When the helper needs help

Staff WriterSeptember 29, 2009 

Johnnetta Milberry was newly married with a new baby when her life began to careen off its happy path.

First, she lost her job of eight years as a veterinary assistant; then her husband was laid off by the city of Durham.

When she contacted a homeless shelter for help, Milberry was told she and her children would have to stay in the women's shelter, and her husband would have to stay with other homeless men. She was crushed.

"We were going through enough stress as it was," said Milberry. "I just didn't know how we could stand living apart."

That's when the shelter worker told Milberry about another option: Genesis Home.

The home, Milberry believes, saved her family. Not only was it safe and comfortable; it also provided services and invaluable guidance.

"The kids got tutoring, and my husband and I learned about saving money and planning a budget to get where we wanted to go," Milberry said.

Now Milberry, 31, and her family are living in a subsidized apartment in Durham. She is working for a new vet, and her husband has launched a landscaping business.

It's a typical tale for Genesis Home, which marks its 20th anniversary this week.

For two decades, the home has been quietly, humbly providing shelter and much more to families that need, as Milberry put it, "to be lifted up."

The project came together, as many good things do, by chance. A woman who had bought a big house in Hope Valley wanted the land but didn't care for the house. She contacted some ministers in Durham. The preachers had been concerned about families being split apart in homeless shelters. This was an answer to their prayers.

The house was cut in three pieces and moved downtown to a location off Roxboro Street near Durham's central library. It was set up for five families.

But even a big house gets mighty small when it's home to five families with children.

That's why, about 11 years ago, Genesis Home expanded into a two-story apartment building next door that has 12 two-bedroom suites.

Its programs expanded too. In addition to the family shelter, Genesis offers rooms to young adults who are leaving foster care and trying to make their way in the world. It also helps families in trouble stay in their current housing, to prevent more people from becoming homeless.

But while there's much to celebrate at Genesis Home, there's plenty to be concerned about. Ryan Fehrman, the executive director, said corporate giving is down 50 percent, and individual and church giving have plummeted too.

Meanwhile, of course, need is up.

"Between 2007 and 2008, we saw a 62 percent increase in 'shelter nights,' " Fehrman said. "We are packed to the gills."

It's a story shared by all nonprofit groups serving the needy these days.

But at Genesis Home, the short walk between the original house and the new apartments is a reminder of what the program accomplishes, even in the worst of times. The white walls are dotted with handprints and names of graduates.

And there, in bright hues, are two adult hands and three children's prints: Johnetta Milberry, her husband and kids.

For more information, visit or 919-829-4828

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