Story and photos by Anne Sraders
With the back-to-school season quickly approaching, there are countless items on the agenda to check off. However, amid the hectic weeks prefacing the start of school, it can be easy to forget those who cannot afford back-to-school supplies.
Answering these needs every year is Women Giving Back, a nonprofit organization providing clothing and school supplies to women and children in need. The organization’s president and founder Terri Stagi claims its aim is rather simple.
“I think we’re providing dignity and grace to women and children in crisis,” Stagi said.
Celebrating its 10th year, Women Giving Back has grown from operating out of a closet to now serving more than 6,000 women and children every year in their warehouse in Sterling, Virginia. The organization’s main events occur on the second Saturday of every month, where qualified clients in need peruse aisles of clothing, shopping with dignity.
“It is not like a thrift store or a hand out,” said Nicole Morris, operations manager at Women Giving Back. “It’s really an experience for them.”
While the scope of its impact has reached from Loudoun County to Fairfax, it’s the personal, everyday interactions that Stagi claims are the most significant.
“I remember, there was this mom and daughter, and it turns out that I think the mom probably had some drug or mental issue which landed them in the shelter,” Stagi said. “But the daughter had gotten a full scholarship to the University of Virginia’s architecture school, so she would go to UVA and then come home to the shelter on the weekends or breaks. None of her friends knew. So that was kind of the first, ‘Oh, this is the face of homelessness.’ It’s not what we typically think. You know, they look just like you and me.”
Enabling students to blend in with their peers, says Stagi, is one of the principle ways the organization is impacting children at school.
“These poor kids don’t have anything,” Stagi said. “They don’t have the shoes to wear or a change of clothes, so what we can give them here helps them to seamlessly fit in so that their friends don’t know that they’re homeless or in a program.”
The new clothes give children an ease and confidence around their friends.
“It’s the same as you and I,” Stagi said. “If we go out and we know we look good, we do better. [It’s the same for] these kids, just the grin on their face when we’re checking them out, and you look and they’ve got brand new tennis shoes or they’ve got a cool new sports shirt…”
While the organization specializes in meeting the needs of others, the benefits of volunteering have certainly had an impact on those who serve.
“I think the biggest take-away here is that it will change your life,” Stagi said. “I personally had not done that much volunteering before we had started this, and I had no idea what it would do to you. You are hands-on, you are working with the people, and you can see the difference you’re making in their lives. And it doesn’t take that much time.”
In fact, Women Giving Back has had a surge in the number of teenage volunteers in recent years. To Stagi, the increase reflects how the message of the organization resonates with people.
“We have so many teens that are working here and volunteering, so that really kind of gives you a good feeling of how people are understanding that volunteerism has got to be part of your day,” Stagi said.
The back-to-school season at the organization means a boost of donations and programs that require all the volunteers they can get. “We do back-to-school supplies, and we’re in the middle of doing that,” Stagi said. “Our September store will have stuffed backpacks for all the kids, so right now that’s in full swing.”
Donations of packed backpacks or school supplies may be dropped off at any of Women Giving Back’s drop-off sites, including any M&T Bank.
In addition, Women Giving Back partners with Loudoun and Fairfax County Public Schools to meet the specific needs of the children in the school system. While Stagi says the program is still small, it’s growing, and she hopes to reach communities in Fauquier, Winchester and Prince William counties.
Women Giving Back partners with other organizations to provide extra services like styling advice, career workshops and arts and crafts for children. This “coalition” of partners, as Stagi coins it, allows Women Giving Back to offer additional services that go beyond clothing. In fact, with the help of their partners, the organization holds special events for Christmas, Mother’s Day, Halloween and more.
Apart from public schools, Women Giving Back reaches special markets. “We just started doing a teen night, and so we’re about to do our second one,” Stagi said. “It’s just teenagers, and we’ve got people in here to help them pick stuff out, because you know that’s a special market. They want cool stuff, so we have to go through and pull all the stuff that we think they would want.”
Youth for Tomorrow, former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs’ organization, is another one, where volunteers at Women Giving Back pick special clothes designed to fit the dress codes.
While Women Giving Back has reached all kinds of markets, the feedback the organization seems to value most is from its small clients. “These kids walk in, and they’ll run up and hug you, because honestly this is the happy place in their life,” Stagi said. “They get to come in, we feed them, and they get to play with the toys with all the teen volunteers, and they get to take pretty things home with them. So it’s great.”
Women Giving Back has attracted support across the spectrum from local politicians like Barbara Comstock to fellow community members, all serving these families.
“Anything we can do to help them feel more normal, that’s our goal,” Stagi said.
Please visit www.womengivingback.org for more information on how to help ensure everyone is back-to-school-ready this year. ML