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CEF Staff Highlight: Zach and Kyle

CEF is so appreciative of the work of Zach Meredith and Kyle Compton, who both started in August 2019. Originally from Durham, Zach joined CEF as the Employment Access AmeriCorps VISTA after graduating from William and Mary College. Kyle, who grew up in Palatine, IL and who is currently pursuing his law degree and Master of Social Work (MSW) at UNC, has been CEF’s MSW Intern for the 2019-2020 academic year. Read the interviews below to get to know them better!

Zach Meredith, Employment Access AmeriCorps VISTA

Kyle Compton, Master of Social Work Intern

What has your work looked like during the time you’ve been at CEF?

As the Employment Access AmeriCorps VISTA, I coordinate efforts to rework CEF’s services related to job-searching and workforce development, particularly for Members who face systemic barriers to employment. When I first came to CEF, there were efforts to design a fairly intensive job training program within CEF’s Member Services program; however, I (along with the rest of our team) began to question if this would really be the most effective way to increase Members’ access to employment opportunities. I’ve worked to shift our energy into the stewardship and expansion of CEF’s partnerships with local organizations that already offer robust workforce development programs. Additionally, I have led efforts to retool our internal systems in order to more effectively align CEF’s operations with the employment-related services offered by external partners.

I have been the Master of Social Work intern this year at CEF. Until recently, I have been performing Coordinated Entry intakes for community members experiencing housing instability. For the second half of the year I have supported our Legal Referrals team and facilitated the group’s meetings. Recently, I have been supporting the Resource Stewards group to curate and update a database of resources for Orange County residents during COVID-19.

What experiences, strengths and skills do you bring to this work at CEF?

I love learning about local history, particularly through the lens of architecture and urban planning. Thinking about how the physical environment of Chapel Hill/Carrboro has been shaped by different political, social, and economic forces over time is a helpful way for me to situate the different inequities and barriers that CEF Members and Advocates run up against. Additionally, a historical perspective further energizes me to get involved with advocacy efforts based at CEF in order to challenge the political and economic status quos that necessitate the direct service work that CEF provides.

I have worked in the education field for several years and at related small nonprofits. My strengths include having patience and empathy for anyone I encounter and working hard to view issues from multiple perspectives. 

What led you to working with CEF generally, and also to this particular role?

As someone who is passionate about advancing social justice at the local level, I was especially drawn to CEF’s organizational dynamism and community-based mission.

I am in my first year of the MSW program at UNC and I have completed two years of law school here as well. I came to CEF through an internship program for my MSW. I have learned so much from CEF Members, Staff, Advocates, community members, and community partners this year. I know that I will draw on my experiences this year for the rest of my life.

Where do you find energy and renewal?

I’m an extrovert so I always feel energized when I’m around other people. I love being in the office because I not only get to be around other people, but around a community. There is a baseline level of kindness and support that everybody in the office upholds, ranging from simple chit-chat to volunteering to help resolve technology issues or taking the responsibility to start up the coffee machine.

Working in direct service organizations can be exhausting in every way, and burnout is something to take very seriously at CEF and actively work to prevent. I find energy and renewal through eating when I need to, taking breaks throughout the day, working out when I can, and breathing. Music and movies are also sources of renewal.

When you think about your work in this role at CEF, where do you find challenges and how do you seek to find the best way forward?

As an AmeriCorps VISTA, my fellowship is a year-long position. This means it is imperative that I work intentionally and collaboratively with Members, Advocates, and partners to develop resources and partnerships that will be able to continue sustainably beyond my fellowship.

There are challenges in every role and during every day at CEF. The best way forward I have found in my time here is to always ask questions and seek support from other Staff, Advocates, and Members.

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Meet Kristina: Advocate Program Coordinator in Chapel Hill

Kristina joined CEF’s Chapel Hill team in June of 2019 as Advocate Program Coordinator. We are so grateful for the talents and gifts she brings! Read more about Kristina below.

In your own words, how would you describe the work you do at CEF?

I am the Advocate Program Coordinator in Chapel Hill, so I oversee 80 to 90 active Advocates in the Chapel Hill office. I’m in charge of recruiting and selecting new Advocates, training them to make sure they understand the foundation and the values of an Advocate, and ensuring that they feel entirely prepared and supported during Member meetings. I also work on making sure that the Advocate program is evolving alongside CEF, particularly in terms of our racial justice work. 

What led you to work with CEF generally, and also in this particular role?

I knew a few friends who worked and volunteered with CEF, and they spoke so highly of it. I also knew that I wanted a job that was more direct-service focused, because I had done internships in the past that felt very removed from the communities their work impacted. I really believe, first and firmly, in person-to-person connection and relationship-building, which is why I was so drawn to the role.  

What experiences, strengths and skills do you bring to your work at CEF?

I hope I bring a lot of empathy to the role. I care a lot about people’s identities, where they come from, and what experiences they’ve had that shaped them as people, because I think that we are often a product of our experiences and where we come from. Long before me, there’s been discussion of the racial wealth gap and racial justice at CEF. But I believe that before you can begin those conversations, you really have to know who you are and how you show up in the world. So it’s been an exciting thing to bring some tools that I’ve used in trainings or retreats in the past to this role. 

I also bring a lot of enthusiasm and joy. I hope that when things are difficult and frustrating, I’m able to bring a little bit of light and positivity to that. For Advocates who are on the front lines, who are interacting with folks who are constantly going up against really difficult barriers in the systems that they’re operating in, I think it’s really important to have someone who can remind them that there’s so much good in the work they’re doing despite a lot of the bad. 

When you think about your work at CEF, where do you find energy and renewal?

For me, it comes back to the people. It has been both really exciting and also, at times, really shocking to see just how strong and resilient people are. Coming into the role, I think I possessed some naiveté about how a person can handle stress, crisis, and trauma. I thought that those experiences would consume one’s whole person, because they are so heavy. And to see that people are just so multifaceted and hold so much joy and love and show up and be present on top of everything going on in their lives is really, really energizing and motivating for me. I just continually feel compelled to be in the same space as these people.

I like working in the office. Most of the time if I’m doing work, even if it doesn’t involve anyone immediately in the office, I would rather be in the office doing it. I’ve found the ability to laugh, cry, and hug someone there. It’s a space that holds all of these really complex relationships that are built on community and family, in a way that I didn’t understand could be so comforting.

Kristina and PeeWee at CEF’s 2019 Holiday Party

When you think about your work at CEF, where do you find challenges and how do you seek to find the best way forward?

The things that have been most difficult for me to process have been when it doesn’t feel as if there are solutions or options for folks, when you’re sitting with someone and it feels like you’ve done everything that you can. It has been a challenge for me to understand that sitting with someone and being frustrated with them or sad or just present with them, also has a lot of meaning. I’m a doer, I like to do something and complete it, so it’s been really challenging to learn that there are things that I can’t do and systems that I can’t just fix, and then figuring out how to move forward with that.  I’m trying to internalize that it can mean just as much for someone to act as an emotional support, as it can to support someone in filling out a housing application. I overcome that challenge by constantly leaning on those around me. Other Staff and Members have been a really incredible source of perspective, learning, supervision, and mentorship in this challenge.

What has your work looked like for the 9 months you’ve been at CEF?

I was working with Jess McDonald, who was previously the Advocate Program Coordinator in the Durham office, to reshape and revamp the Advocate training curriculum. We were trying to make it a bit more foundational, speaking more to the core of CEF. For us, that meant ensuring that the curriculum around the racial wealth gap, trauma-informed care, and the coach approach was really robust, because we view those things as the three central pillars within the Advocate program. Jess and I really tried to ensure that Advocates know how to show up as people, to see Members as creative, resourceful, and whole human beings, and of course, be cognizant of their identities showing up into this space. The harder skills will follow, because those things come with time and we can never teach someone how to do everything in a 12-hour curriculum. But what we can allow people to do is take a moment to reflect on themselves, on who they’re going to show up as in the space, who Members are going to see them as, and try to make sure they can do that in a way that actually empowers folks. 

