Watching the group of women chat and laugh during their Crocheting class as their needles deftly weave colorful strands of wool into baby hats and booties, one would have no idea how lonely their lives had been, before they enrolled in the WomenStrong – DC program, at Bread for the City, in SE Washington, DC. Same for the Sewing, T’ai Chi, Computer, BodyMapping and Let’s Walk classes – the last designed to get the women moving, together, through their distressed neighborhood, where the lack of certainty, security, parks and other recreational facilities long since discouraged them from walking alone or pursuing other forms of physical activity. Now they walk together, sharing stories, familiar complaints, health tips, jokes and gentle ribbing, self-deprecating comments and staunch encouragement for each other. The hour flies by, their hearts and legs are working, they feel good about themselves and about their newfound sisterhood.

It is only in the Let’s Talk session that one realizes just how new this sense of sisterhood really is, and the degree to which, prior to joining WomenStrong – DC, these beautiful, capable, urban women had lived lives of severe isolation and pain. In Let’s Talk, they share their experiences of domestic violence, homelessness, substance abuse and incarceration; of trying to get jobs, job training or psychotherapy post-incarceration, of fighting, losing and refighting child custody battles, about reconciliations with both parents and children, about losing children to the streets, to gun violence, to sudden, unexplained illness and death.

“I’m a crack baby,” one 25-year-old single woman, then pregnant with her sixth child, told the group; “Well, I’m a crack mother,” volunteered a somewhat older woman from the other end of the table. The two are now friends and consoled each other when, in the same week, both suffered tragic losses, one of a surrogate mother, the other of a long-estranged daughter, both newly trusted, both suddenly gone.

WomenStrong – DC works with those women in SE DC who have volunteered to join the program, hoping it will help them cope with their daunting arrays of challenges. In southeast Washington, the section of our nation’s capital with some of America’s worst health and human development indicators, they may come for housing, clothing, medical care, legal support and/or counseling, or all of the above; some are former professionals now down on their luck, others are stuck in abusive relationships, still others need help in staying sober or getting a job. They may not come for a sense of community, but this is what they find. And, surprising to those of us who worked together to design the WomenStrong – DC program, this unheralded, intangible component, intrinsic to all the WomenStrong classes and workshops, and to the women’s precious, one-on-one sessions with WS-DC’s expert Wellness Coordinators, may be the essential, magical ingredient that begins the process of true healing, recovery and lasting wellbeing for these women, who have had to endure so much, all on their own.

It’s not rocket science, this magical ingredient, nor does it require massive outlays of government or corporate funding. What is it, this core component of the WomenStrong – DC program, the critical key to healing, wholeness and wellness? It’s the sense of community, of sisterhood, of commonality of experience, of having someone who’s got your back and won’t let you fall, as you aim higher and higher, in fulfilling your own dreams. It’s the magic of shared experience, of belonging, of being seen and understood, that the WomenStrong women recognized immediately, gravitated toward and absolutely are running with — even though they didn’t know or say that this is what they were coming for, and even though we, as providers, hadn’t understood that without this component, not even the best-designed programs could succeed. We have all been humbled to remember the centrality and the power of sisterhood, as we bear witness to the simple reality that bringing these astonishingly resilient women together is slowly, silently but irrevocably building the solid anchor of solidarity, the collectively woven safety net undergirding each woman, as she takes flight.

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