On the moss-green wall of the Women Giving Back store in Sterling, two portraits hang side by side above a shelf of donated books. In the first painting, a woman weeps bloody tears, and tiny white words are written along her dark hairline: “Fear. Pain. Darkness. Shame.” The second painting shows the same woman, her expression brighter and resolute, her face framed by a more positive message: “I am a new woman. I am a survivor.”
The paintings are the work of Mily Pongo Jungbluth, an artist who visited the store regularly as she struggled with homelessness after leaving an abusive marriage. Jungbluth was one of the thousands of women in Northern Virginia homeless shelters, transitional housing and safe houses who have received help from Women Giving Back, a charitable program run by Chantilly-based nonprofit organization HomeAid Northern Virginia, aimed at helping women who are looking to reestablish themselves in the workplace and in homes of their own.
The program has been in steady demand since it was founded in 2007, co-founder Fiona Hughes said, even though Northern Virginia jurisdictions such as Loudoun and Fairfax counties are among the wealthiest in the region. Women Giving Back serves homeless women and children in Loudoun, Fairfax, Alexandria, and Arlington, Prince William and Fauquier counties.
“Homelessness is easier to overlook because people don’t see it — they don’t see people camping out on the streets,” Hughes said. “But it’s here.”
The Women Giving Back program was created by about 40 local women involved in the home-building industry who gathered in Tysons Corner in June 2007 to talk about how they might help homeless women and families in Northern Virginia.
“There is such a strong network of women in the building industry,” said Teri Stagi, president and co-founder of Women Giving Back. “We got together over glasses of wine and thought about what we could do.” When they spoke to local homeless shelters, “they said the biggest need was clothing,” Stagi said. “So many of these women were abused, and they came in with just the shirts on their backs.”
With its mission clear, Women Giving Back was soon launched. At first, the program operated out of a closet and then a borrowed space in an empty building. The program opened its Sterling store and warehouse space in 2011, the spacious interior outfitted for free by partners of HomeAid Northern Virginia, which builds and renovates homeless shelters, transitional housing, medical clinics and other facilities in the region.
The new location includes a children’s play area stocked with toys and books that kids can take home. There are racks of professional clothing — suits, pants and blouses — as well as purses, shoes, other accessories and toiletries. The donated inventory is carefully curated, Stagi said, and the program has high standards for the items that it accepts.
On second Saturdays, the so-called store (no money changes hands) opens for business, hosting anywhere from 200 to 500 women and children from 9 a.m. to noon. To shop, patrons must present a voucher provided by a caseworker. Women and families can take up to 50 items each time they visit.
Despite improvements in the local economy, Stagi said, the program has seen “no drop-off” in the demand for its services. This year, Women Giving Back hired its first part-time staffer, a volunteer coordinator to help manage the program’s expanding corps of volunteers. Women Giving Back regularly hosts student and corporate volunteers, including groups from George Mason University, the Women of Washington Redskins and several of the region’s largest banking companies.
“We’re one of the few charitable outfits that can host a big company” for volunteering, Stagi said. “But we needed the help to keep everything organized.”
Now in its seventh year, the program has distributed close to 300,000 items of clothing and had its most successful annual fundraiser last month, raising more than $75,000 in contributions. The Northern Virginia Building Industry Association will host a new book drive this month to benefit Women Giving Back — “we allow the kids to take as many books as they would like when they visit,” Stagi said — and the program continues to think of ways it might expand its reach.
“We always have thoughts about how we could build new partnerships or how we could offer services like eye exams, job training,” Hughes said. “But our base is 100 percent volunteer, which makes it hard to expand. We have to be careful about how we do it.”
The volunteer work isn’t easy, Stagi said, but the sense of reward is significant. The other day, Stagi said, she ran into one of the store’s former patrons at a grocery store. The woman was thriving, Stagi said.
“Their stories are unbelievable,” Stagi said. “And the main thing is that everyone leaves here feeling so good — the shoppers, their children, the volunteers.”
Many of the women who once relied on Women Giving Back for help return as volunteers, Hughes said.
“It’s so great to see them once they get launched into their new lives.”