What makes Durham a great place to live and work? You could name a lot of things, but the most important is that Durham is a community that cares. Durhamites look out for one another and the city boasts a network of churches and nonprofits that extend a hand – or food or clothing or shelter – to those in need.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina recently relocated its headquarters to Durham, and we wanted to repay some of the hospitality that Durham has shown us. After all, that’s the neighborly thing to do. So we fanned out into the community on Wednesday, August 24, for our Day of Service, working alongside those who make Durham a great place to live.
The folks who work and volunteer for nonprofits show us that every day is a day of service. Over the course of the day, we met many of our neighbors. We got to see firsthand the essential work being done by faith groups and charitable organizations whose only purpose is to make life better for the people they serve. And we witnessed the dignity and bright cheer of the families and children in some of our most vulnerable neighborhoods.
We applaud the caring people who make North Carolina the welcoming place that it is. We’re proud to call Durham our home, and we hope you’re inspired by these stories of caring people and communities.
Christmas in August for Local Military Families
“I volunteered for the army. My kids were born into it,” said US Army Capt. Sean Daily to the crowd of families and volunteers who gathered to assemble bicycles for veterans’ children. “The kids have made the same sacrifices I have.”
US Army Staff Sgt. Herbert Rodriguez, father of three, echoed Capt. Daily’s sentiments. Staff Sgt. Rodriguez has deployed seven times in his 15 years of service. Each time he’s deployed, his wife Ana takes on the role of a single mom. Describing how the couple manages, Ana responded, “We’re a team.” The family stays connected through Skype and text on a regular basis. “Talking to her,” Staff Sgt. Rodriguez says looking at his wife, “is the highlight of my day when I’m overseas.”
And how are the kids faring? The oldest is fourteen and he’s enrolled in an early college program. He’s interested in computer programming, but he’s also drawn to follow in his dad’s military footsteps. The youngest two are happy to have their father home right now, snuggling into him a few times during our chat.
The kids – along with 19 others – received bikes donated by USO and assembled by volunteers on the Day of Service.
“Christmas in August,” Ana smiled, “We’re blessed.”
The Countdown to Zero Homeless Veterans
Blue Cross shares its Durham campus with the Central North Carolina Chapter of the American Red Cross. It was a natural that the two organizations would team up during the Day of Service. Chapter Executive Director Stan Morris called it “the meeting of the crosses.”
More than two dozen Blue Cross volunteers packed 500 hygiene kits for homeless veterans and patients at the Durham VA Medical Center. The personal items will be distributed through the Durham VA, the Durham Rescue Mission and Urban Ministries of Durham.
The kits, created as part of the Red Cross Totes of Hope program, contain items such as soap, deodorant, shampoo and a rain poncho. Recipients need those items and value them, but most prized of all are the personal notes volunteers place in the bags.
“We want zero homeless veterans,” said Joshua Cain, director of service to the Armed Forces & International Services for the Central North Carolina Chapter of the Red Cross. “Until the number is zero, we’re going to do everything we can to support them.”
Building Four Walls That Will Become a Home
During the course of one day, 50 volunteers framed the four exterior walls for a house that will eventually stand at 1208 Alma Street in Durham, about 15 minutes down the road from the Blue Cross campus where the walls were built.
Habitat for Humanity buys land, builds houses, and loans out the mortgage with zero percent interest to qualified home buyers. “The mortgages, paid by the homeowners, are usually between $550 and $650 per month,” said Blake Strayhorn, executive director for Habitat for Humanity of Durham. “We work with hardworking families to provide them with a safe and affordable place to live.” As part of the deal, homeowners put in at least 250 hours of sweat equity, helping to build their own and other Habitat houses.
Dan Allums, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, and single dad to four-year-old Juliet, moved into his own Habitat home last month. “Now I don’t have to worry about letting my daughter play outside during certain times of the day,” he said. “I went from paying too much for rent in an unsafe area to owning my home. We’re able to enjoy life.”
Once Marked for Destruction, A Neighborhood Thrives
His name is Willie Patterson, but nobody calls him Willie. He’s Mr. Patterson. It’s a show of respect for the man who literally saved Durham’s Crest Street neighborhood from being erased in the name of progress.
Blue Cross’ Day of Service included the company’s ninth KaBOOM! playground build in North Carolina, this time on Crest Street in Durham. The construction project drew more than 200 volunteers, many of them from the Crest Street area. Additional volunteers came from Durham’s Parks and Recreation Department, Keep Durham Beautiful and the Durham Police Department. The new play space will serve as a focal point for the community, a place where friends and neighbors can strengthen the unity that spared their homes from the wrecking ball.
Mr. Patterson, president of the Crest Street Community Council since its formation in 1975, led the successful effort to re-direct the planned route of NC-147 – the Durham Freeway – which originally was going to run right through Crest Street and its surroundings. “This is an unusually close-knit community,” the 81-year-old Mr. Patterson explains. “People here care for each other and look after each other. Crest Street has a long history of togetherness.”
One Day + 150 Volunteers = 100,000 Diapers
A former social worker and mom of three, Michelle Old started the Diaper Bank of North Carolina from her kitchen counter back in the spring of 2013. Her mission that first year was to cover 50,000 babies’ bottoms. Three years later, the NC Diaper Bank has distributed nearly a million diapers in 2016 alone.
“One in three families in our state needs help providing diapers for their babies,” Old said. “Food stamps and WIC do not cover the cost of diapers, so families are left with the tough choice of buying diapers or buying food and other necessities. And food and rent always win, so a parent may be forced to leave their child in the same diaper all day.”
Staying in the same diaper can result in painful rashes and other health risks for these children, and cloth diapers are not always an option. That also causes stress in guilt in their parents. “Eighty percent of the families who receive our diapers are working two to three jobs,” Old added. “These are hardworking people, who want the best for their children, just like anyone else.”
In addition to the 100,000 diapers counted, wrapped and prepared for distribution on Blue Cross’ Day of Service, the 150 volunteers also counted and wrapped 20,000 feminine hygiene products for moms and for middle and high school students. “We’re changing our mission to providing dignity, not just diapers,” Old said. “We figured if a mom wasn’t able to provide diapers, she wasn’t able to provide for herself. And we were also getting reports that girls were missing school due to lack of hygiene products. We want to change that.”
Here’s a recap of our efforts:
Communications specialists Charlene Macielag and Maggie Brown and internal communications manager Mark Stinneford contributed to this post.