A Safe Space During Crisis
Story and photos by Laticia Headings
Women Giving Back’s mission is to support women and children in crisis by providing quality clothing at no cost. It’s something the nonprofit’s four staff members and over 4,500 volunteers take very seriously. Established in 2007, the organization was founded by three women who started collecting clothing to fill a need in the community.
Since then, the Sterling-based nonprofit has grown as the demand for social services has increased. WGB serves the greater Washington D.C. area and works with over 200 referral partners, various agencies that help women in need such as shelters, housing programs, government agencies, domestic violence programs, medical facilities, and faith-based organizations.
Case managers and social workers send their eligible clients and residents to WGB through a confidential, secured online registration system. Once a client is approved, they are able to attend a scheduled “store day” during the month and shop for up to 50 articles of clothing, five pairs of shoes, one coat, one purse, three pieces of jewelry or accessories, and two bras, free of charge. Mothers are also able to shop for children’s clothing while their kids are entertained and given a snack.
To accommodate the donated inventory of new or lightly worn clothing, WGB has a 13,000-square foot warehouse that includes a clothing boutique, cheerful childcare area, fashionable dressing rooms, and plenty of storage. The space may sound like an average department store, but to women who find themselves facing tough challenges and uncertainty, it can be a much-needed lifeline.
Executive Director Nicole Morris.
“When I walked through the door … I had my daughter on one hip and a bag on the other,” Jennifer Haas, a former client who fled a dangerous domestic abuse and sexual assault situation three years ago, says. “I was greeted with open arms and smiles. All the women were more than willing to help, and it left a lasting effect on me.”
Haas is now an active volunteer and ambassador for WGB, speaking out about domestic abuse.
“Everything that is put into place is really with the client’s dignity in mind, from the time she walks in that front door, to the way she is greeted, to the clothing on the racks,” Executive Director Nicole Morris says. “We just want them to have a really good, uplifting experience.”
While WGB does accommodate single fathers by appointment only, it primarily serves women fleeing domestic abuse situations who have left everything behind, women coming out of incarceration and re-entering the work force, pregnant women, and victims of sex trafficking.
“Many people are shocked about what’s happening,” Morris says. “They don’t realize that Northern Virginia has become a hub for sex trafficking.”
Victims are often afraid to come forward because of a language barrier, fear of their abusers, or embarrassment. In an effort to support victims seeking help, the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Initiative (NOVA-HTI) partnered with WGB to do one-on-one shopping sessions.
Manolo Blahnik shoes. “The women get really excited about the name brands.” says Morris.
“The clothing piece helps incentivize them, and the space allows for women to let their guards down and feel comfortable enough to tell their stories,” Morris says. “Establishing trust is an important part of providing them safety and assistance.”
For clients who have scheduling conflicts or lack of transportation, there is a Bags-to-Go program. Tailored bags of needed clothing are picked up by case managers or social workers and delivered to clients, often at domestic violence shelters.
“Domestic violence does not discriminate,” Morris says. “It can happen to any of us.” Nationwide, more than 20,000 calls are placed to domestic abuse hotlines, and one in four women experience physical violence by their partner. For those who leave or escape, it’s usually only with the clothes on their back.
In addition to Bags-to-Go, WGB has a Snack Pack program that supplies kids with two days of nutritional breakfasts and snacks given to moms when they shop. It also has a back-to-school program that supplies nearly 500 kids with clothing and a backpack of school supplies, a Halloween program that outfits over 300 children in costumes, a prom dress program that provides dresses to homeless or low-income students, and a “Holiday Gifts for Kids” program that distributes toys to hundreds of disadvantaged children during the holidays.
“The Santa’s workshop event is a popular event that empowers the women and is popular among volunteers, who dress like elves,” Morris says. “We have about 100 people helping that day and Santa is here.”
Morris has worked in homeless services for 18 years. The holiday store has over 4,000 toys and bikes from which to choose, all at no cost.
Ambassador/former client Jennifer Haas.
When the pandemic hit, WGB anticipated a need and temporarily pivoted from clothing to food distribution to serve the Latinx population in particular. The boutique closed in March and was reconfigured to accommodate supplies. For 16 weeks, a drive through pantry provided basic toiletries, feminine products, and over 100,000 pounds of food to people in need with help from agency partners. “We would sometimes have 300 people waiting as early as 5 a.m.,” Morris says.
To raise money, WGB relies on individual donations and its annual fundraisers, including a Women’s Empowerment Luncheon that raises roughly $100,000 every March. Due to COVID-19, its Cinco de Mayo event was canceled, but the yearly TopGolf fundraiser will take place on Oct. 14.
Volunteers play a huge role in creating a safe, relaxing space, so clients can forget their troubles. In 2019, over 25,000 volunteer hours were clocked by organizing donated items, working events, and helping style clients when they shop.
“It’s really about the interaction and building the clients up,” Morris says. “We have women try on clothes and come out and do a catwalk to model. It’s a really fun environment.”
Since getting back on her feet, Haas has become a role model for women who give back.
“It means a lot to me to … help others and it gives me a new meaning in life,” she says. “Just because you go through an experience like that, it’s not an end-all to your life. You are able to pull through and regain your strength and dignity.” ML
For more information, visit womengivingback.org. WGB accepts new and lightly used clothes. It is currently in need of new socks and underwear for women and children, gently-worn bras, and new toiletries.
Published in the September 2020 issue of Middleburg Life.