THE BLOG

In Memory of Dean Smith: UNC and Duke Students Work Together to Tackle Poverty

02/23/2015 09:21 am ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

Before their first matchup since the passing of legendary University of North Carolina (UNC) coach Dean Smith, both the UNC and Duke men's basketball teams took the court on Wednesday for a moment of silence. With arms linked and heads bowed, players and coaches showed gratitude and honor for a man whose influence transcended sports and who embraced the ideals of equal opportunity, community, excellence and integrity.

For basketball fans unaffiliated with either university, this may have seemed like a rare communion of two teams so aggressively pitted against each other on the court. Yes, the UNC-Duke rivalry is among the most heated in all of sports, motivated by the short distance between schools in physical proximity, yearly conference standings, series wins and academic rankings.

Essential to any meaningful rivalry, however, is a deep reverence between programs both on and off the court. As such, UNC and Duke students and student-athletes collaborate daily. And in true rivalry fashion, the students' collaboration is as intense as the challenge they are choosing to undertake, be it the opposing basketball team or more poignant issues like healthy food access or affordable housing.

Launched in 2009 by UNC students to serve Orange County and expanded in 2011 by Duke students to serve Durham County, the Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) is a student-driven nonprofit working to alleviate homelessness and poverty. Students provide individualized support, financial coaching and savings tools, and an inclusive environment for low-income community members.

CEF is a place where everyone -- individuals of all socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, as well as UNC or Duke affiliation -- is equal. There is no competition here.

UNC and Duke student volunteers meet one-on-one with members of the community to help them find employment or housing, seek higher education, build budgets, or save money for greater financial stability. In Chapel Hill, they gather in a small office nestled above Franklin Street (the same street stormed by UNC fans after a 74-66 win over Duke in February 2014). In Durham, they meet in the living and dining rooms of area shelters and transitional homes, as well as in the newly opened CEF office in Durham's revitalized downtown neighborhood. It is a true collaboration between students at both schools and the communities in which they live.

"For our members, CEF is an important link between the Chapel Hill and Durham communities," said Catherina Leipold, a junior at UNC. "Duke and UNC students really connect over our shared work and vision for the organization."

That vision -- to combat poverty by tackling its determinants -- is not something to be achieved easily. But in 2014, with a volunteer base of more than 250 students across both universities, CEF helped 115 community members gain employment and 65 community members find independent housing. In the last few years, CEF has helped members save nearly $300,000 toward personal savings goals. The organization anticipates that it will serve nearly 500 individuals in 2015.

CEF does this work with the help of many community partners. A key organizational partner is the InterFaith Council for Social Service, a nonprofit supported by Dean Smith and his family that represents the values for which he stood so strongly. So, after his passing, Dean Smith's legacy remains intimately woven into the fabric of organizations working to improve quality of life for society's most vulnerable. His work continues in the actions of UNC and Duke student volunteers fighting poverty and homelessness in their shared communities.

"True rivalry is as much about mutual respect as it is about competition," said Matthew Hamilton, a junior at Duke. "CEF is one of the spaces where Duke and UNC are learning how to leverage this respect into cooperation -- where we combine our common knowledge, skills and the fervor so evident in our rivalry to work towards tackling the problems our communities also share."

It's not about wins and losses. It's about recognizing challenges that are bigger than basketball and having the courage to stand up to battle them. Dean Smith showed us that. The UNC and Duke men's basketball teams showed us that in their tribute to him on Wednesday evening. And CEF volunteers feed on his influence daily.

As Dean Smith famously said, we need to "play hard, play smart, and play together" in order to succeed and make change. Through CEF, UNC and Duke students strive to do just that.