Children born into poverty in Charlotte have the lowest odds in the country of rising above that poverty. Homelessness in the Queen City is up 13 percent over last year. Eviction filings are up too - to more than 29,000. Nearly 40,000 families in Mecklenburg County spend more than half of their income on rent.
If you read these stats and think, "Charlotte can do better," then you really need to meet Sonja Chisholm.
"I always knew I wanted to help the homeless, and I would say, 'When I win the lottery, then I'll open up a women's shelter,'" says Sonja, a native Charlottean. "Well, one day God spoke to me and he said, 'When I gave you the vision, that was you winning the lottery."
Although she had a good job as a corporate supervisor, Sonja knew she wouldn't be satisfied until she took action to help homeless women. She had never been homeless herself, but her experiences as a single mother of three had shown her just how tenuous housing stability can be in the Queen City.
When she looks back at the bumps in her own road and the lessons she learned from them, Sonja feels compelled to share those lessons with women in need. "I have a lot of jewels in my heart that need to go to other people," she says.
Sonja's vision turned into Gracious Hands, a transitional housing nonprofit that has served 116 women and 118 children in three years. Sonja and her team provide much more than shelter. Gracious Hands residents get a safe, comfortable home for themselves and their children, plus counseling, financial training, credit repair, and life coaching. Gracious Hands does all this for five women and their children at a time.
"We love them back to life," says Sonja. "They come in with empty toolboxes and by the time they leave, we want them to have every tool they need to make it in this thing called life."
No Free Rides
The first thing residents learn when they come to Gracious Hands is that they have to be invested in their own success. "I don't believe in handouts," says Sonja. "If you're looking for a handout, this is not the place for you. If you're looking to completely change your life, then you're in the right place."
Sonja expects her residents to save half their income and have at least $5,000 in savings before they transition into their own homes, and she is diligent about the standards she has for her residents.
Ask for stories of residents transforming their lives, and Sonja lights up. She remembers a woman who showed up in a suicidal state, with no home, no job and no family to rely on. When she left Gracious Hands she had completed her nursing assistant training and had goals for her future. "Her toolbox was fully loaded," says Sonja.
Another woman had been sleeping in her car with her daughter. Since finding Gracious Hands, she has found a job, and her daughter is making straight A's in school. "When we saw her report card, we all just went crazy," says Sonja.
An Early Christmas Gift
Running a transitional housing program with hardly any grant money is just as challenging as you would think - and Sonja recently ran into her biggest challenge yet.
Although Sonja had never missed a single rent payment and always kept up with the maintenance on the two-bedroom rental that housed her residents, the property management company told her this year that the lease would not be renewed and they would have to find a new location.
Her faith kept Sonja hopeful even when her residents were threatened with losing the one thing they needed most - a roof over their heads. She tried to spread the word about their situation. WFAE covered her story on the radio. Sonja stayed faithful.
And then, last week, they got an early Christmas gift: a donor who had heard the radio story wanted to purchase a permanent home for Gracious Hands. On November 20 they put in an offer on a home in West Sugar Creek. Sonja is hopeful that everything will go through and eager to get to work on turning the property into a home.
"It's a vintage house - it's old, but it's beautiful. I see it as a great investment for Gracious Hands. We have room to add on, we have space for a garden. I have a vision for converting the garage into more living space so we can serve more women. But the best part is that we will never again have to worry about renewing a lease or losing this home," says Sonja.
How You Can Help
Sonja got the one thing that was on her holiday wish list. But there is still plenty of work to do. She would love for volunteers to donate and plant flowers, help with painting, and rake the leaves. She also needs some electrical work and some additional cabinetry in the kitchen.
If you want to chip in and help Sonja turn the house into a home, contact her at 704.777.0155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you don't have the time or ability to help with home improvement, financial gifts are always welcome at gracioushandshousing.org.
In the meantime, Sonja will keep devoting her time, energy and money to her vision - a vision that is helping more and more women in Charlotte rise out of homelessness.
"Just to see these women go from being broken by despair to holding their heads high and believing in themselves, money can't buy that."