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Star Struck | By Allison Williams


This is a story about sambas and second chances. And how a night on the town turned and is still turning three brand-new houses into family homes, families who thought a place to call their own would always be out of reach. This is no ordinary night. “Fayetteville Dancing with the Stars” returns for an encore performance March 20 at the Crown Coliseum. Several brave souls will reprise their smooth moves: Larry Keen, president of Fayetteville Technical Community College, is back. So are Shirley Moore, Carlos Zukowski and Benny Nichols. Look for newcomers like artist David McCune, along with dermatologist Richard Shereff and Terri Union, chairwoman of Fayetteville’s Public Works Commission. Their mission is the same: to raise money for the Women’s Center of Fayetteville and its Lease to Home housing program. Last year’s contest raised more than $40,000, money the Women’s Center was able to stretch to not one but three new homes near the campus of Fayetteville State University. Like the graceful twists of the tango, everything fell into place. A generous donor gave the land, Re-Store Warehouse had the wooden house frames and money raised from “Stars” did the rest. The funny thing is, Women’s Center Director Sylvia Ray never imagined that the center would even have a housing program. But Ray quickly discovered that it was difficult to help the people who came through her doors if they did not have an affordable, even safe, place to live. “How can you make it?” she would ask her clients, “Your children aren’t safe.” Lease to Home was born. In the past decade, the Women’s Center has purchased 61 homes, transforming 40 families into homeowners. Cindy Martinez is one of them. Just 10 years ago, no one would have believed Martinez could go from drug addict to substance abuse counselor, least of all herself. But she came to North Carolina in search of a fresh start in 2002. That’s when she met Chris Gonzales. Gonzales has an official title at the Women’s Center: housing director. But on any given day, she is part house hunter, real estate agent, loan officer, credit counselor, bully and cheerleader. “I’m their landlord, their best friend, their worst enemy. ‘She’s tough, but I love her,’ that’s what they say. To me, that’s the greatest feeling in the world.” Step by step, Gonzales helps her clients rebuild credit history, set goals, make a budget and save. When they’re ready to become homeowners, she points them to the professionals – the actual bankers and loan officers she has spent years cultivating. And one day, she’s there when a client signs on the dotted line. For Cindy Martinez, that moment came in 2006. “I still get up some nights and walk into my living room … and say, ‘This is my home. I still can’t believe I have my home, that somebody gave me a chance.” Sylvia Ray hopes people understand the dire need for affordable housing in Fayetteville. Working families resort to unsafe living conditions because of high rents or poor credit, she says. “I couldn’t even rent a decent house,” says Faith Hilliard, another person helped through the Lease to Home program. “Thank God for the Women’s Center.’” Gonzales says that is the payoff. “To me, that’s the greatest feeling in the world. It makes me feel good making a difference in people’s life.”