Other than that, my work has been a lot of figuring out the needs of different Advocates, because they’re all unique people who have whole lives outside of our organization. I’ve reflected a lot about making sure that we aren’t asking too much of them, which is why in Chapel Hill, we’ve moved to having two Advocates in all Member meetings. I think this really gets back to the core of support: here are these two Advocates who don’t know everything about the systems that they’re working within, and a Member who has a great deal of lived experience. And so let’s put two Advocates in the meeting so they can be learning and listening at the same time. Having two people in a meeting doesn’t hinder the relationship that is built, and it allows for a bit more support. 

In your opinion, what makes CEF’s Advocate Program special?

There are so many things that go into the magic of what CEF creates, and the Advocate program is a large part of that. I’ve met so many incredible Advocate volunteers who are so entirely dedicated to this organization. I think that it’s actually this pandemic that has fully solidified that for me: there are 40-plus people who have volunteered to make Community Care Calls to Members during this time.

When you become an Advocate, you become entirely dedicated to this community. They’re really on the front lines of ensuring that Members are seen as creative and resourceful and whole. A lot goes into ensuring that they actually do this every day, and I think that we do a really good job of making sure that they do.

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Get to Know Donna, CEF’s New Executive Director!

Donna Carrington, CEF Executive Director

CEF is deeply proud and excited to share that Donna Carrington, a skilled and passionate CEF Staff member, has been promoted to the position of Executive Director! Over the past year, CEF has worked to restructure organizational leadership to better fit the growth and change we’ve experienced through a decade of work. Donna’s appointment as Executive Director marks the beginning of this new structure, and we are excited for Donna’s strategy and vision as we move into the next decade.

Message from CEF’s Board of Directors:

“The Community Empowerment Fund Board of Directors and Staff have been deeply and intentionally working together to envision the evolution of CEF over the last four months. The Governance Committee is thrilled to welcome Donna Carrington as CEF’s new Executive Director! The Board has worked closely with Donna during this transition and we are deeply confident in her ability to lead us into the future. Over the last 5 years, Donna has worked in multiple roles at CEF, most recently as Co-Director and Member Services Coordinator, providing leadership in the Durham office and community. Along with her leadership gifts, she brings the expertise of lived experience to her work. She knows CEF like the back of her hand and she lives our values every day. We are excited for our community to embrace her in this new role and we look forward to working with her!”

A Bit About Donna

Originally from West Virginia, Donna’s family moved to Durham when she was a child. She attended public schools in Durham and eventually enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she studied Spanish Language & Literature with minors in English and Psychology. Donna joined CEF five years ago and has been leading our Durham team as Co-Director since September 2019. Donna currently resides in Chapel Hill with her partner and four children.

Read more about Donna’s life story, the gifts and talents she continues to bring to her work, and her dreams and visions for CEF’s future in the following interview. *Please note that the interview was conducted in January 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic affected the United States.*

CEF’s 2016 Holiday Party in Durham

Q: How did you first get involved with CEF?

Donna: After graduating from UNC, I moved back to Durham, got married, and had my first three children. Then I ended up homeless in Durham for the first time. We were at the Durham Rescue Mission. The experience taught me a lot. I don’t think it ever occurred to me what could happen without skills, without knowledge. It was a shock to our system in a lot of ways.

I originally came to CEF as a Member. I was in HomeStart, which is a local family and women’s shelter in Chapel Hill. And CEF used to do the Opportunity Class on Sundays over there. I’d be apprehensive, but I would go, and when I would get there, I would be so happy because I was learning things that I didn’t have any idea how to do. I think it was just realizing that it could be better and could be different. And I just needed help to figure that out.

