Duke Chapel has hosted famous and notable orators over the years, but few of them stood at the lectern bearing the life experiences of those who gave witness Sunday afternoon.
Charissa Jones and her daughter spent four years bouncing from hotel to homeless shelter.
Donna Edmonds had been raped more times than she can count, almost killed twice and at one time had a drug habit that consumed 200 needles a week.
Veronica Oakley was homeless in Durham for two years, much of the time gripped by clinical depression.
On Sunday, these women gave thanks for having homes and jobs, and for the kindness of strangers who helped them get on their feet.
The three were among two dozen people recognized by Housing for New Hope, a Durham nonprofit that has been working to prevent and end homelessness in the Triangle for 22 years.
“We are recognizing people on their journey to success, success that they themselves have defined,” said Executive Director Gretchen Senez.
The crowd sat in the transept of Duke Chapel, with its dozens of stained-glass windows and elaborately carved oak choir stalls. A harpist sent Pachelbel’s Canon floating and rolling from the floor to the vaults 73 feet above.
Donna Edmonds, 39, grew up in Saxapaw in Alamance County, the daughter of alcoholics. Her father, a Baptist minister, was violent and abusive. She consumed a staggering amount of drugs over the past two decades: heroin, cocaine, methadone and others. Her arms are a topography of addiction, with scars and abcesses and skin grafts. She ticks off her trauma as a warning: almost murdered twice, raped many times, and teetering over the grave when a drug-resistant infection took over her circulatory system.
A year ago she was walking Holloway Street in East Durham as a prostitute. A minister visited her in the Durham jail last March, and something he said triggered a change in her life.
“I’m done,” she recalled saying. “I’m done.”
Edmonds gave her life to God and has been sober since. She’s worked her way to resident manager of Dove House, a home for women in recovery run by Housing for New Hope. Edmonds practically bursts when talking about her passion to help others climb out of addiction. She said she’s filled with compassion, plus the experiences to see through all the games that addicts play.
“You can’t slick a can of oil,” she said.
Clergy founded Housing for New Hope in 1992 with the support of lay leaders, the city and county of Durham and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The organization has two transitional housing programs, street outreach teams, an emergency assistance program, a rapid re-housing program and more. It emphasizes job housing, health care, job training, saving and budgeting, and other services.
Back on her feet
Veronica Oakley, 41, left an abusive marriage in Creedmoor and moved in with friends in Durham. Those arrangements turned out to be very fragile, and Oakley was homeless for two years.
Oakley said she was going through a nervous breakdown when a mental health worker referred her to Housing for New Hope. She admits putting the New Hope staff through crying and screaming and fussing and cussing, as she struggled to get on her feet. The agency got her into training; she’s now a certified nursing assistant with her own apartment, a full-time job and a used Toyota Camry though Wheels 4 Hope.
Oakley said she loves her job and pay the kindness forward to others.
“I’m doing better and better and better every day.”