Usually when someone is referred to as a member, it’s because they are part of an exclusive group. The Community Empowerment Fund, however, uses the term in a more welcoming manner.
The nonprofit, which started in 2009, allows advocates to help members transition out of homelessness and poverty in Orange and Durham counties.
Yvette Mathews, advocate program associate at CEF, has been on both sides of CEF’s front desk. In 2013, Mathews came to CEF seeking help with employment.
After becoming a member, Mathews asked CEF staff if they needed help with office work, and from there began to handle administrative and reception duties in the Chapel Hill office.
“They were very supportive of me on a daily basis,” she said. “They would call me, I’d call them, I could go to the office and have a one-on-one meeting with them. They were very open. But they really saved me by giving me a job.”
Though Mathews’ story is an extraordinary one, CEF Co-Director Jon Young said there is no such thing as a typical member experience.
“Members come to CEF, share their goals as well as the barriers they might be encountering, and then meet regularly with advocates to pursue those goals,” Young said.
These goals vary widely from member to member, extending beyond searching for housing to improving members’ credit score, connecting them to legal counsel or health care professionals, or applying for Social Security or disability benefits.
“We try to be really supportive of what your needs are,” Mathews said. “We focus on your whole self, not just the fact that you don’t have somewhere to live.”
This goal-oriented approach allows CEF to work with members during and after they meet their needs, Young said.
“There’s really not any standard time frame,” he said. “Some folks we’ve worked with for five or six years, and others are with us for two months and then they find a job and move on.”
Young said CEF advocates work to connect members to the resources they need. Many advocates are UNC student volunteers, such as senior Dory MacMillan.
MacMillan said that she is honored by the level of trust that members have placed in her, and that she has learned from their resilience and warmth.
“CEF has also taught me to think critically about volunteer work, especially in understanding how to truly be useful,” MacMillan said. “Understanding one’s social location is critical in working with people experiencing poverty.”
CEF has also developed savings accounts, which members use to save for their goals and get a 10 percent match from CEF.
“We really try to talk about (the savings accounts) as survival tools, developed so people can use them to survive in a financial system that isn’t necessarily built for them,” Young said.
Young and MacMillan said the savings accounts combined with CEF’s focus on personal relationships to help members succeed are central to CEF’s success.
“From the beginning we could feel that the relationships built between members and advocates were uncommonly sacred, but we never thought we’d be where we are today,” Young said.
Members are now beginning to give back in their own way, leading orientation sessions to help welcome and introduce new CEF members.
“We’re just human beings helping other human beings,” Mathews said.