By the time that I took the Savings Specialist position at CEF, I had moved out of the shelter, I had gotten my own place, and had gone through a process of seeing how hard it was in Chapel Hill to find a place to live. That really taught me some lessons about my own resilience, and that I needed to be resilient for other people. 

Q: Can you tell us about all the different roles you’ve had at CEF since you first got involved?

Donna: The Savings Specialist position was my first position at CEF. Next, I offered services as a Housing Specialist. Housing was one of those places where I knew that I had a story, and I knew I had some experiences that I could share with people, but I also understood how hard it is to navigate all these systems. I really loved doing the Housing Specialist position because it made me the front line of people feeling comfortable at CEF.

Donna speaks at the 2018 Mayor’s Landlords Roundtable in Durham

Q: In your most recent role as Member Service Coordinator, you’ve been providing service delivery to Members in CEF’s Durham office.  This job entails ensuring Members are receiving the services and resources they seek while working with Advocates, assisting Members in reaching their goals, and identifying strategies for building Member-Advocate relationships. Can you tell us about the “why” behind your work in this role?

Donna: From being CEF’s Housing Specialist, I became the Member Services Coordinator in Durham. Before that, there wasn’t anyone with lived experience at the table and I knew that was important. That was probably the hardest position for me, because I think it was the first time that I realized how different it is to be at a table saying you’ve been a person of lived experience and how other people interact with you. Also, I think it was a place for me to say to other providers, ‘There needs to be more people like me and you need to invite them. And they need to feel like what they say and who they are is equally valuable as you are’. So that’s been sort of the role that I’ve been in for the last year. I’ve seen it come to its fruition. 

Q: How did you begin your current role at CEF as Executive Director? 

Donna: I always fully invested in every position I was in. CEF was doing work to make sure that we were being intentional about our values, which meant that we needed to diversify our staff. We really wanted to make sure that our leadership reflected our Member base, because it’s important for people to know that leadership looks just like that. I also wanted to be able to talk about my story, where a person who has struggled with mental illness, had children struggling with mental illness, has gone through a divorce, has gone through abuse, trauma, all of these different things—how that person is now at the level of where I am, at these tables, having these conversations, and to just have a different view that I can bring to these conversations that other providers can’t.

Q: So you’ve talked about the “what” and the “how” and the “who” regarding your time at CEF. Can you talk a little bit about the “why”?

Donna: My 16 year old daughter has always seen me fight for our family. She’s always seen me fight for other people. And I think that’s why I do it. I know if I can make one person feel like they’ve accomplished something, if I can be alongside one person to get housing or figure out how to do this one thing, I think that’s what I’ve been set here to do. I think the other “why” is, I want to be what didn’t happen for me, which was to have someone further along than I was on this path. I think if there had been that, maybe I wouldn’t have gone through some of the pitfalls that I went through, cause I would have seen, oh, there is a possibility.

CEF Spring Graduation 2017

Q: What do you see as being really special about CEF? What do you consider to be a part of the “special sauce”?

Donna: The way we do this work is because we want to know people, and we want to be with people, and we want to be on their journeys, and we want to learn, and we want other people to learn. And that has been the single place that I’m always solidly in value. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when things are hard or when we don’t have answers. And that’s usually the hardest time for me. I want to have an answer for somebody. 

But to have a person own their own path is important to me. I’ve learned that I might have a plan and think that I might know something, and someone will show me something different. And that something different is usually so beautiful, and never a place that I would’ve gotten to. I really, really like it when people surprise me and do something different and really are part of their own process. I know that a lot of times, to have been in that battle with them or on that path with them is just as important. And I think that’s where that special sauce is. Like, at CEF, this person knows me. Even if I mess up something, they’re like, okay, let’s figure out how to do it, let’s figure out how to fix it. 

Q: When you think about your work in this new role as ED of CEF, where do you find challenges and how do you seek to find the best ways forward?

