There’s a woman in my neighborhood who looks like Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”). But my neighbor doesn’t grace magazine covers. She lives on the bus stop bench right outside the Gap at West 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue in New York City. She is as skinny as a lower case “L,” and I see her in the mornings when I walk my dog. Posters of well-clad celebs in the store windows are her backdrop — but “L-lady” is bundled in tattered rags.
The first time I saw her was early December. I began to bring her food and clothes. Not wanting to insult her pride, I left them for her while she slept. As the temps grew colder, I worried about her, and now she isn’t there anymore. Feeling helpless, I found myself Googling the word “homeless.”
I stumbled upon a 25-year-old named Veronika Scott. Scott graduated from the College for Creative Studies in her native Detroit. She’d taken what her professor Stephen Schock called a “design activism” class. The assignment was to create a design in response to a need. Scott designed a warm winter coat that opens out into a sleeping bag and also rolls into an easy-to-carry bag that’s smaller than a yoga matt.
When Scott’s design was well-received, Carhartt clothing company offered support. Scott was then able to hand out coats to the homeless people in Detroit. It was going great until one woman yelled at her. The homeless woman said that she didn’t need charity, she needed a job. So, what began as Scott’s design class project grew into a nonprofit Scott named The Empowerment Plan, where she hires unemployed and homeless mothers to make the aforementioned coats. She describes it as “a system of empowerment for single parents who are struggling to provide for their children.”
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I was so impressed, I reached out to Scott for an exclusive interview.
“I grew up in poverty,” she told me. “My parents struggled with addiction and were constantly looking for work. I felt devalued and unappreciated. I was seen as an extension of my parents and hence a failure. What I created with The Empowerment Plan is the opportunity that I wish had been given to my mother.
“When we hand someone a coat, it is often the only belonging that they can call theirs. It provides a renewed sense of pride and comfort — elements of human nature that many of us take for granted. Last winter, some of my team members and I were on a coat drop on one of the coldest days of the year. We encountered a woman who was wearing only pajama pants, tennis shoes and an oversized sweatshirt. I will never forget the gratitude that she showed us, and although I know she probably still had a handful of tribulations effecting her life, at least I know we were able to play a small part in keeping her warm,” she said.
“The women we hire have unique and powerful stories about how much they had overcome to get to where they are today. Annis, one of the first women I ever hired, had just gotten out of prison. She’d saved some money, but was unable to find reliable housing for her family — a son and a young granddaughter — because of her record. She was staying at a local shelter. Annis immediately became the core of who we are at The Empowerment Plan,” Scott shared. “As we hired more women, she became the den mother and served as a mother figure to many, including myself at times. At one team meeting, she thanked me for treating her with respect and expressed how long it had been since anyone had looked at her as a valuable person.”
Currently, 19 women work as seamstresses for The Empowerment Plan — and every one of their stories are different.
“Although a few of them struggled with domestic violence, financial difficulties or abuse, each journey is unique,” Scott said. “Many people make wrong assumptions as to why someone becomes homeless (‘They are lazy,’ ‘They’re an addict’).
“I am proud to share that as of last week, all 19 of our women have been able to make the transition from life in the shelter to their own home or apartment. There is no greater feeling than knowing each and every one of our team members will be heading home with their family to a safe and comfortable place to call their own. A handful of our women are enrolled in college courses, and another seven women will begin GED classes this year.”
In closing, Scott said, “When I started The Empowerment Plan, I was told I would never get a group of homeless women to show up to make a sandwich, let alone manufacture sleeping-bag coats. I have proved everyone wrong and now have implemented a model that others want to replicate around the world. The obstacles are what have made us who we are, and I cannot wait to take 2015 by storm!”
If you’d like to help, donations can be made on The Empowerment Plan’s website. Now, grab a tissue and watch this amazing video: