“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.”
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.”
In their home in Chapel Hill, Mussasa and Denise share pictures of family members and loved ones, many of whom are strewn across the globe by war. Their son Joshua looks over his mother’s shoulder at the pictures, saying, “This is sad. Oh my gosh, I miss it.”
Mussasa and Denise are both from Congo, and met in Burundi while both were fleeing war in their home country. It was 1996 and they were in their early twenties. As war continued, they moved to South Africa as refugees, where they were married and lived for 14 years. For a long time, they held out hope that they would be able to return to the Congo.
Across borders and amidst isolating, uprooting experiences of leaving family and home, Denise and Mussasa have restarted their lives again and again in the pursuit of a safe, stable home for their family. Denise has begun and built a number of careers, including law in Congo, business management in Burundi, and adult education in South Africa. Mussasa is an incredibly skilled welder, working in welding in every country they have lived, even teaching welding and skilled trades to unemployed youth in Capetown.
In 2016, after 20 years away from their homes and feeling that there was little chance they would ever be able to move back to the Congo, they made the bold decision to move to Durham, North Carolina.
Denise shares, “When we got here we didn’t know where to start, and transportation was a big problem.” With their busy schedules juggling work, school, and family, relying on public transit was significantly limiting their opportunities.
They heard about CEF from a friend and started saving in CEF’s matched savings accounts for a vehicle while working with Advocates to find better-paying jobs.
Denise reflects on what it means that they trust CEF with their personal savings, sharing that, “Being Congolese, it’s a bit difficult because… In 1994, they changed the currency in Congo and the banks just decided to say, ‘Well, you don’t have any money anymore!’ So all we had worked for, just gone back then.”
Despite these experiences with banks abroad, they trusted CEF because of the testimonies of friends, and because of the “emotional connection.” Denise says, “For example, when we got here, everything was too much, and then you get someone to have your hand and say, ‘we can work on goals that you have. We can address certain concerns that you have. Let’s do this one, then the next one, and the next one.’ There’s an emotional connection.”
After saving for several months and working with Advocates to get insurance and licenses, they reached their goal and were preparing to buy a car. Right at that moment, one of CEF’s campus partners surprised the family with a donated vehicle! Professor Jim Kitchen’s entrepreneurship class at Kenan-Flagler raised thousands of dollars through their own micro-enterprises in order to purchase a vehicle for the family.
“And when you get a car, it changes your life,” Denise shares. “Suddenly, [Mussasa] could come back home early, and could plan around getting the children from school on time… That is not just a car. It’s that kind of a connection that you’ve got with a place or a person.”
Meanwhile, both Denise and Mussasa have made incredible progress towards better jobs. Denise is now working as a C.N.A. and studying nursing to build a new career here, while Mussasa is working overnight as a welder at AKG and attending English classes during the day.
Here in the U.S., sadly they have still had to worry for the safety of their family. One of their sons struggled with bullying at his first school, which prompted Denise and Mussasa to work with their Advocates to find a new place to live in a different school district. Their son is much happier in this school, and they are hoping to “settle down” now.
Looking forward, their big goal is to own a home. Denise says, “I believe it’s better to work toward your own house than renting someone else’s house.” Because of their refugee status, “That is something we could not do in South Africa,” which will make this achievement even more monumental for their family.
Dear CEF Family,
“What is CEF?” Truthfully, it can be hard to find words for this work that Members and Advocates do side-by-side, day-by-day.
Chinita will tell you, “CEF is not a service—it’s a healing process. It’s a community of members that become empowered, that believes that they deserve to be treated as humans!”
As a CEF Orientation Leader, Chinita has witnessed it first hand: CEF shows up for Members who are trying to meet their most basic human needs. Almost 7 out of 10 Members join CEF without a place to live, 3 out of 10 without any income. And while we know that safe homes and stable jobs are fundamental goals for many Members at CEF, we also know they are often just the step in that “healing process” on a journey towards long-term stability and true flourishing.