Donna: I think the biggest challenge I’m seeing is having lots of conversations about what CEF is at our core, what we do, and how we do it. That’s where I see things going in the future: making those assessments in conversation, and really being solid about what our boundaries are and what we do. Why are we in this work? What makes us unique? I think what makes us unique is the fact that we want to make relationships with people and that we want to fight alongside people. 

Donna, Janet, and Maggie attending a conference on behalf of CEF in 2017

Q: What do you see for CEF’s future? What things might remain the same? In what ways might we grow?

Donna: I love the model of engaging college students. I don’t think it should be the only way we get volunteers, but I think there’s something about having conversations with students who might be coming in without lived experience, and asking questions, and wanting to think more critically. I want them to work alongside other people in our community who have had different lived experiences. 

I see CEF going more into advocacy and I think about what that will look like. That could be a place where our values can operate in a better way. Maybe we delve into advocacy more because that is a place where we can come as a collective with not only people from college institutions, but with people who have lived experience saying, ‘Hey, actually this matters to us.’ 

I want CEF to be a place where people stay for a long time. It’s important that we’re really thinking about what it means for us to do direct service that fulfills that relationship but also doesn’t put us in those places where we’re doing too much.

Q: Thank you, Donna! Is there anything else you want to add or share?

Donna: I always want to build a community where there’s people that I can be me with. And I’ve been very intentional about building a non-biological family, having my coworkers and people that I get to know being part of that family. I think that’s the way you have to operate in the world in order to get through things. You have to be able to love the people around you, to care about the people around you, to be a support to them, to get support from them. 

I think a lot about having been at CEF for five years—that’s a long time. One of the things I always tell people is I tend to be a “lifer” at things. It just never occurs to me that I wouldn’t be here every day.

On top of stepping into this position and really growing into things, there’s also that sadness that I’m trying to wade through, of students and Staff leaving over the years. I’m being very, very intentional about moments, conversations, things like that, because that’s all I’ll have. They tell histories.

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“I love it, I do”

I gave a sharp interview, I believe that’s what put me in there,” Leonard says with a smile. In April, he interviewed for one of the newly-completed PeeWee Homes, tiny homes built on the property of Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill. A couple of days later, he received a call: “‘You have one of the PeeWee Homes!’ I went and picked my key up, signed my lease, and been there ever since. This month it’ll be 8 months. I love it, I do.” 

After experiencing more than 30 years of homelessness, Leonard’s home still feels new. When Leonard isn’t out working one of his two jobs, his home provides a peaceful haven. He regularly checks on his neighbor, PeeWee (after whom PeeWee Homes is named), who loves to fish in the pond out back. On Sundays, he attends church next door at Episcopal Church of the Advocate.

Before finding his own home, Leonard stayed at the InterFaith Council (IFC) shelter for seven years. There, he heard about and connected with CEF, and began working with Advocates to achieve a comprehensive slate of goals: securing multiple jobs, navigating benefits like food stamps, budgeting, saving for a laptop, and obtaining health insurance.

Leonard’s Advocate, Keely, recalls looking through housing listings for months on end without finding any answers. “Where do we go from here?” she wondered.

One day in the CEF office, Keely heard the PeeWee Homes were becoming available and realized they were an ideal fit: they were located by a bus stop, affordable, and Leonard met the income eligibility guidelines. Several meetings, emails, phone calls, a written application, and one “sharp interview” later, Leonard showed up to his regular Wednesday meeting with good news. “What did they say?” “I got one!” Keely’s notes from their meeting that day say it all, “it was just a billion exclamation points!” 

“I was falling down until I started working with CEF. Keely, Zoe, and other Advocates… I’ve basically dealt with all the Advocates here.” Leonard continues to meet with his Advocates on Wednesday mornings, working towards even greater savings and financial goals. “I don’t bother my money in my CEF Safe Savings Account. I let it stay there.” 

