Archive | Advocate Story

Knitting Patterns

written by: the ever-wonderful Kevin Ji

“Is there a freedom to having no assets?” The question was posed to me by a friend and long-time Member of CEF on a Friday afternoon last year during one of our weekly writing workshops. It has been posed before (thanks, Ralph Waldo and Henry David) but at that moment, I found myself fully embracing – and personally grappling with – its sentiment.

On its surface, the question exposes materialism and its rampant presence in today’s culture. This is nothing novel and we are all guilty of it. I love shopping, especially at Ross and Old Navy. In a few weeks, I will be a proud iPhone owner, with the words ‘it was a birthday present’ serving as the (weak) justification for my compliance with the purchase of a device that will surely enslave me in many ways. In particular, I am already immensely looking forward to Snapchat, Plants vs. Zombies, and to further exploring what absolute dependency on Gmail might look like. Not great.

At its core, however, the question suggests something deeper. Assets are more than just money and possessions; they are things, both tangible and intangible, that we hold close, assigning value to them and deriving value from them. For some, this is prestige, voice, or influence. For many others, it is the stable job, secure home, or supportive family that we so often take for granted. They are things we strive to build and maintain; by admitting their value, we in turn give them the power to define us.

To distinguish us.

To disjoin us.

At the monthly HOPE Community Dinner earlier this month, I shook hands with a twenty-two year old man preparing to spend his first night at the IFC Shelter. To me he looked much older; my own twenty-second birthday is only a few weeks away. Before even mentioning his name or where he was from, he prefaced his greeting saying, “I swear I’m not a bad person, I’m just going through a hard time.”

A number of things went through my head upon hearing this: a compulsion to tell him he had nothing to apologize for, a pang that he had perceived me as someone who might cast judgment on him, and an overwhelming frustration that he felt the need to justify his ‘goodness’ as a person simply due his personal circumstances and those of our encounter.

Does this interaction suggest that we as a society have successfully marginalized homelessness? What about being poor? In many ways, measures of wealth and status have become so central in defining success and what we strive for that we forget other obvious alternatives: happiness, morality, balance, humility – the list goes on (Lao Tse, I’m looking at you). By so closely linking money and success, we fool ourselves into a mode of deficit thinking that has come to falsely and narrowly characterize poverty in this country.

What we don’t talk about enough are the consequences of this characterization, and what it truly means to define a rather large group of Americans (roughly 1 out of 6 of us) primarily by an absence of wealth and income. It certainly isn’t healthy. The story of poverty in this country has always been one of deficiencies: of money, literally, but also of capability and self-sufficiency. We offer charity and develop welfare programs, championing ourselves as providers and calling people free-riders when nothing comes back the other way. We tell the same story over and over again, in our schools, our media, and amongst one another, yet funnily enough never give ourselves the chance to meet any of the characters or to the hear their version of the tale. It’s quite different.

Strength and resilience, gratitude and appreciation, groundedness and perspective, camaraderie and community – these are words that aren’t used often enough. They are not meant to glorify or to diminish, but to give fair and due representation to a group that is too often defined by its deficiencies and hardly ever by its assets. We are all rich in some ways, poor in others. Let’s embrace that notion, and in doing so become more creative in how we perceive wealth, define assets, and pursue success in this country.

And CEF has done just that: what began as a monetary fund to help Members work toward and enjoy the same assets that many of us take for granted has turned into so much more. It is an intellectual fund where students grabbed by traditional teachings and pursuits can borrow from the wisdom and perspective of Members (in exchange for the use of their laptops), a social fund whose loan products range from crisis support to lifelong friendship (scary low interest rates, too), and an emotional fund from which any and all may borrow hope, optimism, and love, so long as they promise to reinvest it.

These two stories come from a pool of many that have accumulated over my past two years with CEF, and join the countless more that take place each day around the globe. They are moments of connection in a disparate world, perspective in a muddled one, and humanity in a, well, human one. They are reasons to stop and question, to listen and learn, to live and refine.

In life, look for the unlikeliest of friends and teachers – you probably have the most to learn from them anyway. Look them in the eye and understand where they come from. Share something about yourself too and reciprocate; there’s a reason why one-way streets suck, and I’m not just talking about traffic. Iterate, and in doing so spread the love.

As Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (Baller quote alert.) Underlying this thought, however, is another reality, that this garment is comprised of large and often isolated patches of color. They are patches of homogeneity, a result of the gravity that pulls together our social circles and guides our interactions. They are easy, natural, and comfortable – all things we love.

Imagine a garment, however, where these patches weave and intersect. Zoom in and see individual threads of colors interwoven with one another; zoom out and see the patterns that make it beautiful. I never really tell anyone to do anything, but I’ll tell you this now. Knit patterns for yourself and those around you. In doing so, challenge the status quo and defy gravity.




Encouragement from Old Advocates!

Matt Kauffmann 2013

We recently received an email from one our former Advocates, Matt Kauffmann (UNC ’12). Matt is currently working in LA with employment services for the homeless. His email was filled with compliments and kind words for CEF. Thanks, Matt! We miss you. Here’s what Matt said about CEF and our strengths:

“The community and partnership created in the CEF office, opportunity classes, and Coffee Hours, picnics, etc. The equality in the member-advocate relationship and the sense of care for the whole person invite members to open up and build self-efficacy, creating space for positive change. Many organizations do not have time, money, or motivation to do this. Community is an area in which I think CEF benefits greatly from advocate-member parity in numbers as well as from the train-the-trainer facilitation model. The point is: CEF is awesome. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of it for a short while. Keep up the good work.”


Ten Reasons that I love CEF

(also, why you should become an advocate) 

1) The culture of shared learning – everyone is here to work together – not to work for each other.

2) The people, the people, the people – the supportive and loving team that makes CEF Happen.

3) The relationships I’ve made with students, members, and board members. Seriously, you guys are some of the best friends I could EVER ask for. (this is basically the same as number 2 but deserved at least two mentions)

4) Office Hours – As an advocate once said, “The CEF vibes are definitely real.” Being in the office makes my heart smile.

5) Commitment to trying new things and not saying “no.” This is perhaps what I admire most about CEF.

6) Opportunity Class Structure – the classes are taught by CEF Graduates – and who better to act as a mentor than someone who has been in your place before? I love this so, so much.

7) The lack of glorification and hierarchy within CEF’s organizational culture. Thanks guys, for letting me feel like I fit in and could be at home in the office even when I was a newbie.

8) Stories. Getting to hear people’s stories is the most humbling and transformative experience.

9) The Dedication of members to their goals and advocates to helping them reach their goals. I truly admire the drive and passion that everyone in CEF follows.

10) It’s a hands on, collaborative, people centered approach to helping people. What’s not to like?

*11 – when people bring food to the office it is pretty great too. ESPECIALLY pastries…


A Social Work Student's Experience with CEF

Hi friends! I’m Rachel, CEF’s MSW (Master’s in Social Work) intern. UNC MSW students are placed in the field at various local organizations to take the theories they are learning about in class and put them into practice. During our first year, the idea is that one part of our field placement experience is spent working with people on a more one-on-one basis.  The other part is to participate in more macro-level activities, such as learning about organization administration, policy, advocacy, and community development and organizing.
Long story short, CEF is a great field placement for a first-year MSW student. I get to work with, serve, learn from, and get to know Members in the office, at Opportunity Classes, and through other CEF activities. Learning about CEF’s beginning, growth, and future has been very interesting. Another thing I’ve gotten the opportunity to witness is how well CEF is integrated in the community and how much it serves the community. As an added bonus, I get to not only work with, but also learn a great deal from, CEF’s student and community-member volunteers.
Though CEF isn’t staffed by social workers, there are numerous intersections and overlaps between the work that CEF does and the social work profession. Social workers follow a professional code of ethics. A major part of this code is a section that describes the ethical principles social workers are to follow, which are based on the primary values of social work. These values and respective ethical principles are as follows:
1. Service – “Social workers’ primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems.”
2. Social justice – “Social workers challenge social injustice.”
3. Dignity and worth of the person – “Social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person.”
4. Importance of human relationships – “Social workers recognize the central importance of human relationships.”
5. Integrity – “Social workers behave in a trustworthy manner.”
6. Competence – “Social workers practice within their areas of competence and develop and enhance their professional expertise.”1
When I observe CEF volunteers, admin, and staff, do I sense that all of the above mentioned values are important to them and the work they do with Members? You bet your CEF Safe Savings I do.
When empowering others to solve problems and achieve goals, social workers also focus on individuals’ strengths and resilience.  The  individuals CEF works with—those who have experienced, are experiencing, or are at risk of experiencing homelessness—show great strength and a great deal of resilience. I know that many times, I have the privilege of hearing just part of Members’ stories. From just those parts, I can see how strong and resilient these individuals are.
So thank you, CEF volunteers, admin, staff, and Members, for teaching me about social work values and sharing with me your goals, aspirations, wisdom, fears, dreams, strengths, stories, ideas, hopes, and so much more.
1National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of ethics. Retrieved from


