Arriving at the Women’s Empowerment Gala last month, I encountered a parade of beautiful women wearing prom dresses walking down J Street at 5:30 p.m. Women in high heels wearing brightly colored dresses on gray pedestrian-filled sidewalks stood out like peacocks in a flock of chickens. It was quite a sight.
Earlier that week, Moe Mohanna had taken me on a tour of his new homeless shelter for single women near the Loaves & Fishes complex. This new and controversial shelter has not yet been approved by the city, but it could certainly help provide much-needed housing this winter. In his vacant shelter, there were dozens of beautiful gowns waiting to be worn at the upcoming Women’s Empowerment Gala.
Moe introduced me to Lisa Culp, the founder and director of Women’s Empowerment. She took me through the cramped offices, full of photos of women who have graduated from their eight-week course. She explained the changing face of homelessness: While previously most homeless people were single men, a few years ago more women with children became homeless, and now those children raised on the streets were having babies of their own. Lisa, who had been working at Loaves & Fishes, felt something was needed to break this cycle. So, in 2001, she formed Women’s Empowerment.
The hurdles to overcome seem overwhelming: 85 percent of the women in the program have experienced family violence, 69 percent struggle with drug and alcohol recovery, and more than half have mental-health challenges. By offering a wide array of services, Women’s Empowerment promotes change. Providing child care, transportation assistance and family-violence protection, Women’s Empowerment offers an intensive eight-week program that provides a holistic approach towards self-reliance. And it works. After the program, nearly four out of five women are in permanent housing and employed or in school.
It is no surprise that Lisa was selected as the 2010 Soroptimist Ruby Award: For Women Helping Women recipient. Attending the gala were recent and past graduates of her classes.
I went around the room asking to hear the women’s stories. They started to blend together—violence, drugs, losing kids, sleeping on the streets. Then, through the program, they learned how to use a computer, or to be skeptical when a chronic abuser told them “it will never happen again.” And finally, they now have a roof over their heads. I anticipated these stories. But what I had not expected was how the women glowed. Each woman I talked to expressed pride and an amazement that although things were so very bad before, now they were good. I guess in a word, they were empowered.
I was in awe of them. That night my problems seemed so small compared to these remarkable women. I was honored to be a chicken in the midst of peacocks.