My CEF Advocate Journey: From Support Systems to Debt Crises to Gender Equality

Christine Costello is a senior at Duke University planning to attend graduate school for social work next year. She has been a CEF Advocate for almost two years, and we are thrilled to share her reflections on her experience here!

By: Christine Costello, Duke University Class of 2015

I began what has extended into a long relationship with the Community Empowerment Fund the summer after my sophomore year. As a summer intern, I was able to immerse myself in the day-to-day of this organization; an opportunity that taught me not only an incredible amount about the non-profit world but also about the members I worked with and about myself.

From one-on-one meetings with members, my eyes were opened to the harsh realities and institutionalized marginalization that members faced. For example, several members that I worked with had been encouraged to attend for-profit colleges in their adolescence, believing that this would be the route to a better salary and life. Since our society constantly touts that hard work and education are the way to self-improvement, it isn’t hard to see how enticing the possibility of school was and is for these members. However, these for-profit college businesses often trapped members in debt they were still accruing dozens of years later. Looking at the hefty debt that one member had hanging over his head from this attempt at education, it was hard to not feel helpless and duped. This meeting made me realize how integral a well-informed support system can be for individuals, support that (due to my situation in society) I have received my whole life. Meeting with this member also revealed how devastating the consequences can be when an individual is excluded from these forms of support. Working with this member towards a solution to this debt crisis, and simply spending time with him, showed me that I wanted to dedicate my life to contributing to such support systems.

On a different occasion, Janet – knowing my enthusiasm for gender equality – paired me with a new CEF member who had recently fled an abusive relationship. Now severed from her bank account, home, and social connections, which had all been controlled by her partner, she was seeking a sense of security and independence that had so vehemently been denied her in the past. Her situation was dire, as the time period following fleeing an abuser can be particularly perilous from physical, emotional, and financial standpoints. Feeling the weight of this member’s upward battle served as my impetus to meet with the Durham Crisis Response Center, Durham’s comprehensive shelter and support provider for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. This meeting, due to enthusiasm on both parts, has given way to a partnership that will provide financial literacy coaching to those seeking asylum at the Center.

It is through meetings with members such as the two I have mentioned that I have come to decide to pursue an education in social work. CEF’s mindful approach to collaborating with members and meeting them where they are at has shown me how effective compassionate care can be. CEF also continuously reminds its staff, advocates, and members of the purpose of the organization, words that lie in its very name. To be a community for all involved that offers empowerment through practical services. The community and experiences that CEF has supplied me with have certainly empowered me towards my dream of becoming a social worker.

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CEF: Community Empowerment Fund

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