Originally from Raleigh, Leonard left home when he was 19 or 20. “I’ve been pretty much homeless most of my life. It was a rough life, I didn’t ever think I was going to get back on my feet, but I did. I kept the faith and kept going at it.”

“[Now] I’m on my feet, got me two jobs working two stores. I got my own place. I can look over my shoulder. I’ve got too much to lose now and I’m trying to stay ahead, keep the faith, and keep doing what I gotta do.’” 

To help support this work, please consider making a donation during CEF’s Holiday Campaign! Thanks to a generous group of CEF donors who came together to match year-end contributions, your gift to CEF will be doubled through December 31st, up to $38,000!

Heartfelt thanks to our friends at PeeWee Homes, who built Leonard’s home! Learn more about the initiative here: https://peeweehomes.org/

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“Knowing you were there was enough”

Dear CEF Family,

One day, after passing out suddenly at work, Deborah was airlifted to UNC for critical care from her home in Johnston County. While completing medical rehabilitation, she knew she needed to find a way to remain close by her doctors, so she joined CEF and began working with Advocates to secure a place to stay in Chapel Hill. The housing search was difficult. At her lowest point, Deborah was two days away from being released from rehab with nowhere to stay. 

Showing up to CEF’s office each week, Deborah found a community that gave her the faith to keep going. “Everybody just needs some encouragement—that’s what I get when I’m at CEF. I get encouragement, whether I’m there for five minutes or all week long.” Finally, she and her Advocates found an apartment. “It was all by faith,” Deborah will tell you.

This year, Members told us what has mattered most: that CEF has faith in them.

“This place makes you feel like you’ve got somebody on your side.” 

“CEF believes in the people they serve.” 

“Knowing you were here was enough.” 

These past ten years, CEF has been able to stand by Members because so many supporters in our community have believed in us. As founding board member Dr. Gene Nichol reflected at this year’s Piggy Bank Bash, “CEF has learned that the power of working together in community effort is the greatest economic development tool. And after 10 years, CEF is not just going, it is thriving, it is busting at the seams. It is the great institutional story of commitment in the community—of striving, of hoping against hope, to push back on the challenges of poverty.” 

We frequently get asked about CEF’s “Secret Sauce.” The ingredients of the sauce, of course, are not so secret after all: it’s linking arms in community and having faith in each other. We see this faith put into action every day, as Members gain income, find their own homes, and build financial well-being alongside their Advocates. “We’re hands-on people,” as Deborah puts it. “If something’s going to change, somebody’s going to have to do something to change it.” 

Thank you for believing in CEF and in the change that our work makes possible. By donating to CEF, you are putting your faith in CEF Members—you are telling our community that you are on our side. We hope you’ll make a gift to CEF this year, and join us in sustaining this beloved community. 

With deep gratitude, 

The CEF Team 


Thanks to a generous group of CEF donors who came together to match year-end donations, your gift to CEF will be doubled through December 31st, up to $38,000!

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Annual Report 2018 : “it takes a collective”

“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.”

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Meet Our 2019 Chapel Hill Interns!

Meet Serena.

Serena Singh

What brings you joy?

Advocating for what I believe in brings me so much joy. I have seen firsthand the power of activism, and every baby step towards tangible change is always so refreshing. Additionally, the people closest to me bring me more joy than anything. No matter what’s going on in my life, I know I can depend on a core few to stand in my corner.

What about CEF excites you the most?

The perspective I have gained on oppressive systems and the world as a whole definitely excites me the most. I learn so much every single day I’m in the CEF Office, and I am incredibly grateful for the advocates I’ve met, the members I’ve worked with, and other community individuals I’ve had the opportunity to have meaningful discussions with.

Share a story about a meaningful moment that you attribute to your experience with CEF.

One of the first meetings I ever had as a full advocate, I was asked to help a member write a paper for a class that was due at noon. It was 11 and we only had an hour, but together we cranked it out — MLA format and all! She was so appreciative and gave me the biggest hug. That was a fantastic way to begin my experience with CEF!

