We are often asked how we define success in our work. Donors especially want to know that they are making a difference for a non-profit’s clients, and potential donors use this information to decide which organizations to support and how much to give. We get that. The trouble is that the evidence of progress we have seen in our women’s lives over the past 14 months has been small and quiet, not the spectacular changes that would convince anyone we are making a difference. But those small, quiet changes are monumental when you reflect upon what they mean in the lives of our women. The best way we know to count success is by how many vulnerabilities we help our women address.
When we started taking food and supplies out on Thursday nights last year, we served 12 to 15 women weekly. They did not trust us enough to eat anything but sandwiches; after all, you can pull apart a sandwich to see exactly what is in it. You can’t do that with a casserole or a bowl of soup. But over time, as we consistently served the women good food and treated them with love and respect, they began to trust us more. Now they welcome home-cooked meals prepared with love by such faithful donors as Barbara Boucher, whose banana pudding would win first prize in anybody’s dessert contest. Now we serve about 25 women a hearty meal on Thursday evenings and give them a bag of snacks for the next day. We also made sure they all had coats, boots, scarves, and gloves this winter, as well as hand-warming packets. What would it mean to you for 25 of your family members to be fed and clothed who might otherwise be hungry and cold? What would it mean to you to have such vulnerabilities reduced in your own life?
Food and supplies make up only part of our ministry. We have taken five of our women to obtain an ID, without which they are unable to apply for a job, rent a room or apartment, or obtain food stamps and other types of assistance. We help them identify what resources are available to them, and we have worked with them to gain access to health care, including mental health screening. We’ve worked with some to complete job applications. As of this writing, five women who were homeless when we first met them now have housing, which reduces not only their vulnerability to the fickleness of Memphis weather but also their risk of being robbed or attacked. In addition, they are now able to enjoy the advantage of a restful night’s sleep, which in turn, reduces health problems. What price would you put on the increased comfort, health, and safety of five women?
Perhaps the best way to define our success, however, is to see the women that we’ve served reach out and begin to encourage others. One woman whose vulnerabilities have been greatly reduced in the past few weeks came out last Thursday to encourage the other women to trust us. She said she used to show up on Thursdays because she needed the food and supplies we provide. Now that she has a job and a roof over her head, she comes out because she wants to visit with us. She is now encouraging others to apply for a job. How much is it worth to see this kind of transformation?
Even if you considered only the fact that a woman who was living on the streets and now holds down a job has become a productive, tax-paying citizen, such victories would be counted as success. But to us, the benefit is so much greater than that. We cheer for every woman whose confidence has increased because we have shown her she is worthy to be loved and not exploited. We applaud every woman who has begun to unravel the effects of trauma in her life. We rejoice with every woman who has seen at least some of her dreams come true.
And most of all we continue to show our women the path to reducing their vulnerabilities. Our work doesn’t end until each of the women we serve is able to pursue the life she wants to live and not the life that her circumstances have forced her to live. For us, that is the ultimate success.