When we think of how news impacts our lives, we often think of information: We learn about road closures, legislation that will affect our community, or even residents of interest who we want to know more about. But sometimes, lightning strikes and the impact of a news story is immediate and concrete. That’s the case with one particular story from Charlotte, North Carolina’s WFAE, a local FM radio station.
In 2018, reporter David Boraks began exploring the lack the affordable housing in Charlotte in a series called “Finding Home.” As part of the editorial project, Boraks and others at WFAE began profiling transitional housing programs in Charlotte and the people they serve.
A big part of the inspiration behind the project was to show “how the [affordable housing] crisis was affecting people on an individual level … and put a face on the problem,” allowing Charlotte residents to learn about their neighbors’ experiences. The personal stories allowed WFAE to introduce its readers and listeners to “things they know intellectually” but with which they may not have a personal connection.
Among those was the story of Gracious Hands. The small nonprofit, opened in 2015, is one of only a few transitional housing programs that focuses on women with children.
When Boraks first began his reporting on the organization in March 2018, it was a positive story. He interviewed the program’s founder, Sonja Chisholm, about her vital work and the women she helps. Boraks profiled several of the women she was helping throughout the year, shining a light on the important work being done and the dire need for such services. But in November 2018, Boraks learned that Gracious Hands was facing eviction from their home, putting the program and the women involved at risk.
At the time, Gracious Hands’ landlord had “decided not to renew the lease and began eviction proceedings after a dispute over repairs needed to meet city codes.”
Chisholm braced for the worst… but it never came. Following Boraks’s reporting on the situation, listeners started reaching out to find out how they could help. Gracious Hands received several calls and donations, but it was a call that Boraks himself received that made the real difference.
“A listener reached out to me to get more information on the situation, and I helped explain where [Gracious Hands’ program] fit into the needs of the community,” Boraks said. When Boraks connected the caller with Chisholm directly, magic happened.
The caller, who wished to remain anonymous, offered to buy a new house for Gracious Hands. With a $200,000 budget from the donor, Chisholm was able to find a suitable space that would allow her to continue her work of housing and helping women in transition in Charlotte.
“An angel from heaven heard the story. And it was amazing,” Chisolm told Boraks for his follow-up story in January 2019.
Boraks was also shocked by the generosity of his caller. “I’m not surprised when stories [like this] inspire people to help,” he said, “but I was surprised by this level [of charity]. It was amazing to see someone step in to fill this need.”
During his more than 40 years in journalism – mostly spent reporting on local communities – Boraks has seen the power of local reporting more than a few times. “Over my career there have been other times when this has happened,” he shared. “During my first job, I wrote a story about a child with liver cancer [and readers responded by creating] a fund to help.”
Local journalism has a much greater capacity to create this kind of impact than people realize, Boraks said. “When stories come from journalists who are part of the community, it carries some weight.”
And while the stories Boraks writes and reports create an impact in his community, they also impact him. “There’s something so rewarding about writing news for your community and seeing the impact immediately,” Boraks said.
You can read the story that inspired the donor, “Facing Eviction, Transitional Shelter For Homeless Families Fights For Its Life,” here.
You can read the follow-up story, “An ‘Angel’ Buys A House For Homeless Program Facing Eviction,” here.
Jennifer Peters is former content manager of the News Media Alliance.