On Professional Development Day, our Keynote Speaker, Veronika Scott, shared the story of The Empowerment Plan, a Detroit non-profit that hires homeless women from local shelters to manufacture the EMPWR Coat, a garment that serves as both a coat and a sleeping bag. These coats are distributed to homeless individuals within the community, at no cost to them.
Veronika started The Empowerment Plan as a student at the College for Creative studies in 2010. A design class project prompted the question: What do the people of Detroit need? When she learned that the city was home to over 20,000 homeless individuals, she realized that what many people needed during a frigid Michigan winter was warmth. Shelters alone could not provide every individual in need with that basic necessity, and many of those most vulnerable to the weather valued maintaining as much independence as possible and would not go to a shelter.
But a coat? A coat could protect its wearer from the elements and go wherever that person went.
So Veronika began visiting one of the shelters to ask the residents for help designing this coat. She went back three times a week for months while creating the first version. When it was ready, she proudly shared it with the residents, who were just as excited as she was. At this point, it was the community’s project as much as it was hers, and there were still many improvements to be made. Soon, however, Veronika realized that the act of providing a coat to a person in need, in and of itself, was little more than a band-aid for a larger problem. What those in the shelter really wanted was the opportunity to create a better future for themselves.
“We don’t need coats,” Veronika says one of the shelter residents told her angrily. “We need jobs.”
And Veronika, by now known as “The Crazy Coat Lady,” needed workers. Making each coat with her mom out of heavy recycled materials on a regular sewing machine took over a week—not exactly an efficient process. With the help of a local outerwear company, she was able to get the equipment and materials she needed to bring on her first two employees, set up shop in the shelter, and generate enough donations to fund their positions.
When hiring, Veronika looks to bring on those who have chosen to make a difference in their lives, who have ambition and are working for a purpose. Often their goal is to provide their children with a stable home. Their pasts may have been on the streets, in prostitution, or in prison, and they have no prior experience as a seamstress. None of that matters in comparison to their commitment to their future. At The Empowerment Plan, those who are hired get a second chance.
Providing that opportunity to a woman who has been living in a shelter creates a positive ripple effect: She can provide for her children, move out of the shelter, afford her own home, gain professional skills that will take her farther, give warmth to those in her community who need it….
At this point, The Empowerment Plan has a staff of more than a dozen seamstresses, who create thousands of coats a year for those on the streets. With each hire and each coat that ripple of positivity extends its reach.
Thank you, Veronika, for sharing your inspiring story with our team this week! Want to learn more about The Empowerment Plan? Check out their website and hear the story of the company’s origins in Veronika’s own words in this TEDxDetroit video: