn’t be on this earth right now.”

He joined CEF just a week after moving to town, and says, “I met my best friend, one of my best friends, his name is Sam.” Sam was paired with Jasper as his Advocate, and “Just hung in there with me from day one, we’re like glue… I always think about him, and say ‘How’s your mom?,’ and he says the same thing to me. He’s just like family to me now.”

“When we first started it was mainly job-hunting. We would put in applications for 4, 5, 6 jobs every time we met. My motivation was always to work in the kitchen. I just set my mind on getting a job at UNC. And fortunately it happened.”

Working with CEF, “Another one of the things I learned is how to save my money. When I put down the drugs and alcohol, I realized I needed to always have a nest egg. And CEF taught me that.” Just a couple of months after moving out of the shelter, Jasper was hit by a car on his scooter. The accident broke his foot and he was unable to work for over a month. Fortunately, Jasper had that “nest egg” he built through CEF and didn’t miss a single bill payment during his recuperation.

Above all, Jasper is most proud of his newly trusting relationship with his 91-year old mother. Jasper goes home often to visit his family, sharing “It’s fortunate that today they see a new me, a better me, an improved me. I am grateful that at that age, [my mom] gets to see me this way.”

What’s next for Jasper? “One day I want to own something, my own place, you know. It’s alright to rent, but this ain’t the final stop here. I want a yard, I want a dog.”


An Ode to the Poverty Center

Poverty Center

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.



Meet Robert, Sophie, & Jenna

Robert is a grandfather, a Marine Veteran, and a natural-born leader. Sophie and Jenna are UNC undergraduate students, and his CEF advocates. Combined, this trio is a force to be reckoned with.Earlier this year, Robert chose to leave a full-time, salaried job in Kinston, NC to move into the homeless shelter in Chapel Hill. He left behind his home, his community, and his livelihood.

Why? “I was just working for the drug man and the rent man. And by me being a functional addict, I wasn’t going to lose my job. I had to make a decision, I had to make a choice to give up everything, start from scratch, get out of the environment I was in and try something new.”

“In CEF you get a chance to get yourself back. I had lost myself – I had lost me. Thanks to CEF, they brought it all together,” says Robert. “Sophie and Jenna have been with me from the start, and they’re almost like my little daughters. By them keeping me motivated, and by me keeping the fire going myself, and them seeing me making progress, like getting a job and seeing my savings go up, sometimes I look at them and it’s like seeing a kid looking at the Christmas tree. You can see the light in their eye getting brighter and brighter.”

Jenna and Sophie see their relationship with Robert as a life-long friendship. Reflecting, they shared, “We have a relationship beyond that of a member and advocate team, we are truly a family. The support that we offer Robert is far surpassed by the moral and emotional support Robert continually showers us with whether he is reminding us to take some time for ourselves or reading us excerpts from one of his favorite books, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. I never leave an advocate-member meeting without feeling inspired and loved, no matter how stressed I am.”

Over the past year we have watched Robert graduate from Opportunity Class, find a job, reach 80% of his savings goal, strengthen his relationship with his family, peers and most importantly, himself. Robert’s accomplishments have been more than earned and fill my heart with so much joy and hope.”

Likewise, Robert’s heart is filled thinking back on how far this trio has come on their journey. “I look back to where I was a year ago, and now I’m so far on my goals. You can’t imagine how good I feel, the pride I got back to myself. There’s no way you could imagine…”




CEF: Community Empowerment Fund

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