There is a certain standout building at 108 W. Rosemary St., a stone’s throw away from He’s Not Here and the Yogurt Pump. Bright blue paint and simple signage declare it to be the home of the Community Empowerment Fund (CEF).
At first glance, the inside of the small brick structure gives the same feel as any other office space: a busy receptionist, a few people quietly waiting near the entrance, and the hustle and bustle of the employees in the back. CEF is anything but a normal office, however.
Five local residents and six students founded CEF in 2009 as a nonprofit to help the homeless and struggling permanently transition out of poverty. Maggie West, the current program coordinator, was one of them.
“It’s changed my life,” West said. “ That’s the effect it has on you, because of the incredible people you meet.”
CEF uses a team of advocates to work one-on-one with each member, helping them in whatever area of life they’re struggling: from housing to finance; from transportation to insurance.
“It depends on the relationship, but the emphasis is on putting members in the driver seat and just being a good resource,” West said.
West stressed CEF’s use of the word member rather than client.
“We want to treat them with the dignity that many of our members haven’t had the pleasure of receiving in the past,” West said. “It’s so important to create a safe space for them to grow as people and as leaders, and one of the main ways we’ve been able to do that is with the opportunity class.”
Michael Wood said he arrived at CEF under tough circumstances: from the 1980s until January 2010, he struggled with a cocaine addiction. On Jan. 10 of that year, he ended up in a homeless shelter. He’s been sober since.
“I wasted so many opportunities,” Wood said. “When I ended up in the shelter, I knew I couldn’t let that be the final chapter of my life — of my legacy. I met Maggie pretty soon after that, and in 2011 I started teaching the opportunity class. Now we’re five years in.”
CEF’s opportunity class meets weekly and covers topics from personal finance to job readiness to health, as well as teaching self-sufficiency and how to obtain permanent housing.
For several weeks the opportunity class students have had to make do with substitutes; Wood broke his hip and is in the middle of a stint in rehab. With their teacher absent, the students spent their two and half hours on Feb. 27 doing most of the talking — offering each other helpful hints on housing, food, utilities, healthcare, and ways to save.
“You have to lead by example,” Wood said. “Adults don’t like being preached to, and when I figured that out the students got a lot more responsive. Now I just have to crack a joke every now and again to keep things going.”
Wood’s students say differently, though. According to other volunteers and CEF staff, Wood has become something of an institution for the community. Wood said it is because he is one of them.
“They respect me. I’m not better than they are,” he said. “The mistakes I’ve made give me the credibility.”
“I try to come up with things so everyone can offer a different viewpoint — so everyone feels like they have something to offer,” he said. “Because they do.”
This week, the class started with one of Wood’s ideas: talking about good fears and bad fears.
“My fear is spiders and snakes,” said Michael, a student who was in the class with his brother, Julius. “I had fears of reading, but I faced them when I read aloud to the class before.”
Wood said low self-esteem is one of the biggest problems his students, other homeless and other struggling people face.
“Many people that can do, don’t, because of a lack of confidence,” he said. “Giving them experience helps, like mock interviews or reading. Everybody’s got it, but they have to believe they do.”
Wood said the greatest challenge with the class is not letting one failure cloud over the next success, because not everyone is ready for the class. Some at the shelter become used to that system of dependence and lose their drive to move forward, he said.
“They want to continue doing exactly what they’re doing and hope it gives them a different result,” he said. “That’s adapting without evolving.”
But for those who do stick with the class, it’s life changing, Wood said.
“We recognize effort, not results,” he said. “Outcomes will take care of themselves if the effort is there. If we let them see themselves as victims, that’s what they’ll be forever.”
Wood also lauded the contribution that students make to CEF. Claire Ogburn, a UNC senior from Asheboro double majoring in economics and public policy, is the opportunity class coordinator.
Speaking of her own fears to open the discussion in class, Ogburn said job hunting is one of them.
“Most of the time when I apply to jobs and I don’t hear anything, I get a little scared,” she said. “And that’s a good fear: it gives me something to work on, something to improve.”
Wood said he isn’t sure where he sees the class going or growing in the future.
“I always say, if we held it for everyone that needs it, the Dean Smith Center wouldn’t be big enough to hold everyone,” he said. “Right now I want to keep it going, keep improving, but I like having it steady at 15 to 20 people, so we’ll see.”
The CEF opportunity class is held every Saturday morning from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church at 300 E. Rosemary St. in Chapel Hill. All are welcome to attend.
For a printer-friendly version of this story, click here.