On a recent sunny morning in southeast Washington, DC, some two dozen women participating in Bread for the City’s WomenStrong DC introduced themselves to each other. They shared how they came to find out about WSDC, how they feel about the program and what it means to them to be a part of it.
“My name is Aneesha and coming here keeps me going,” one fancifully dressed, middle-aged woman told us. (Her name has been changed due to privacy concerns.)
“I have lupus, which sent me into depression,” Aneesha explained. “But I get so excited when I think about coming over here, I have no pain — I just think about coming here to WomenStrong.”
“My sister brought me,” said another woman, gesturing toward the woman sitting beside her.
“I came in for the diapers,” volunteered another, “and saw the signs about ‘WomenStrong DC,’ and I thought, ‘Woman Strong: that’s me!’”
All the women who gathered on that Tuesday morning have faced significant challenges in their lives, from domestic violence to homelessness, from substance abuse and recovery to incarceration and re-entry, from surviving rape and beyond. Yet, together, they felt strong. And together, in community, they resolved to give back.
In mid-August, WSDC staff and participants went to a nearby recreation center to assist in setting up and distributing groceries in collaboration with Martha’s Table, a local non-profit that, like WomenStrong International partner Bread for the City, provides local families with food, clothing, educational opportunities and family support services. Martha’s Table hosts a free Farmers’ Market every third Friday of the month, just a few blocks from Bread for the City SE. By deciding to volunteer there, the WSDC participants gave themselves the opportunity to engage with other volunteers and members of their community and to know what it feels like to help others in dire need.
As the Market got underway and customers started streaming in, WomenStrong DC participants helped set up tables, unloaded and arranged groceries to look enticing and sliced up delicious watermelon. Volunteering, they said, was a way to show their gratitude for the help and support they themselves have received from Bread for the City.
“What we did was a really nice thing to do,” one woman said quietly, on the walk back to Bread for the City, “I will be back here for the next time.” Participants agreed they all wanted to continue working at the Farmers’ Market every third Friday; they did so, in September and again just recently.
Soon after their third Farmers’ Market day, the women took part in a follow-up discussion about ways to invest even more in giving back. By doubling down on their volunteering, the idea was, they could earn something WomenStrong International calls “Social Capital Credits,” or “SoCCs.” SoCCs is system of exchange whereby what we generally consider extraordinary volunteer work or community service is compensated in-kind with desired goods and services. Developed by WSI Board member Geeta Mehta and championed by her organization, WomenStrong partner Asia Initiatives, Social Capital Credits programs are already in place in WomenStrong’s Ghanaian and Kenyan sites, and WomenStrong DC participants had expressed interest in trying out SoCCs for themselves.
Along with other ideas – reading to children or the elderly, strengthening their own reading or financial literacy skills – the women returned to the idea of helping the homeless, this time, by organizing their own feeding program.
“I’m going to tell you something, and I’m probably going to get upset when I tell you this,” said a woman new to WomenStrong DC. Immediately a WSDC staff member who had once been a client rose quietly, moved close and patted her back as she spoke.
“I have been homeless,” this woman continued. “I lived at Harriet Tubman Shelter over there at DC General, for over a year.” The vast campus of the former DC General Hospital, a crumbling, unsafe 91-year-old facility, has hosted a number of dangerously overcrowded homeless shelters that have been plagued by violence, misconduct and staff improprieties, including staff found selling drugs to and soliciting sex from residents and the kidnapping and presumed murder last year of a little girl. Largely closed down after this last dereliction, the DC General shelters are mostly open only on an emergency basis, on freezing nights.
The formerly homeless woman, whom we’ll call Olivia, remembered how grateful she had felt toward volunteers who had offered even the most modest gestures of kindness.
“People used to bring us toilet paper, and tampons, and other things – churches, y’know, used to come and bring us sandwiches and water and stuff… I really appreciated that stuff, I really did.
“But the meals prepared for us,” Olivia went on, naming a non-profit vendor contracted to provide food at the facility, “you could look at it, and you could just TELL that they didn’t care about the homeless.”
A number of those present nodded and “mm-hmmmed” emphatically in assent, making clear that they, too, had experienced homelessness and been exposed to this particular vendor’s unsavory meals.
Olivia continued, “I think we should provide some food – sandwiches, soup, snacks, water, coffee – at 5:30-6, when people are signing back in – it would be better if we could get together, make those sandwiches with LOVE. When you make sandwiches with LOVE, you’re gonna KNOW those sandwiches are made with love,” she said.
“Don’t yall need a permit to serve prepared food?” one thoughtful participant asked.
“Naah, my friend’s mother comes around, she makes huge pots of curried chicken and stuff, and she just gives it out… Especially now with it getting cold, I don’t think it’s so hard, y’all don’t need a permit.”
At this point Lynda Brown, Bread for the City’s Southeast Center Director who, until now, had hung back and let the women talk, suggested that she and her team reach out to the various shelters’ staff, to offer the women’s services and to explore what might be possible. She also volunteered to look into how the women could become trained and certified as “food handlers,” like many Bread for the City staffers who prepare meals.
“What about the people in parks and stuff, that aren’t in a shelter, that need food? I know a lot of ‘em,” said the woman who had spoken up earlier about her lupus and depression. If the women were to go there every week at the same time and give out the food they prepared, she said, and if they put up signs and distributed flyers advertising the day and time they’d be coming, they would attract a regular clientele. Many of these people, reluctant to relinquish what they perceive to be their autonomy to the world of shelters, have nowhere else to go or and nothing else to eat.
[[callout “When you make sandwiches with LOVE, you’re gonna KNOW those sandwiches are made with love”]]
The women left the session jazzed about this idea and excited to get started. WSDC is pursuing viable ways and mechanisms through which we can make this happen, including the purchase by WomenStrong International and WSDC of a van to transport the women and to serve as a roaming WomenStrong DC food truck wherein the food can be prepared and served to those who need it the most, by WSDC women, with love.
Giving back transforms the giver just as much as the recipient. Read about [Ms. Geraldine, a recipient of the Good Hope Award] and an example of how volunteering can change lives.