We have all heard the word and many have discussed the plight of the homeless, but few of us have truly experienced what it is like to have no place to call home. No place for a moment of solace. No place for a shred of privacy. No place for safety. No place to shelter ourselves let alone our family. When tough times strike, most of us are fortunate enough to have family and friends upon which to lean.
In the fall of 2011, while this company was in its infancy, I lost what little financial security I had. I was shaken to my core and terrified of how I would survive. Luckily, I had an incredible support system who offered me everything I needed to keep my head above water and Lenny in kibble. They refused to let me falter and in return I promised that I would do everything possible to make this company successful. Two years and many ups and downs later, Lenny and I still have a roof over our heads, food in our stomachs, clothing on our backs and the “little company that could” is steadily growing and making its mark not only in people’s tummies, but in their hearts as well. But what of those who are not as lucky as we?
I have been blessed with an amazing circle of family and friends who make the world a better place daily by reaching out to those less fortunate and offering them a helping hand. One of those people is my dear friend, Liz Henderson. Liz is one of the kindest, gentlest, most considerate people you will ever meet. She has an infectious laugh and her fiance, Kevin, and their pug, Lennon, make me smile daily knowing that they are out there making the world a better place. You see, Liz is the Director of the Coalition for the Homeless First Step Job Training Program.
“A record 10,000 families sleep each night in New York City’s emergency shelter system. Thousands more live doubled- or tripled-up with friends or relatives, unable to afford housing in one of the country’s tightest real estate markets. The overwhelming majority of these homeless families are headed by single mothers who want to provide their children with safe and stable homes. Many lack the career skills necessary to find and maintain living wage employment. Others suffer from low-self esteem and self-worth, usually caused by years of domestic abuse. That’s why the Coalition’s First Step Job Training Program is so vital. By empowering homeless women to reach self-sufficiency through hands on job training, internships, mentoring, job placement and social service support, First Step benefits every member of the family.
“First Step’s innovative 14-week curriculum includes over 75 hours of computer instruction, along with literacy workshops, communication and interpersonal skills development, and other hands-on activities that give students a thorough and practical understanding of the job market and workplace. First Step also places students in internships with major corporations or non-profit organizations, and offers mentoring by experienced professional women. We also provide a lifetime of post-graduate services, including job placement assistance, ongoing mentoring from staff and volunteers, support groups, additional training seminars, and numerous networking opportunities with alumni and business professionals.
“Each year First Step helps hundreds of women achieve a new found sense of self-esteem and direction. The program has proven to be highly effective. Last year, of those enrolled, approximately two-thirds graduated, successfully completing both the classroom and internship portions of the program, of which 75 percent secured full-time employment.
“Coalition for the Homeless is the nation’s oldest advocacy and direct service organization helping homeless men, women, and children. We are dedicated to the principle that affordable housing, sufficient food, and the chance to work for a living wage are fundamental rights in a civilized society. Since our inception in 1981, the Coalition has worked through litigation, public education, and direct services to ensure that these goals are realized.
When Liz, in her quiet way, approached me about sponsoring this year’s Women Mean Business Luncheon it wasn’t a question of whether we would participate, but how. We couldn’t afford to buy a table (but one day we will) so, we went about making caramels to fill 350 organza pouches which would be included in the event gift bags. As I worked silently in the kitchen cutting and wrapping each confection one day, I reflected on the small community of homeless and near-homeless men who inhabit a corner of my block.
I often rely on Lenny to gauge the character of a person so when he immediately took to one of the men who sold newspapers at the subway entrance, I made a point to learn his name. Roy has never asked for money or food. He and his boys sit on milk crates most days chatting and watching the goings on of the public housing buildings across the way. On days when the sun is shining, Lenny stops and sits amongst the men letting them pet him while they tell me about the dogs they used to have. One man calls him “Sandy,” but I’ve never corrected him because it’s not important. What is important is that for a few minutes each day a lady and her dog stop by to chat. We don’t walk by and turn a blind eye. We don’t treat the men like pariahs. We smile and ask how they are doing. Simply, we treat them like humans — with dignity and respect — just as we wish to be treated.
It was my honor to be seated with Liz, Corporate Partnership Award recipients of Deutsch and Class 112 graduate Marlene Romero at this year’s luncheon. It was an amazing two hours in which I was inspired by the strength, perseverance and words of hope, spoken by President & CEO of Coalition for the Homeless Mary Brosnahan, Class 111 graduate Shakira Kennedy, Class 106 graduate Jessie Garcia and Ms. Romero. Many tears were shed and 350+ attendees walked out of the Grand Ballroom at The Pierre on Wednesday, April 17, 2013, with a renewed energy for change.
As Deutsch stated in the event program, “The difference between wanting change and creating change starts with standing up. Here’s to empty seats.”