“I’m a living witness,” shares David. “When I joined CEF, I found that everything within me was not dead.” Before joining CEF, David found himself in the hospital, fighting illness and learning to walk and speak again. Working with his Advocates at CEF, he now has stable income and a two-bedroom home that he calls his own.
David’s home has been a space for him to heal, where he can lean fully into his gifts. Working with his Advocates, he is breathing new life into his small business—an alterations business aptly named “Graceful Stitches.” This year, his hand-sewn clothing was featured in the first-ever CEF Fashion Show. And, he just launched a project to craft quilts for every CEF Member that moves into a new home. “I am moving forward. I am strong and I am able to do things that I never thought I could.”
David’s story is just one point of light—and 2018 has simply been radiant. Everywhere we look, we find care, creativity, and resourcefulness illuminating our beloved community. We sense it in the celebratory glow of CEF Members whose collective savings reached $1,00,000 dollars this year. We hear it in the songs of the CEF Advocacy choir as Members and Advocates march side-by-side to vote for (and win!) a $10 million bond to build greatly-needed affordable housing. To be able to bear witness to the light of this community is a true gift.
By donating to CEF, you are fueling this radiant community. You are enabling Members not only to meet their basic needs, but to flourish and thrive. Your generosity enables the CEF community to shine more luminously than ever—to care for each other through the toughest of times, to keep “moving forward” and growing in strength together. Thank you for your incredible support.
With joy and gratitude from CEF’s Co-Directors,
Jonathan Young Janet Xiao
P.S. Thanks to an amazing group of CEF donors that came together to match year-end donations, your gift to CEF will be doubled through December 31st, up to $30,000!
“It’s like it was meant to be, ya know,” says Fred. After living in a tent for six years, he was just about “ready to lose [his] faith in the human spirit”, when someone at the IFC kitchen said he should “go check out CEF!” There he met his Advocate Val and began getting connected to a wide range of healthcare, housing, and income services. Together, Fred and Val have found community at CEF.
“CEF man—I’ve got a lot of things accomplished there. I got my retirement in three weeks. I was in the tent. I done picked up my mail at CEF and I had a stack of it and I didn’t read it till the next morning when it got light and I could see inside the tent. I got to the last letter and I open it and it says ‘Congratulations! You have been awarded such and such amount of money for your retirement.’ I ran out the front door of that tent and ‘Tarzan-called’ right through the woods. It was a godsend!”
“You know, it’s just kept ballooning from there, escalating and everything, right? I got all my ID I had lost along the way. I got all that back! Where did we go from there?CEF got me hooked up with the VA and that was the first time I had a physical in 44 years and they convinced me to quit smoking. I haven’t smoked a cigarette in 19 months now and I had smoked for 52 years!”
“I’m starting to feel the human spirit again,” shares Fred. This fall, having secured a housing voucher and found a place that he could afford, Fred moved out of his tent and into his new home, and he’s feeling inspired. He shared his story with a crowd of over 200 people at the Piggy Bank Bash this October; at the CEF Holiday Party he volunteered for over 8 hours preparing and serving the food; and just last week he showed up at CEF’s office to present an Advocate with a bicycle that he had spent months building and refinishing! We are humbled to be in community with Fred. “Just seeing the teamwork of people in the community, you know what I mean? And I want to give back part of it like everybody else gives.”
We hope that you’ll join Fred in sharing your support for this community by making a year-end gift to CEF. Your gift is matched, (every dollar up to $30,000!) thanks to the generous support of CEF donors! As 2018 comes to a close, we’re abundantly thankful for the amazing humans who make up the CEF community. Together, we thank you for your support!
“When you are with CEF, you are a part of the thread that makes us all one community.” Chinita is a CEF graduate, and her poetic statement during a CEF celebration perfectly describes the palpable connectivity in this community.
