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CEF Staff Highlight: Debbie and Tawana

CEF would like to formally introduce Debbie Long and Tawana Brown, both have come on board over the last few months. Debbie is the Member Services Coordinator for the Durham office and Tawana is the Growing Household Income Fellow in Chapel Hill. Read the interviews below to get to know them better!
Debbie Long, Durham’s Member Services Coordinator
Tawana Brown, Growing Household Income Fellow
 What has your work looked like during the time you’ve been at CEF?

A process of discovery I would say. I started during a pandemic. Folks need unprecedented support during this challenging time.  I’m seeing members getting hit at multiple intersections of hardship just trying to meet their basic needs. Right now, folks want and need secure housing that’s truly affordable and does not exceed the threshold of their budgets. They need jobs that provide living wages and healthcare, and aside from that, folks need general support navigating the gamut of issues that arise in a pandemic. The bulk of my work with CEF has been exploring the world of possibilities with a team of folks who are committed to the well-being of its members. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed working alongside members to meet their personal goals around housing, education, and food security. The current landscape has called for strong collective efforts in finding robust and innovative approaches to serving our members.

While at CEF, I have had the pleasure of assisting members with emergency assistance applications to Orange County, which includes follow-ups, document submissions, and advocating for Members. I also assist with governing CEF’s Workforce Income Taskforce. The Taskforce works closely with Members interested in learning more about fair chance hiring, living wages, job search skills, interview skills, and interview preparation.

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

Always keeping in mind that the personal is political,  I come to CEF as a Black queer feminist who works to create a revolutionary society where the people who have been impacted by intersecting systems of oppression can really thrive. I have a deep history of cultural organizing. Linking people to resources is what I do. I don’t ever think it’s enough to say, you know, “I want to help people.” To me, that’s the baseline. You gotta actually engage the people and communities you seek to support. Nothing beats showing up for folks and showing up for ourselves. I know how to show up. My offerings of support at this time come in the form of harm reduction, trauma-informed care-giving, and a transformative-justice oriented posture. Additionally, I’m an artist and abolitionist. I’m always seeking creative ways to dismantle systems and policies that disproportionately impact our people.

I have two master’s degrees, one in Nonprofit Management and one in Leadership and Human Services; a graduate certificate in Conflict Management and Negotiation; and a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. I have five-years’ experience working in nonprofits–holding positions in intake, case management, accounting, consumer coordination, executive assistantships, and fundraising and development. I also bring general business knowledge from my Business Administration degree.

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

I was led to apply for the position because there was a need and I felt like the best person to honor that need. I arrived at CEF with a vision: To prioritize how members have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and attempt to understand what that means for their economic recovery.  My vision is informed by my lived experience of having witnessed firsthand the stigmatization and criminalization that impoverished communities endure. The Member Service Coordinator plays a vital role in stewarding CEF’s Member Services. As a people person,  I love working with and for the people. More than anything, I want to support people on their journey for a better quality of life.  I know what it is like to be housing and financially insecure and from this vantage point, I find myself in a unique position to support the overarching goals of the organization and in my current role. 

CEF’s mission and vision to assist and cultivate opportunities, assets, and communities that sustain transitions out of homelessness and poverty was key to my working with the organization. They care about CEF Members and offer many resources to assist each Member in reaching self-sufficiency goals. As a Growing Household Income Fellow, my job is to build CEF’s capacity to support low-income community members in increasing financial stability, engaging in community life, and supporting the economy.

How do you find energy and renewal?

For energy, quite literally, I like to eat healthy fruits and vegetables, and I limit my sugar intake. Introspection helps a lot too. Like the saying goes, “You gotta know when to hold and when to fold.” I do my best to pay attention to when I have limited capacity so as not to exhaust my energy reserve. And I am an artist and musician. Playing music and getting creative fills my cup! To renew my body, I detox and try to tap into what my body wants and needs–whether that’s a nap, a long walk, or a glass of water. Listening to my body plays a large part in how I find the tenacity to endeavor forward.

I find energy in knowing that each day a new scenario will come making the job new to me. I get energy knowing that I am going to do good for a Member and in negotiating services for the Member. I find renewal in knowing that a resolution can be found and Member needs can be met through networks.

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?

The reality is that I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have most of the answers. But I do have some of them, and I do know how to locate and connect with someone who might have the answers I seek. I also realize not every question has a precise, clearly defined response to it.  I am not a native of Durham. Understanding the housing situation in Durham has been a real process that I have to work at daily. My best way forward is to think outside of the box, to use my creativity to fuel my motivation, to listen to my gut and trust my instincts, and ultimately, to practice the art of living free from fear.

I find challenges in not being able to find shelter for all Members who are homeless. I would like to see Members in stable shelter situations, where they have a roof over their head, food, heating in the winter, cooling in the summer, and nice hot showers daily–to name just a few basic rights Members deserve access to. I seek to find the best way to move forward by collaborating with other organizations and working with them in coordinating plans.

