BY Susan Warren and Barbara Summers | October 25, 2012
Rebuilding the lives of homeless women
One of the first things you notice about a well-dressed woman is her jewelry. Her sparkling earrings that are just the right shade of blue. Or the statement necklace that stops you in your tracks. And you wonder, “Where did she get that?”
For over 15 years, the artisans of Rosie’s Place’s Women’s Craft Cooperative (WCC) have been creating eye-catching, head-turning jewelry for women across the country. The WCC is a successful micro-enterprise in Boston, where beautiful design meets opportunity.The WCC gives poor and formerly homeless women jobs—and in so doing—it gives them the chance to rebuild their lives. It’s a supportive workplace where women can gain skills and build confidence and camaraderie, while earning income at the same time. The WCC also gives these woman new identities. No longer are they poor and homeless women who passersby avoid or pity. They are skilled, employed artisans whose work is worn by women from Boston to Los Angeles.
As one woman put it, “Being part of the WCC has made me feel more worthwhile than I have in a long time. The sharing and laughter as we create beautiful objects and watch people buy and enjoy them is wonderful.”
Just as beautiful beaded items are products of the WCC—the WCC is a product of Rosie’s Place. Founded in 1974 by activist Kip Tiernan—Rosie’s Place is the first emergency shelter for women in the United States. Kip saw homeless women dressing up as men in order to receive meals at men-only shelters. She soon realized that there were no services for women because people believed there was no such thing as a homeless woman. They were ignored and made invisible.
On Easter Sunday in 1974, Kip Tiernan mobilized a handful of volunteers to provide these invisible women with sandwiches and coffee in an abandoned city storefront—and Rosie’s Place was born. Over the years, Rosie’s Place has evolved from responding to immediate needs—to helping guests find opportunity, long-term solutions and ultimately, stability. They do this by offering a myriad of programs to the roughly 12,000 poor and homeless women they meet each year. So that when a woman comes to Rosie’s Place in need of food, she may also easily connect to other services—such as assistance with education, employment, health care, housing, legal issues or addiction. Rosie’s Place’s doors are always open and its help is always unconditional.
Tracy first came to Rosie’s Place in 2003, when illness caused her to lose her advertising job and ultimately her home. She stayed in the shelter, and with hard work was able to find stable housing. For Tracy, working in the WCC provides her with the supportive and stimulating work environment that she always wanted. Her creativity is able to flourish and her confidence has been boosted. “It’s such a wonderful feeling to be at craft fairs and see people buying something that I made,” she says. Tracy credits the WCC with giving her an opportunity to achieve success on her own terms. “By coming to Rosie’s Place I’ve become more accepting of others. I recognize that everyone has a story and that you have to give them the chance to tell it.”
When Frances first came to Rosie’s Place she was a retired emergency room nurse suddenly faced with raising her infant granddaughter. Frances found a community in Rosie’s Place’s dining room that welcomed her and her granddaughter for meals, and support from their advocates who helped her manage life with a young child again. Realizing that she needed to return to work to support her granddaughter, Frances was relieved to find a position with the WCC. Not only an artist—Frances is also a natural saleswoman. More than once she has sold a WCC necklace that she has been wearing—on the spot—to someone admiring it. For the last decade, as her granddaughter has grown from a baby to a teenager, Frances has been an important part of the WCC. “I love my work. Everyone is considerate and helpful. We’re all close, like my family,” says Frances. “Being here makes me want to do more and work harder.”
While the WCC’s first projects incorporated buttons in imaginative jewelry, bookmarks and barrettes—the line has now expanded to include beaded jewelry. Today, design ideas come from the artisans, or in collaboration with customers. For some larger clients, such as clothier J. Jill, the phase from concept to prototype may take months. Maintaining product quality is essential to Barbara Summers, Director of the WCC. “I wanted to sell something that really stands on its own,” she says, “not just because someone feels bad for these women.” The sales speak for themselves, as approximately 70 percent of the program’s expenses are covered by the sales revenue it generates.
Rosie’s Place and its Women’s Craft Cooperative are showing the world that not only do poor and homeless women exist. But they have names, faces and families. Moreover, they have talents to share. They are not invisible. And when you wear jewelry from the artisans of the WCC—you’ll command everyone’s attention.
The WCC at www.rosiesplace.org, offers hundreds of items from holiday ornaments to one-of-a-kind necklaces, and new ideas are being developed all the time.