Advocate Stories: Sophie and Ian

We just trained over 50 advocates and have been so impressed by them so far! They have been volunteering in the office, meeting with members, participating in team meetings and overall just being amazing at what they do.

For this blog post, I interviewed two new advocates who have been working with a CEF member for around two weeks. Here’s what they have to say about their experiences advocating thus far.

Thank you Ian and Sophie for your input and thanks to ALL of our new CEF advocates for your involvement and enthusiasm!

CEF Love,
Member Advocate Coordinator

Tell me a little about yourself! Year in school, what you’re studying, favorite past time and… your middle school AIM screen name 🙂

My name is Sophie Mohajerani, I’m currently a Sophomore here at Carolina and loving every second of it. My potential major is business and economics and I like to spend my free time involved with a variety of student organizations and volunteering. My favorite past time would have to be ice skating, I was a figure skater in elementary and middle school. My middle school AIM was TarheelBBlue, I grew up in a Carolina household so I’ve been a fan forever.

I’m a freshman music major studying classical piano. I enjoy hiking and fishing, indulging myself with the romantic travails of the literature of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and playing Frisbee/ t-ing the d/ seshing the mellow earth biscuit. I’ve also enjoyed the move from New Hampshire to North Carolina and the chance to share a different vernacular with my new North Carolinian friends.

What caught your eye about CEF? In other words, what drew you in to volunteer with us?


What caught my eye about CEF was the emphasis on forming relationships that are long lasting. I was looking for an organization that I could feel a part of and it seemed like it would be a great fit! I was hesitant at first because the tasks of handling someone’s future in my own hands is a bit daunting but knowing I would be trained and guided each step of the way made me feel at ease and excited about CEF.

I was interested in finding a way to work with the homeless and underemployed community in Chapel Hill, and when a friend told me about the interest meetings at the beginning of the year for HOPE Gardens and CEF I was eager to get involved. I also thought that getting some experience doing practical work with people might help me determine what I want to study in the next four years.

Have your initial impressions of CEF been changed since you started to volunteer? If so, in what way?


Yes, I had made assumptions about CEF members that I quickly experienced to not be true. I came into CEF assuming that members would be hopeless and have negative attitudes due to the hardships that they have had to experience. However, what I have discovered was completely the opposite, my current member is proactive and constantly being positive about his future with the realistic goal in mind that he can attain it over some time. This outlook on life and reaction to challenges that life brings was truly inspiring to me.


I initially thought the CEF was more of a microfinancing group, but learning about the advocate program was really what drew me in. Advocating struck me as a challenging but also very rewarding experience, and I saw it as a chance to try something I didn’t think I was capable of doing.

Tell me about how advocating is going (when you started, what you guys have been working on, etc.).


Advocating is definitely a team effort and I have really been enjoying it. I started last Thursday with my partner Ian and a more experienced advocate, Olivia. We worked on our member’s resume that needed to be updated as well as filled out two job applications for hotel restaurants in Chapel Hill. Our member is in search for a daytime job to have in addition to his nighttime job that he has. The experience overall was very rewarding, we all felt accomplished and our member seemed relieved that there were some jobs available. We also planned what is in store for this week which is to transfer his food stamps to Orange County and apply for the Obama cell phone.


I met my member during my first day in the office, about three weeks ago. He’d already been in a few times and filled out a resume with a CEF advocate, so I worked with Santi to work on a new member plan with him. Sophie and I have met with our member twice now, and we’ve been able to help him apply for a cell phone and a few jobs. He’s hoping to pick up a second job so he can save up to find his own place to live. His long-term goal is to become a Certified Nursing Assistant.

