Kris Thompson remembers the woman who told her, “I could go days at a time with no one speaking to me and no one making eye contact with me.”
Like many of the nearly 8000 homeless adults in the greater DC area, the woman was alone. Kris, who is the executive director at Calvary Women's Services, and her colleagues are working to make sure fewer such women are struggling on their own.
“Part of empowerment comes from relationships,” she said. “Even as we struggle to find ourselves and work on the things that any of us want to work on in out own lives, knowing you have someone standing beside you, that empowerment comes when someone's got your back, when someone is standing by your side.”
First established in 1983 as an emergency shelter in a church basement, Calvary serves about 100 women each year, either in their 45-bed transitional facility (the average stay is six months), or in permanent supportive housing – one of eight subsidized apartments.
Recently, Calvary launched two new programs: Step Up DC to help homeless women develop employment and job search skills, and a program teaching the residents about nutrition and budgeting.
Calvary offers group and individual therapy, with special programs for women struggling with mental or physical illness, or substance addiction, in addition to their LEAP program for Life skills, Education and Arts. LEAP classes are volunteer-lead.
There are courses in job readiness, computer skills, yoga and stress management. There’s a knitting group, a book club, art classes. A volunteer who was part of the DC Quilting Society took some of the women on a field trip to a quilting show, and is teaching them to make beginning patterns.
“Arts for all helps us get outside ourselves,” Kris said. "In the way that you or I could choose to take a class," (we ask) "How do you stretch yourself?"
“It’s a very accessible place to become involved,” she continued. “It is possible to have your family, including your children, make meals here. It’ possible to lead a class in LEAP. A woman leads a hula hoop class. It's possible to see the impact of your volunteerism.”
How I Help: Peter
Peter Sacco, 21; Senior at George Washington University;
Major: Human Services and Business Administration
Q: How did you come to volunteer for Calvary Women's Services?
A: During my freshman year, I did a lot of volunteer work with homeless services organizations that worked on helping the homeless find jobs and secure public benefits. Starting off my sophomore year, I really wanted to try working in a more residential setting. I Googled “volunteer at homeless shelter DC,” and Calvary was the first link that came up. I’ve been volunteering at Calvary for two years now
Q: What tasks do you perform as a volunteer?
A: Every Friday, I arrive at 9 p.m. and talk with the women and watch TV with them (Monk is a favorite show for all of us). Once they go to bed, I set up breakfast in the kitchen. In the morning I’m up at 5 a.m. to cook breakfast. I’m known as the “pancake man” at Calvary because I always cook pancakes in the mornings. Original and blueberry are the normal menu items, however I’m starting to try out some new recipes. The apple cider ones I tried last week were well received.
Q: What have you learned from your time at Calvary?
A: The value of hard work and determination. Although many of the women at Calvary have come from less than perfect backgrounds, they are all so determined to work hard and turn their lives around. Every time I’m there different residents come up to me and proudly say they’ve accepted a job offer, enrolled in school, or signed a lease on their own apartment. The success they’ve had because of their hard work and determination always brings a smile to my face.
How I Was Helped: Women of Calvary
In the interest of protecting the privacy and comfort of the women at Calvary, a client interview was not conducted. Instead, we have selected passages from Calvary’s blog, which will give our readers a sense of the women residing there.
Paula came to Calvary after years of drug abuse. She received her CDL learner’s permit in 2013 to become a bus driver. Paula is currently living on her own, working to maintain her sobriety, and volunteering with young people in her community. Paula said:
“My case manager showed how to make my goals doable – step by step. To have someone who really cares about you is a boost. It made all the difference in the world. I felt I was a part of something.”
After years of drugs, trauma and abuse, Jill found her way to Calvary. A resident of Sister Circle, Calvary’s permanent housing program, Jill takes advantage of the educational opportunities available to her. As of 2013, Jill was working toward her GED. Of the LEAP program, Jill said:
“The program taught me how to be responsible.”
One resident, who wished to remain anonymous, reflected on her experiences at Calvary, and all that she’d learned, in a writing workshop. She wrote:
I enjoy having the freedom to pursue my future. I’ve been meeting people and learning the importance of interacting and making friends for life. This way I’ll be there for others and they’ll be there for me throughout my life.
Anna was part of Calvary’s STRIDE – Search Together to Resume Dignified Employment - program. After completing STRIDE, Anna earned a full-time job at a local hotel, and moved into her own apartment.
When she got her first paycheck, Anna told me how much she wanted to buy a new pair of boots, but she wasn’t going to because saving her money for her own place was even more important to her. —Kris Thompson
Editor's note: All photos from the Calvary Women's Services website, except for the photo of Peter Sacco. Images do not necessarily reflect any of the persons referred to in the story.