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Time + Talents Podcast: All Things Housing

CEF Presents Time + Talents Podcast

CEF is excited to share the first episode of the Time + Talents podcast. In this episode, CEF Advocates Lily Levin and Lizzy Kramer interview a number of people involved in housing in Durham County to help listeners learn more about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people’s housing situations and what services are available for people who may need support.

This podcast was arranged by Durham Office & Community Organizer Rosa Green.

We hope you enjoy the podcast. Please share with your networks.

Time + Talents is CEF’s member-driven advocacy platform in Durham. Members chose the theme of this podcast and will continue to be involved in choosing future themes to ensure that the podcast is relevant to their needs and interests.

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The Knowledge Series

The Knowledge Series is a project dedicated to sharing information with our communities on how housing discrimination manifests today. Throughout this week, we will share a series of posts that delve into the history of housing discrimination and what it looks like in our everyday.

Part 1: Who is affected by homelessness?

Every year in the U.S., communities receiving funding from the McKinney-Vento Act (a U.S. policy that provides federal funds for homeless shelters and other homelessness programs) are required to hold a Point-in-Time (PIT) count in the last week of January to tally all sheltered and unsheltered individuals experiencing homelessness in their area. Data from the most recent PIT counts show there are a projected 9,268 people experiencing homelessness throughout North Carolina. In 2019, the PIT count in Orange County revealed that 131 individuals experienced homelessness on any given night. In the City of Durham, the PIT count revealed 338 individuals experienced homelessness every day in the city.

These numbers are disheartening because at CEF we believe that housing and financial security are human rights. Unfortunately, these rights have not been previously available for many Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Today, Black folx are still discriminated against in the housing and employment processes at greater numbers than any other racial group. In taking a deeper look at PIT count data, the numbers show us explicitly that Black people in the U.S. face racial and systemic barriers to obtaining housing and financial security.

Of the 131 individuals experiencing homelessness in Orange County, 51% are Black, despite making up only 12% of the population. Of the 338 homeless in Durham, 78.6% are Black, while making up only 37% of the population. These outrageously disproportionate percentages of homelessness for Black residents of Orange County and the City of Durham are a clear example of the systemic racism which has historically and explicitly barred Black families from accruing wealth through property ownership. The systems which discriminate against Black folx still have a significant impact on communities today, because of the generational trauma garnered through slavery, the Jim Crow South, and the still ever-present institutional racism which is inevitable in a society whose institutions were founded by and for white* men, and only white men. 

Come back tomorrow for a blog post diving more deeply into these historical policies and systems which have created modern-day disparities which we must address. We will discuss the historical impacts of slavery and the further, blatant discrimination that Black people in the U.S. faced at the hands of Jim Crow laws in the South. Flowing into modern 20th and 21st century American history, we will use these historical structures to analyze and understand how these systems still create vast disparities for Black folx in the housing and financial sectors. 

*In general, CEF uses APA grammar rules in our writing. The APA says that the names of race and ethnic identities should be capitalized, as they are proper nouns. For this series, and moving forward, CEF is intentionally leaving “white” (when referring to a racial identity) lower-cased. We recognize that by capitalizing words we are giving them power and we do not want to encourage white power in any way. Unlike the AP’s explanation for why they are choosing to lower-case “white” we want to be clear that we believe white people do have a shared experience–that is one of privilege. We also believe that undoing racism is the responsibility of white people and worry that implying that white people do not have a shared experience (as the AP does) is a dangerous tactic that is aimed at discounting the responsibility that white people have in undoing racism and white supremacist culture. Ultimately, we know that race is a construct but that racial differences are not. They are real and need to be addressed directly. For any questions or clarifications around CEF’s choice of words please contact ari rosenberg (arir[at]communityef.org).

NC Coalition to End Homelessness. (2019, May). 2019 Homelessness in North Carolina. https://www.ncceh.org/media/files/files/7bd752c5/2019-nc-pit-infographic.pdf
Root, Corey. (2019, April ). Homelessness in Orange County. Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness. https://www.ocpehnc.com/point-in-time-count-data

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2019 Annual Report: We Grow Together

Cover for 2019 Annual report: collage representing community with the words hope, community, courage, and togetherness around the outside. Heart with houses, green space, and a gazebo in the middle

As CEF has grown and blossomed over the years, we have been reminded, time and again, of the importance of being nimble and adaptive as we grow. As you will see in this report, 2019 was no different. In the enclosed stories you will learn more about CEF’s deepening advocacy work; read about the programs we’ve built and strengthened; hear directly from Members, Advocates, and Staff about their connection to CEF; and see our quantitative impact.

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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 headshot: white man wearing bright blue CEF t-shirt standing in front of a white wall with bright blue text

Zach Meredith, Employment Access AmeriCorps VISTA

Kyle Compton head shot: white man wearing dark blue shirt standing in front of CEF's Chapel Hill office

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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CEF: Community Empowerment Fund

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

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