Whether we’re weaving together programs and resources to form a holistic network of support, or connecting our Members and Advocates together in people-centered relationships, CEF is steadily crafting a beautiful, interconnected, and interwoven community.”
At a fundraiser for CEF last fall, Howser gave back to the organization in the form of a $500 dollar donation, the largest of the evening. He coordinated with several workers at CEF to print a big check to present to West as a surprise during the event to say thank you.
“All gifts to CEF matter, but gifts from members truly glow, they cause ripple effects throughout the organization, and seem to snowball and grow,” West said.
When Steven Howser first came to the Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) around four years ago, he was seeking work development assistance to help him qualify for a seven day bus pass at the shelter. After years of support and involvement with CEF, Howser has not only secured income and housing, but is also giving back.
“I wanted to give back to show people what a good organization they are, and the resources they have to help people in the community,” Howser said. “So the people in the community won’t be afraid to donate time and donations to them because they really help a lot of people.”
Where were you staying before you found your new home?
(IFC) Homestart. It’s challenging but also interesting. Learning from the other people; there to better myself. For me, it’s building a more solid foundation because of the things I’m learning from the other ladies. I’m learning how to reach my goal and how to keep it.
Where were you before then when you 1st connected with CEF?
Isolated, depressed, and mentally I was beat down. I was nowhere — I was not living, mentally. I might as well have not been living. Before coming into CEF, I was sucked into myself. I had to get rid of that old self because it took over me. My thinking was not good at all. Even though I would think good things, my disease would take over all of that. CEF was the first thing in my voucher package. They were the first thing I saw. Before then I would come in here and there, to do resume, or other stuff but not really focusing on anything here. Until I got my voucher something really clicked in me — it was my way out of everything. You really do help people, but I myself had to do stuff too. We had to do it together — we had to work together. I would bring in ideas and we would look at them together.
What does having a home mean to you?
It means getting back out into society and being a part of it — and being responsible for all my bills and paying for my own things. even though I didn’t always do the right things I always paid my bills because I always wanna have somewhere to stay. I will keep it, I have no excuse. I don’t see myself losing any of this.
It’s all timing. I feel very relieved, happy, joyous and cautious. I feel so much better than I have in so long, and I know I’m on the right track with my life and the things that I am involved with at this time. With my sponsor and going to meetings, I’m going to keep trying, keep doing what I’m doing, and I’m going to have a prosperous life.
What are some of the best sources of support in your life?
Along this journey here, it is the people I’ve gotten involved in. I used to not share anything about me, but I’ve realized I have to open my mouth and ask for help. I used to be really judgmental because I didn’t like myself, but I’ve grown to like myself more. The key has been to switch it around and love myself, and my self-esteem has risen too. Meetings, sponsor, advocates have been helping me out too. Advocates have been really nice, somebody understanding and willing to help with whatever else is going on. Y’all have a really good agency, and have a lot of really good resources. All it takes is you just have to come in and sit down. Waiting for a meeting every week has made me more patient and learn to be less selfish because other people need help too.
What is one of your dreams for yourself or your family, that you hope to see happen in the coming years?
Very simple- to learn to be productive and in my life choices so I can always continue or if nothing happens to stay where I’m going. Make good choices so I stay in housing and always have somewhere to stay. That’s my dream. To get somewhere, post up, and live a life like I deserve. Not looking over my shoulders, just enjoy.
What would you like to share with the CEF community?
If you’re ever in need and some of the choices that you’ve made in your life are in question, come to CEF, and sit down and come and talk to one of the advocates, and tell them what’s on your mind, and they will have the resources for you, whether it’s school, class, and they will help you. If you wanna open a free account, they have that too. I recommend it to anybody. Even if you’re still doing good, still come by and see what else you can get, on top of that.