What has been the most challenging about advocating so far?


The most challenging part about advocating so far is trying to learn the multitude of resources available to advocates to help their members. I feel as though I am not familiar with governmental benefits that are available to members and I would like to know more so I can be of more help to members.


I’ve learned that filling out documents and applications is generally a tedious process, and determining how to give “yes or no” answers to questions that may require more nuanced responses can be frustrating. Mostly, I wish I knew more – at every meeting I usually generate a list of things I need to learn about, but I never find time to research them all.

What is your favorite part about advocating thus far?


My favorite part is honestly just listening to our member and hearing his stories and how his perspective of life is yet so bright although he has been through so much. I was told at the beginning of training for CEF that I would end up learning more from member than they learn from me. I believe this to be true and that is why I enjoy being a part of CEF.


The CEF vibes are definitely real. I love going to office hours, hanging out with the other advocates and members and working with Sophie and Anthony, and after our meetings on Thursdays I’m always stoked about everything else I do for the rest of the day.


Teach a Man to Fish

The age-old adage of “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime” at first seemed to me to just be an excuse for not giving anyone your fish, implicitly saying, “handouts don’t help, but I don’t have the time to teach you.” And even giving a man a fish was often a way of buying his loyalty. Too often, fish was exchanged for power, resulting in relationships that were characterized by dependency. In these scenarios, giving food or money to the hungry and poor is really just a means to an end.  These instances of giving do not aim at the restoration of dignity to the less fortunate, but rather, at the establishment of a relationship that favors those with resources.

But recently I began to view this old truth in a new light. By “teaching a man to fish” you not only feed him for a lifetime, but you allow him to contribute to his own livelihood and well-being. You empower him to do for himself. Even more important than this lifetime supply of fish is his participation in his own well-being. Flipping this power structure on its head are the ethics of empowerment. By empowering someone to fish for themselves, people can become self-sufficient and independent.  In teaching a man to fish, and thus to provide for himself, the balance of power is restored and equality is once again a reality. He no longer has to rely on the whims or kindness of those with resources, but rather has the ability to provide for himself.

And as if dignity and equality aren’t enough, empowerment leads to benefits that are deeply connected to the human psyche. Humans have an intense desire to be of use. Employment is not merely about earning a paycheck– it is about the deeply human desire to want to contribute to the good of the community. This is one of the reasons why unemployment so often leads to depression. And this furthermore makes sense of the rather counterintuitive trend of depressed and anxious lottery winners. After winning the lottery, people often quit work because they no longer have a need for money. But in quitting work they unknowingly strip themselves of a source of identity and meaning. They are no longer producing anything for the community, no longer actively working for the good of others. They are no longer of useand this is devastating to self-esteem.

Thus, teaching a man to fish is actually better than merely giving him a fish, but not just because you can feed him for a lifetime. It restores dignity to previously warped relationships and allows others to be of use, which on a very human level is just as important as fish.


Gratefulness, Vulnerability and Community

By Peter Woo, Lend for America Intern

On Saturday, July 7, CEF celebrated its second annual Financial Independence Day by throwing a cookout party at HOPE Gardens. Though human flesh seemed to cook faster than the chicken (the grill was very small), CEF staff, volunteers, and members both veteran and new kept the spirit high with each other’s company. But it was a hot day, and the flow of the food supply was somewhat tight. Two of our members—Dennis and Ronald who had experience working for restaurants—and Mike—our former member, current Opportunity Class teacher and a former owner of a restaurant—were hard at work manning the grill and getting grilled.

Grilling out for Financial Independence Day

When I grabbed my share of some potato salad and beans, I sheepishly asked Ronald to make sure to grab a plate himself.

“Nah, I’m good. I’ll wait until I see that there’s enough food for everyone.”

I felt many things all at once when I heard his reply: surprise, shame, admiration, gratefulness. For the moment, however, I felt that it would be best for Ronald if I magnified my feeling of gratefulness, though I was mostly ashamed. Ronald was doing something that is incredibly hard for people to do; he was going through a lot of discomfort for the benefit of others. A proper response would be to accept that thankfully and take a positive challenge to heart.

