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Creating opportunities

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By Ret Boney

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C.  [08.02.04] — Sylvia Ray started the Women’s Center of Fayetteville in 1990 with a grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, some private funds, a used typewriter, cardboard boxes for filing and a dream of fostering economic opportunity in her community.

Today, the center has a staff of 14 and serves the community in a host of ways, from housing the homeless and offering small business assistance to purchasing and rehabilitating affordable housing.

Ray, a member of the Fayetteville community for 31 years, started the center after being a stay-at-home mother, graduating from Fayetteville State University and working as a real-estate agent.

Involved in the women’s movement in the 70s, she quietly retained her passion for social justice until a friend urged her to take action and start a resource center for women in Fayetteville.

“I decided I was going to go after it and make it happen that year or give up my dream,” Ray says.  “It changed my life.”

In the beginning, the center was made up of volunteers who steered women, many of whom had just arrived in the military community, to the host of available resources in the area.

Soon, the center took on paid staff and began to concentrate on issues around economic self-sufficiency for men as well as women, opening a business center in 1998 with funds from the Small Business Administration to provide consulting, mentoring and other services for local entrepreneurs.

The same year, using private donations and funds from the city and county, the center bought and rehabilitated several dilapidated rental units, which now serve as transitional housing for 20 homeless families, managed by the Cumberland Interfaith Hospitality Network.

Sylvia Ray

Job:  Executive director, The Women’s Center of Fayetteville

Birth date:  June 1, 1941, Kenansville, N.C.

Education:  B.A., business and communications, Fayetteville State University

Family:  Husband, Bob; two daughters; one grandson; two dogs, four cats

Hobbies:  Animals, reading, visiting grandson, travel

Just Read:  “Truth & Beauty:  A Friendship” by Ann Patchett

Inspiration Family; Denise Giles, director, Cumberland Interfaith Hospitality Network

Called Ashton Woods, families may stay in the homes for up to two years, using onsite services such as childcare and job search assistance, while they save money for permanent housing.

In 2000, the center took housing for the homeless a step further by purchasing the first houses for its Lease to Home program that lets homeless families rent homes from the center for three years, giving them time to clear up their credit histories, qualify for a mortgage and hopefully purchase their own homes.

Through a Veteran’s Administration program, the center is able to purchase foreclosed homes from the VA at a discount if it agrees to rent them to homeless families for three years, giving veterans rental preference, while using its own money for rehab.

At the end of those three years, the center sells the homes, ideally to the current tenants, allowing a portion of rental payments, which don’t exceed 30 percent of income, to go toward the purchase.

“I want everybody who works hard and who wants to be a homeowner to have that opportunity,” says Ray, who says housing is a foundational element in economic self-sufficiency.

The center has bought 35 homes to date, sold seven and plans on selling six more this year, using the proceeds to purchase more homes.

“It does have real potential of being self-supporting at some point,” says Ray.  “Funding sources are drying up, at least from the government.  It’s a way of helping people and helping us at the same time.”

Now, Ray is working to obtain grant money to better help these families prepare for and adjust to being first-time homeowners, giving them more support to maximize their chances for success.

“I think it’s the job of nonprofits to go out on a limb once in a while,” she says.

Over the years, the services offered by the center have grown to include Spanish classes for employers working with Hispanics, high-school-equivalency classes, a host of small business classes and job search training, among others.

“When I started this, a minister said to me, ‘You’ve really found your calling,’” says Ray. “I guess I have,” she says.

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