Romeo, Romeo! Ms. Laverne adores her Romeo
She showers him daily with belly rubs and bacon bits. “If you rub his belly, he’ll go to sleep,” Ms. Laverne intimates. And Romeo has stuck with Ms. Laverne through thick and thin, including the years when they were sleeping in her car, and in and out of hotels or friends’ homes. “Romeo would let me sleep, and when I woke up, he’d sleep. We would both watch out for each other.”
The day they first saw their new home, Romeo raced up and down the long hallway with barks of approval.
Ever since she moved into the new apartment this past June, Ms. Laverne has been relishing the daily things: “Opening the door is a blessing. Closing the door is a blessing. Laying in my bed is a blessing. Cooking. Decorating a house. It’s just a blessing not wondering where your next step is going to be.”
Even through homelessness, Ms. Laverne never stopped fighting for what is right for herself and others. She worked with CEF and her support networks to find her stable home! Photo collages of beloved family members adorn the walls of the living room and hallway, side-by-side with school photos of her children and grandchildren, their ribbons and certificates of achievement, baptismal certificates, Bible verses, and a poem written to her by her son. Her home is filled with the people she honors and loves, making space for memory and hope for loved ones who have passed on or are locked away.
Ms. Laverne’s favorite room is the bathroom. It’s large and luxurious-feeling, with a floral shower curtain and plush towels folded in neat stacks. “I came a long way from going around and taking bird baths.”
How Ms. Laverne Found Her Home
Ms. Laverne connected with CEF when she came to a public meeting of the Homeless Services Advisory Council in Durham to advocate for her needs as an individual experiencing homelessness — bearing witness to her own experience and the experiences of so many others, while making a prophetic call to action.
After 9 years of faithfully paying rent on time, Ms. Laverne had been evicted after a dispute with her landlord. For two whole years, Ms. Laverne and Romeo navigated homelessness together — finding food and safe places to sleep, taking “bird baths” in public restrooms, and struggling to find a healthy, non-abusive place to recover from back surgery in the midst of this experience.
“I’ve never been homeless before. This is my first time,” she shares. “I didn’t give up on myself. More people did me wrong, I kept pushing myself. More people lie on me, I kept defending myself. I’m not a bad person, I’m a good person. I live for God, and I like helping people.”
At that public meeting, CEF and Ms. Laverne connected and have stuck together ever since. She connected with staff at the Durham Housing Authority at that same meeting, and worked through the process to secure a permanently affordable apartment with DHA. With CEF, she connected to legal services and addressed credit issues that were preventing her from securing housing. She also got a job at Harris Teeter, where her co-workers have been a wonderful community of support. She gives a special shout-out to all of these groups, and Angela Holmes (Chair of the Homeless Services Advisory Council) for helping with her transition into housing.
About CEF, Ms. Laverne shares, “[CEF] made sure I was okay, and we started working on everything.”
“[CEF] don’t do the talk, they do the walk. And since I’ve been coming here, all I see is friendly faces glad to help you. [They] ask you, ‘What do you want?’ and take everything you say to the heart. And they love my dog.” (Indeed, Romeo charms the entire office when he comes in with Ms. Laverne.)
What’s Next for Ms. Laverne?
Ms. Laverne has new goals to share with CEF. “I’m going to take computer classes, to get a laptop, so that when I go to school I can have it… I want to get my GED.”
She hopes to eventually use it in support and advocacy of other people who are experiencing homelessness. Even while she slept in her car and struggled with issues of discrimination, Laverne never stopped fighting for what is right and helping others. “When I was homeless, I helped homeless people. I paid for a hotel room for a family. So, though I was down and out, I still helped, and I didn’t ask for nothing back in return. I just told them, ‘Do it for the next person.’”
Ms. Laverne dreams of managing her own shelter one day. “I wish I had money to build a place. This would be my shelter: a lot of flowers. A lot of love. Respect. Trust. And a church inside my shelter.” In a way, she has already built this sanctuary space inside her home.
