Ebony Cogdell remembers “the before.”
Weeds had invaded the yard. The front porch banister was rickety with rotted wood. Plywood covered missing windows, and the roof badly needed repair.
But after months of construction by Hope Restorations, the house became her dream home – a safe, affordable space for her family of four. And while Hope Restorations helped change Ebony’s life for the better, it also helped the workers who did the labor.
One House at a Time
Based in Kinston, N.C., Hope Restorations is a transitional employment and training program for adults recovering from addiction or incarceration. The organization acquires deteriorating, often abandoned or condemnable structures, and renovates them to modern, energy-efficient housing, which is then rented or sold to community members in need.
Since becoming a nonprofit in 2015, it has provided homes for 25 families and hope for 115 workers.
Chris Jenkins founded the organization as a ministry of Sharon United Methodist Church in Kinston, where he was pastor. The Duke Endowment supported the launch with a $65,000 grant in 2015. A second, $550,000 grant in 2018 is helping it become a model for other communities.
“People who go through the program can claim a new future that includes the dignity of a good job,” says Robb Webb, director of the Endowment’s Rural Church program area. “Families that move into the homes can experience hope and come to understand that their neighbors care about them. Congregations can develop real relationships with neighbors they may not ever otherwise encounter.”
Chris, who now serves as executive pastor of Hope Restorations, says the goal is rebuilding – one life, one home, one neighborhood at a time.
Working through despair
The vision for Hope Restorations came to Chris in the grief-filled months following the death of his son in 2013. A Kinston high-schooler, Tate had struggled for nearly two years with addiction.
As Chris and his wife searched for healing, Chris began buying houses in disrepair and fixing them up for local families to rent. He had no experience in construction, and no desire to be a landlord. But transforming an eyesore was good for the neighborhood, and the hard work kept his anguish tamped down.
Within 18 months, he had finished five units – and the idea for Hope Restorations had its foundation.
Building Skills Together
Hope Restorations buys homes, many for as little as $3,000, or accepts them as a donation. Repairs usually involve gutting interiors; installing new insulation, plumbing and wiring; replacing windows, floors and roofs. Materials and wages can total about $45,000 per house.
As workers learn about construction, they’re also given tools to build a new life. Hope Restorations partners with counseling services, vocational rehabilitation programs and the local community college to bolster its on-the-job training, and with United Methodist churches whose volunteers engage with and support participants. Before COVID restrictions curtailed gatherings, Chris used Tuesdays for sharing lunch, reading scripture and praying. Once a month, he offered communion.
“By partnering in this work, churches can help provide human and economic advancement for their community,” Chris says. “The houses are a vehicle for that, but the transformation also comes in the relationships and lessons that congregants share and learn from people who are often overlooked – in this case, formerly addicted and incarcerated men.”
Sixty percent of participants stay in the program long enough to find more permanent employment that pays a living wage.
"Mike" was living in a halfway house in Kinston when he joined Hope Restorations in its first year. He had served time, lost his home and burned too many bridges with family and friends. He knew how to paint a wall, but that was the extent of his construction expertise.
Now employed as a groundskeeper at a golf course and renting a home repaired by Hope Restorations, he says he got the chance he needed “to become a better man.”
The first unit he worked on is the one Ebony’s family now calls home.
Something Beautiful Emerged
Six years ago, Ebony was renting a small house in Kinston, in a neighborhood that she felt was unsafe for her children. Her teen-aged daughter and 10-year-old son had to share a bedroom. If something broke, the landlord made empty promises about repairs.
But finding a larger home, closer to school and closer to work, was challenging for the family budget. Ebony and her husband both work at a home improvement store; he holds a second job as a janitor at a local school.
The Hope Restorations house looked awful when she first drove by. But as Ebony watched the work crews tear down walls, refurbish floors and replace shingles, she saw something beautiful emerge. The finished product has four bedrooms and two baths – and the monthly rent of $600 is something they can afford.
“When I walked in,” she says, “I knew life was going to get better.”
Robert R. Webb III
Director of Rural Church