The second leg of CEF’s dual mission is to incubate genuine leadership within students. And it’s such a great nursery for that kind of growth because students are forced to greet some form of discomfort every day. For me, at least, doing my best to face and embrace discomfort every day forced me to see a lot of ugliness in me which in turn made me vulnerable. And I find that mutual vulnerability through discomfort is critical for an authentic community that softly assigns both parties, me and my clients, into a place of sameness.


As CEF currently goes through a process of growth, there seem to be some discomfort. Obviously, needless discomfort is a function of inefficiency, but I’m confident that CEF will grow into the kind of discomfort that promotes thoughtful self evaluation and community building vulnerability. It’s definitely not going to become an organization that grows comfortable.

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” John 12:24

Peter is a rising junior at the University of Notre Dame, and is interning with the Community Empowerment Fund through a national internship program called “Lend for America.” He has jumped right in and gotten involved in all levels of CEF’s programming this summer to learn about how we work and hopefully take some great lessons back to his home campus in Indiana, where he is starting a campus-based MFI called “JIFFI.”  


Friends on Franklin St.

By Kemper Ramsey

I have been working with CEF since the beginning of my freshman year at Carolina. For so many students, that first semester is a turbulent time – finding new friends, understanding a new town and a whole new group of people, and being pushed out of their comfort zone for the first time in a while. When I found CEF and started spending time with our members and advocates, I knew that I had found an amazing community of people.

Spending time in the office not only teaches how to navigate job searching sites, government programs, and credit reports, but also the most important business of providing support to CEF’s members as a friend and ally. I remember walking out of the office that first week I came in and feeling positively uplifted by the stories I had heard and the people I had met. I know I came into CEF thinking I would help people and educate people on their finances or how to build a resume, but I was unprepared for the genuine friendships and care that would come along the way.

So while CEF has helped so many in the Chapel Hill community to get jobs, become financially literate, and save toward their goals, the most incredible aspect for me has been the relationships I have built and the friends I get to see walking down Franklin street or coming into the office every week.


"Removed from one's comfort zone"

This summer, you’ll hear from a different member of the CEF summer staff every week! We’ll be collectively writing reflections on the day-to-day work with our members, office happenings, and lessons we’re learning.

Our first post comes from Lucas Hernandez — Lucas is a Lend for America intern with CEF this summer, and is joining us from Rollins College in Florida! We are so grateful to have him as a part of the team this summer.

By Lucas Hernandez

Being removed from one’s comfort zone is always an adventure.

This summer, being a part of the Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) family is living proof of this creed.

My name is Lucas Hernandez, a rising senior at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. I have the pleasure of spending my summer here in beautiful Chapel Hill thanks to the Aspen Institute and their Lend for America program, which looks to help college students pursue careers with a conscience. Along with the Community Empowerment Fund, university students are given the opportunity to work at the Capital Good Fund and the Intersect Fund.

Although I have spent only one week at CEF, I have gained a lifetime’s worth of experience and laughs. Viewing the videos on the website and reading stories about the organization prior to arriving at Chapel Hill I knew there was something difference about CEF. Many said it was about relationships and a sense of family. Having heard similar credos from other nonprofit groups in the past I took these viewpoints with a grain of salt. However, upon arriving at my first day in the office on Franklin Street I absolutely believed it. The energy, the passion and the dedication demonstrated on a minute-by-minute basis by both members and advocates is awe-inspiring. The individual attention and the connections that are developed clearly works beyond helping members find jobs or open savings accounts, it creates a sense of worth and empowers everyone involved.

Personally, I have helped members work through job applications, apply to social services and even finding affordable rates on taxicabs. As I work through these issues with members I realize how much I have taken my life blessings for granted. I knew there were issues in this world and there is no shortage of struggle or strife, but to view these struggles first hand is powerful. What is more powerful, however, is feeling so connected in friendship with CEF members so as to look beyond these struggles and solely see their wonderfully inspiring personalities.

I look forward to helping fulfill CEF’s mission of empowering community members and filling gaps in Chapel Hill. I particularly look forward to using my skills to help develop the newly launched CEF Latin@ business services. Until that point, I look forward to spending the rest of my day with friends and learning, even more so, the power of individuals coming together to simply just be with one another.

CEF: Community Empowerment Fund

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