“Six months ago, I was a person that lived in the trees. When [Hurricane] Matthew was running, and you were home safe, I was in the trees. Thinking about if they fell on me, would anyone find me? I was in the trees. I was in the trees because I could no longer afford housing in this city that I had lived for 6 years. I had an income. I was homeless, but not hopeless. I only wanted to trade trees for keys.”
Now, from her new, affordable apartment, Chinita is still surrounded by the trees, but she has keys. She remarks in bursts of joy to see the chipmunks scurry past her window, to see nature as her neighbor, but not her shelter.
Chinita grew up in Greensboro, and received degrees in Journalism and Education from NC A&T University. She built a career based on service and a love of people, working as a teacher and as a Hospice caregiver, and even for several years as a publicist and media sales.
In 2010 Chinita relocated to Chapel Hill to be closer to her doctors, and shares, “I had been living in the same place since I came to Chapel Hill — for six years. It wasn’t the best place, but it was home, it was comfortable, it was safe.” Each year, Chinita says, “I would go through the annual time to renew your lease and it’s nothing abnormal, normally it’s anywhere from $20 – $25 more but nothing shocking. Last year was shocking.”
Last year, her rent went up from $680 per month to $2,110 at her lease renewal. More than triple. This was more than she could possibly afford, and forced her to seek new housing with short notice. She moved into her housing of last resort: her Jeep.
“In this city, I found trees that would cover me, that would protect me, so that I could be close to my doctor.” The social worker at her doctor’s office actually first referred her to CEF.
Chinita describes using a fan plugged into her car lighter as her source of cooling down in 100 degree summer weather. She describes meeting the “golden warriors” of the Meals on Wheels team that delivered her daily meal to her in a parking lot. And she describes coming to CEF each week during the two months of her homelessness to find the resources to move back into a safe home.
About her work with CEF Advocates, Chinita shares “Every element that I’ve needed them to assist me – glasses, legal services, housing, food…I think they look at the whole person, and their whole needs, and if they don’t have an answer, they have a wealth of resources.”
“When you go to other services you feel like you’re given a band-aid. But the difference is with CEF it’s more of a healing process.”
For Chinita, this meant staying connected to CEF while finding an apartment she could afford, and eventually signing a lease with a senior housing community where she can sustain her housing for the long-term.
“I appreciate you being here at my lowest point, but I’m more appreciative of helping me find the resources that I can hold my head up again, and hope again. I don’t think there’s anything more grateful than feeling like you’ve got someone’s hand that’s holding you through the storm, and that’s what CEF has been for me… They have been the anchor in my life.”
To listen to Chinita speak is to listen to the voice of a poet, whose first love and first refuge was found in words – the world of words a place of connection and relief ever since she was a young girl. To listen to Chinita speak is to hear the “caged bird” sing, to quote a sentiment she references often, as you hear in her lyricism and in her powerful voice the influences of Dr. Maya Angelou (or “Mother Maya,” as Chinita lovingly calls her).
And Chinita is sharing the gifts of her inspirational speaking and her love of stories with the CEF community. Chinita now volunteers to lead CEF’s new member orientation sessions every week, to help others gain the financial stability she has found and to be the first person to welcome people into the community she loves. She shares, that for her, “The faith is restored, the hope is restored, the homes are obtained, the jobs are obtained, the glasses are obtained. I feel better about me. About life. I feel so great about it that I want to tell everybody about it. And I enjoy being orientation coordinator working with our new members in orientation, because they get to see Chinita over and over again. And I get to see individuals who come and they look like there’s no hope, but I get to tell them that there is.”
Chinita encourages you to join her in supporting and being a part of CEF. “When you can be with an organization that pulls out dreams that you’ve never even considered, that’s priceless.”
“It’s tax deductible, but it’s priceless too. I think that all of our givers should know that giving to CEF is not just putting band-aids… I want to say my spine and my neck is up higher, and I feel more confident and my faith is restored, and not only can I make it, but I can be a hand for someone else.”