What brings you joy?

People and the little things around me bring me joy! I love seeing how people interact with each other and the world around them – I get joy from my everyday interactions with people, whether it’s talking with an old friend or sharing a moment with a stranger.

What about CEF excites you the most?

Everything! I love the philosophy at the heart of CEF – it’s so genuine and inclusive. I really love getting to know more people from the community. CEF is so exciting because I get to build relationships with really great people while also engaging with issues of injustice in a meaningful way.

Share a story about a meaningful moment that you attribute to your experience with CEF.

I ran into a member I had been working with every week a few semesters ago on the bus the other day! She had gotten a job that she’d been wanting for a long time! It made me so happy to catch up with her.

Meet Sophia.

Sophia Janken

Meet Joy.

Joy Stouffer

What brings you joy?

Running, cooking, reading books (especially realistic or historical fiction). Sitting on my porch drinking coffee.

What about CEF excites you the most?

I love that I can collaborate with a wide variety of people, from members to staff to other advocates, in order to convey that each and every one of us is important and should be heard.

Share a story about a meaningful moment that you attribute to your experience with CEF.

My freshman year I worked with a member who needed immediate housing. We had to call several shelters in the area and finally secured him one at a spot in Durham. This experience was meaningful to me because I realized that housing is definitely not a guarantee–each night in your own home is a gift.

What brings you joy?

Conversations that lead to meaningful connections bring me the most joy. There is so much to learn from the people around us and I could sit and listen to stories of lived experiences all day. It makes me happy when someone can trust me and I can trust them – creating a bond.

What about CEF excites you the most?

The members excite me the most because they come in with hope for a better quality of life and it’s exciting to be on the passenger seat helping them while they drive and take control of their life.

Share a story about a meaningful moment that you attribute to your experience with CEF.

I was working with a member from Russia for about 2 hours and we ended up talking more about his time there and lessons he’s learned.

Meet Inaara.

Inaara Mohammed
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CEF Staff Profile: Maggie Mraz

Maggie joined us last May on staff after working as an Advocate for years! She has a heart of gold and a gift for making people feel wholly heard and cared for! Maggie has been an incredible support to our Chapel Hill community, working one-on-one with Members and as an in-office support for Advocates and Members during our regular office hours.

In your own words, how would you describe the work you do at the CEF?

The work I do with CEF centers in encouraging and supporting CEF members to become all they would like to be. I have the opportunity each day to offer positive, practical help in the hope of assisting people to reach their goals in life.

What strengths, skills, and experience do you bring to this work at CEF?

I sincerely love people,  I am a mom, and I believe I can influence changing the world. These three powerful realities impact how I approach each day. I hope to be intentionally present and attentive to people and their current life situations.

What led you to work with CEF generally, and also to this particular role?

I began serving as an Advocate several years ago after meeting CEF people through the Durham office. I was looking for a place to practically help people struggling with life circumstances impacted by poverty. When I met CEF I said to myself, “I want to be like THEM!”

Where do you find energy and renewal?

I regularly enjoy taking naps and I am inclined to pray often. These two practices consistently renew me for the work I do. I also have a beautiful family. They bring me a lot of joy. The perspective I have for the work I do is shaped largely by a rhythm of rest, spiritual practices and quality time with my family.

What challenges you, and how do you seek to find the best way forward?

The most challenging thing for me about the work of CEF is the constant potential for being overwhelmed by the immediate needs of people. There is no magic wand to wave to make life struggles transform in an instant. I find being present to people and offering my best self in the immediate moment makes all the difference. Ms. Yvette’s desk has a tiny rock painted with the words, “Keep Showing Up”. I expect being consistently mindful of wisdom like this will influence my work of caring for people through CEF now and in the future.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I am extremely grateful to be part of this beautiful community of people. To me it just feels “right” to be part of all that happens in this place. With CEF, is where I want to be.

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A Farewell to CEF Durham Advocates!

