Women Builders Make Giving a Priority

By Stephanie J. Oppenheimer, APR
“From little tiny things, big things happen,” said Fiona Hughes, co-founder of Women Giving Back (WGB) and director of marketing for Stanley Martin Homes.

And big things are happening for WGB, a program of HomeAid Northern Virginia that was founded in 2007 by a core group of building industry sales and marketing professionals who wanted to help transitionally homeless women more easily re-enter the workplace. To do this, the program provides professional, work-appropriate clothing and accessories at no charge.

As a program of HomeAid Northern Virginia, which builds and renovates housing and shelters for homeless families and individuals, WGB has served as a remarkably successful outreach program for further helping local families get back on their feet and into a new career.

“Over the past four years, we’ve distributed more than 50,000 items of clothing to women and children from more than 100 shelters in Northern Virginia,” said Terri Stagi, co-founder of WGB, board member of HomeAid and president of Jack Morris Advertising. “This program is all about getting professional, contemporary clothing to women who need it, but it’s also about restoring their dignity and making them feel great about themselves.”

It is the goal of dignity that perhaps differentiates WGB the most from the many other charitable organizations that provide clothing to families in need. Rather than seeing bags of clothing mounded into the back of a tractor trailer, WGB has monthly sorting parties, during which volunteers sort and hang donated clothing on racks in a retail store. WGB –The Store is then opened for three hours every second Saturday of the month to women referred by area shelters. Shoppers are allowed up to 25 free outfits once a month.

Helping Real Women
Jewel Mikula, a HomeAid Board member and the executive director of Shelter House, which provides temporary emergency housing and supportive services to the homeless in Northern Virginia, said that WGB has made an incalculable impact on the lives of families.

“Every time I have referred a woman to shop at the WGB Store, I’ve heard how welcoming and respectful their whole experience was. All of us want a special outfit when we’re trying something new, and these women do too. They want a dress that will boost their confidence when they walk into a job interview, and they want their kids to be dressed nicely for school. HomeAid and WGB really get that. They understand the plight of so many of our families, and they have found a niche that really can help change lives.”

Teri Harbour Vita, workforce development specialist for Training Futures — a program run by Northern Virginia Family Service that prepares low-income, unemployed or underpaid individuals to make the move to stable, professional office careers — has also found WGB to be an invaluable resource for the community of women looking to get back into the work force.

“We give out vouchers for The Store once a month to our trainees, who are all women looking for positions in office work,” Vita said. “Oftentimes, they’ll come back on Monday after a WGB shopping weekend looking really great in contemporary business clothes that are always in excellent condition. So much of the success of our trainees is in the clothes they wear because, when they’re wearing them, they start feeling like they’re part of the corporate world. They’re more focused, more engaged and more motivated just by wearing those professional clothes. It’s made a profound difference.”

“Lydia,” a mother of three from Ghana and a former Training Futures trainee and WGB shopper, agrees that having access to professional clothing made a new job — and a new life — possible.

“When I enrolled in the Training Futures course, I had to dress professionally in order to take the classes and finish the six-month program,” she said. “There were times when I had to choose between buying clothes and buying food, and as a mom, of course I chose food. Shopping at WGB was like getting to go to the mall every month, and once I was able to start dressing professionally, I started acting professionally. WGB will always live in my heart.”

Now the executive assistant at Reston Interfaith, a nonprofit social services organization serving Northern Virginia, Lydia knows that a big part of landing her new job was the feeling she gained when she wore her new clothes to the interview: “When I walked in that door, I looked like an executive assistant.”

Not surprisingly, operating The Store is an enormous task, requiring countless hours to coordinate clothing drives, collect unsold clothes from consignment shops, seek sponsors, hold fundraisers, sort clothing and, of course, help women on shopping days. Storing and distributing clothing has become significantly easier with the opening of a new 5,400 square foot space in May.

The new space, leased at a very competitive rate by HomeAid Northern Virginia, was converted from raw warehouse space into a store by Toll Brothers and a team of 25 trade partners. The generosity of Toll Brothers and others helped transform the space to include open areas for displaying clothing, fitting areas and a children’s play room. Prior to its opening, volunteers worked out of donated, temporary warehouse space, which meant that volunteers packed and unpacked the clothing every month.

Growing Through Volunteering
Denise Harrover, vice president of community development for Van Metre Companies, is a WGB volunteer who has made it her mission to make the program one of her life’s priorities.

“When Terri [Stagi] first mentioned WGB to me a few years ago, I wasn’t volunteering anywhere, the market had slowed a little bit, and it was an outlet that is near and dear to my heart. My sister was in this situation 20 years ago, with kids and just the clothes on their backs,” Harrover explained.

“Back then, these kinds of programs didn’t exist, and I thought back to how hard it was for her and how much a place like WGB would have helped her transition to a new life. I jumped at the opportunity to help out.”

Harrover invited her own circle of girlfriends to get involved, as many of them were passing along children’s clothes when their kids quickly outgrew them. All were enthusiastic about donating to WGB, and many also came out to volunteer at The Store, either by helping sort clothes or assisting shoppers on Saturdays.

“Our volunteers and our dedicated program leaders come from all walks of life,” Harrover said, adding, “And when we get together, there’s an amazing sense of empowerment that we can do anything. Egos are checked at the door, we focus on getting things done, and we enjoy each other’s company while we’re doing it.

“WGB has become our way to take care of our own, but it’s also about giving back to each other — to our sisterhood. We get a huge sense of accomplishment by doing something right for our community, and we’re proud to be in it together. It’s really a double win-win, and I can say I’ve never done anything in my life that has made me feel this proud.”

Looking to the Future
Looking forward, WGB quickly realized that the struggling economy — combined with WGB’s success and larger, permanent space — will likely mean that the demand will grow, making the process of locating and getting donations of clothing and accessories even more critical.

Tracy Graves, a WGB volunteer and vice president/general manager for Newland Communities, pointed out that strategies for growing WGB’s clothing supply line can be as homegrown as asking friends and neighbors to consider donating and as far-reaching as seeking corporate sponsorship to help raise funds. The group may also think about doing seasonal specialty drives to help collect other critical household items, such as quilts, coats or holiday items.

“We’ve been very successful in getting the message out to consignment stores, which have become one of our biggest sources; when a consignor’s time is up, we’ll ask the stores to notify us so that we can come collect the clothing rather than let it revert back to be fully ‘owned’ by that shop,” Graves said.

“Our success is dependent on those who donate. We’ve even been contacted by widowers who are looking to see their spouse’s clothing go to someone else’s good. We can all make a difference by looking at things in our own homes and asking if we really need it. We all have so much, and to be able to share some of that with those in need is a great feeling,” Graves continued.

“Charity is something we all want to do,” Harrover added, “but we don’t always know how to do it. There’s not a community in the world that doesn’t need this sort of program, and all it takes is the time and willingness of people who know that, in the end, their time is more valuable than any check we could write. To see a four-year-old girl spin around in a new dress? You can’t put a price tag on that.”

About the Author
Stephanie J. Oppenheimer, APR, is principal of Skylite Communications, a freelance writing and editing company based in Falls Church, Va.