Outside their duplex with the cozy brick fireplace, 7-year-old Monica rides her scooter after school under the watchful eye of big sister Damia, 13 and a budding writer. Inside, mom Donlia Jones prepares dinner.
You’d never guess that this time last year, the family was among the working homeless.
“I was a teacher’s assistant in special education, working toward my teaching degree,” said a gentle-spoken Jones, “but summers were always tough, even with my summer jobs. I got two months behind in the rent and lost our apartment. I just couldn’t keep us afloat anymore.”
Help with Housing
A church friend took in the family as Jones juggled full-time work and classes at William Peace University. When she Googled “transitional housing” and stumbled onto The Carying Place, a Cary-based nonprofit that helps working homeless families achieve independent living, she put her name on its waiting list.
Families entering the 16-week training receive transitional housing and counseling in budgeting, goal-setting, time management and self-sufficiency, through weekly meetings with an assigned support team made up of volunteers.
Cathy Teague is among them; she’s been volunteering at The Carying Place since 2012.
Jones calls her “Mama Cathy.”
Donlia Jones, center, with daughters Monica, left, and Damia are spending their first holiday season in their new home.
“At our first meeting, Donlia’s daughters struck me as so extremely polite and caring about their mother,” Teague said. “The three of them are quite the team, by working together to overcome each obstacle.
“Donlia was never hesitant to admit to her weaknesses and ask for help. I was sympathetic to her ‘excuses’ for budgeting concerns, but also required her to be accountable. One of the phrases all my families have heard from me is, ‘I know being a single parent is hard and you’re tired, but your kids are counting on you and deserve your very best, so it’s time to pull up your big girl or guy pants and turn this situation around.’”
While Jones attended Thursday night training at The Carying Place, her daughters looked forward to children’s support sessions addressing self-esteem, social and educational skills.
Between Thursday sessions, Teague checked in via visits and texts.
“The Carying Place is an awesome organization, and the best-kept secret in Cary,” Jones said. “My stress level was incredible; for them to accept us was a breath of fresh air. And we didn’t have to go to McDonald’s anymore for the Wi-Fi, to do our schoolwork.
“It’s a faith-based organization, but not just one faith,” she added. “My Christian faith is a big component of how we made it. I just believed I could, and The Carying Place believed in me.”
In the midst of the four-month program, Jones graduated from William Peace with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education with duel licensure in special education, and was humbly surprised to earn the university’s Exemplary Future Educator Award.
She now presides as teacher over a first-grade classroom at a public charter school.
“It’s an amazing blessing,” she said. “I come from a family of teachers, and I’ve been playing school since I was 5, with my younger cousins. I always had to be the teacher. I love to see students who say, ‘Look, I did my homework!’ It shows they have a love of learning.”
In mid-August, Jones and her daughters also graduated from The Carying Place and moved into their home near the girls’ schools, using escrow money Jones saved up as part of the program.
The Carying Place provided references and a list of helpful resources for the transition, and Mama Cathy stays in touch.
“I had their reference, and the money for the deposit and first month’s rent,” Jones said. “The Carying Place helped us with gas vouchers and a grocery card, and I got to keep the furniture. My mouth just fell open when I found that out.”
For Teague, “It’s extremely fulfilling for a family who feels there is no light at the end of the tunnel to come 180 degrees to become a family ready to succeed on their own.
"Donlia wants to use every tool available, and has been my only participant to ask for printed materials to take upon graduation to help continue her success. I gave her budgeting tips, chore ideas and cooking ideas to add to the notebook she kept throughout her 16 weeks at The Carying Place.
“She has the determination to succeed, and the knowledge within herself that she can do it.”
New Home, New Confidence
Now, as the Jones family prepares for its first holiday season here, twinkling lights aren’t enough to express their joy.
They’ll visit with extended family in Wendell, put up a Christmas tree, and renew an old family tradition of baking a birthday cake for Jesus.
“Without The Carying Place, I would have graduated but not had the confidence to go beyond that. I’m not where or who I was when we came into the program,” said Jones.
Citing Maya Angelou’s poem titled Caged Bird, she said, “I’m empowered. The door is open on my cage now.
“I’m a single mom from an impoverished family. If I can do this anybody can do this, and better. What I want for my daughters now is for them to be educated, make good choices, and know they have the tools to stand and don’t have to live in poverty.”
Jones even has new goals for 2016: To earn further professional certification as a reading specialist, and work toward buying a family home. After all, she said, “The younger you are when you attain your goals, the longer you have to enjoy them.”
Damia and Monica are taking note, and inspiration.
“Our mom is different now. She’s happy,” said the watchful Damia. “And she didn’t give up.”
The Carying Place
Serves: Homeless, working families
16 weeks: Length of empowerment program
90%: Program's success rate
300: Number of service requests received each month
How to help: Donate dollars, clothing or furniture, and volunteer
To learn more, visit thecaryingplace.org.
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