Graduating Senior Advocates Gianna, Hayes, and Grace

With the return of warm air and long evenings, we at CEF Durham are forced to say goodbye to our Senior Advocates as they graduate from Duke and head out into the world. These Advocates have contributed hundreds of hours, given an immeasurable quantity of energy, and formed CEF in more ways than we can put into words. As they left CEF, a few Senior Advocates offered up some parting words to share with the CEF community.

Grace Mok joined CEF as a summer intern through Duke Engage. Years later, Grace has completed over 120 CEF Member meetings, shaped Advocate training curriculum, and served as Special Projects Coordinator. Grace shared, “CEF has given me a different vision of how organizations can run and change for the better. Shared leadership and whole personhood are not ideas that all organizations strive for. I hope I can work for an organization as passionate and caring as CEF has been.” Further, Grace explained the ways in which CEF will stay with her as she moves away from Duke and Durham. “Some of the gifts are very concrete — a mug that a Member made himself that I put my silverware in now in my room. Some of the gifts are ephemeral — stories, advice, smiles. I am thinking about “coaching” as a lifestyle tool and I am thinking about community. I am so glad I have been able to build as many relationships as I have and had the opportunity to touch as many lives as I have, to learn with and from folks about so much.”

Gianna Giordano joined CEF during her first semester at Duke, and has since completed over 90 CEF Member meetings and served as Employment Services Coordinator on the student leadership team. Throughout her career at Duke and as an Advocate at CEF, Gianna applied what she was learning in the classroom to her work at CEF, and vice versa! “I have a huge appreciation for the way CEF recognizes that it is traumatic to constantly have to interact with a system that was designed to ensure that you lose. At Duke, I’ve spent a lot of time studying the child welfare system and other social policy issues, and I have observed that this trauma-informed mindset is missing from many discussions about human service delivery systems. When dealing with complex problems involving societal structures, many people look right past this. They see unfair policies and widespread injustice, but they do not recognize that the affected populations experience cumulative trauma that permeates every aspect of their daily lives. From my experiences at CEF, I’ve learned that there is not only a need for structural change but to be with people, support them, and help them recover,” Gianna explained. In her personal life, Gianna shared that, “CEF has encouraged me to value genuine friendships and relationship-driven service work, but it has also taught me to pay close attention to power structures that perpetuate injustice and push against them in creative ways. CEF Members have inspired me by their resilience, tenacity, and selflessness, and CEF staff and advocates have inspired me by their hard work, passion, and constant willingness to learn. The bonds and friendships I have formed with Members and other Advocates these past four years will motivate me to challenge structural injustices for the rest of my life.”

“CEF has been the longest-standing commitment I have had at Duke. I will never forget the Activities Fair on the East Campus Quad, where I saw Liz at a club booth and went to chat with her. I signed up for CEF that day and enrolled in the House Course for the fall semester of my freshman year,” shared graduating senior Hayes McManemin. Since then, Hayes has completed over 65 meetings with CEF Members, worked at CEF’s on-site office hours at the Families Moving Forward shelter, and served as Communications Coordinator on the student leadership team. Hayes shared, “In my opinion, CEF played an integral role in helping me decide what career trajectory I wanted to pursue. Now, I am sure I want to work in a non-profit setting where I can interact with those for whom I am advocating, and have a chance to build meaningful relationships with those same people. I have learned so, SO much about empathy and have gained so much perspective about the ridiculously privileged position I am in. This organization provided me a different way to engage with the Durham community and learn about this city outside of the Duke bubble. I love CEF very much and am going to be very sad at my last office hours!”

We are going to miss our seniors so much, and wish them all the best in taking what they have learned at CEF out into their new careers, cities, and communities. Wherever they go, we know they will make a positive impact in the lives of those around them, always remembering that all people are creative, resourceful, and whole.

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Meet Regina

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.”

This story about Regina was featured in CEF’s 2017 Annual Report!

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CEF: Community Empowerment Fund

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