“These are items I will never depart from, because it is a constant reminder of where I’ve been and where I am now,” she said. “I’m in the initial stages of home ownership. I attend Trinity Washington University. I’m studying human relations. I am an employee here at N Street. My plate is full. I’m able to give back and help those in need, because I have compassion and just knowing I’ve been where you are.”
The ball was a real-life high for the women who were in recovery, said Schroeder Stribling, executive director of N Street Village. “For our women in recovery, experiences like that are peak experiences. It is a new way of knowing there is a sense of possibility for a new life. They got invited to a real ball, something they are usually excluded from, by being on the margins. It gave them hope.”
Elaine, too, says the ball was a turning point. After living almost 30 years with one selfish devotion, something within her clicked. She started volunteering in the shelter’s dental clinic. Then the shelter hired her as a program assistant, and as one of her duties, she works in the cafeteria, providing warm meals for other women living on the street. Out of each paycheck, Elaine would donate $10. “A little bit in a nonprofit goes a long way,” she said.
“What changed for me was to see how Mr. Stafford took what he had to give joy to others. He treated everyone as an equal.”
A year after the ball, Elaine was walking to work one winter morning. Across the street, she saw a woman with no coat. Elaine asked the woman if she was cold. When the woman said yes, Elaine gave her her own coat, her favorite coat.
Elaine kept walking. “I thought, ‘I’m cold, but I feel good.’ I finally did something for someone else, not expecting to get something back.”
Never in a million days before the ball, Elaine said, would she have given up her favorite coat.
“It was a wonderful event,” Stafford said of the ball one year later. “But once the party is over, what is important is what you do when the cameras are off and the media is no longer interested in your story.”
Prompted by ideas generated by the ball, his Stafford Foundation created the Doing Good campaign to inspire and empower people — no matter their lot in life — to give back and make a difference in the world. In December, more than 70 clients of homeless shelters and other nonprofit groups delivered 1,900 gifts to patients in local hospitals and nursing and retirement homes as part of the campaign’s newest project, called Give Before You Get.
Stafford, who also has established a new holding company to support small businesses since the inaugural ball, stood in a corridor of Howard University Hospital, snapping photos as women from Rachael’s Women’s Centerhanded out gifts and sang songs with the patients.
“You really don’t know the ramifications of giving,” Stafford said. “Sometimes, it multiplies exponentially. You never know how giving might impact a person. That person may go off and pay it forward.”
DeNeen L. Brown is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, visit washingtonpost.com/magazine or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.