Episode 36: Miracle Messages

I have had some pretty amazing conversations in the past ten years. Conversations that really make me think and look at the world around me in a totally different way. The conversation I had a few weeks back with Kevin Adler, the founder of Miracle Messages was game-changing for me. It’s my hope that it is for you as well. I will never look at the homeless the same after this eye-opening exchange.

Join us today, as Kevin shares the story of his uncle who lived on the streets and how his uncle’s death inspired the creation of Miracle Messages. A nonprofit that not only reconnects the homeless to their loved ones but also provides a social connection through a phone buddy system and provides cash for rent once the unhoused person is ready.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Miracle Messages does?

Kevin Adler: We help our unhoused neighbors rebuild their social support systems and financial security, primarily through family reunifications, a phone buddy system, and direct cash transfers.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start  Miracle Messages?

Kevin Adler: This work begins really with my own family. I had an uncle, who was very beloved to me. Uncle Mark was his name and he suffered from schizophrenia. He lived on and off the streets of Santa Cruz for 30 years. One day I was in college and I got a phone call from my dad telling me that Uncle Mark was found deceased at a halfway house at the age of 50.

I was 19 at the time and had never thought about the life that Mark lived when he wasn’t at our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner table. I never thought about the life he was living on the streets. It wasn’t until years later that I was in San Francisco, that I found myself walking by our neighbors experiencing homelessness. I said, Gosh, everyone I’m walking by that’s someone’s son or daughter, brother, sister. So it got me thinking, what would it look like to help neighbors experiencing homelessness, people like my Uncle Mark, maybe share their stories, the stories that I didn’t know.

It wasn’t trying to solve a problem and create an organization.  I started a side project storytelling project called The Homeless GoPro. For one year, I invited 24 individuals experiencing homelessness to wear wearable cameras around their chests and narrate their experience of what life is like. When I got the footage back I was just shocked by what I heard and saw. One quote really stood out. It was,” I never realized I was homeless when I lost my housing. Only when I lost my family and friends.”

Long story short, I approached everyone I saw who was experiencing homelessness and asked, “Do you have any loved ones you’d like to reconnect with?” That’s how I met a man named Jeffery. He told me he hadn’t seen his family in 12 years. Jeffery recorded a video with his niece and nephew, his sister, and his dad. I went home and I got on Facebook and found a Facebook group connected to his hometown. So I posted the video there and within one hour, that video got shared hundreds of times. It made the local news that night the leading story. Classmates started commenting, I went to high school with Jeffrey, I work in construction. Does he need a job? And in the first 20 minutes of the post, his sister got tagged. We got on the phone the next day and it turned out Jeffrey had been a missing person for 12 years.

The starting point of Miracle Messages was when Jeffrey reconnected with his family. I asked sister Jennifer, “This thing that seems to be bigger than just Jeffrey and your relationship. There seems there might be others, who are experiencing this issue. What should we call this, this initiative?” She said, “Well, we’re in this small town and people have referred to it the story as the miracle of Montoursville. And it’s Christmas, maybe it’s called the Miracle message.”

That’s the name and the vision from day one, which no one should go through homelessness alone. Hard to believe that was December 2014.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Kevin Adler: It’s always been a privilege to do this work, but it has not been without challenges. There was a point that I got down to $600 in my savings account doing this work in San Francisco and it wasn’t sustainable. As a person of faith, I prayed at times. The first prayer was, please let someone else steal this idea and run with it because I don’t know if I’m up for it.

I had to come to a realization a few years ago, that I could not make myself the first casualty of a good cause. I was en route to doing that and was just working nonstop.  The work left me feeling isolated and lonely. So for me, the beginning of being able to sustain this work in the tough times was by making sure my own foundation was in order.  You need to put your oxygen mask on first and if you don’t do that, you can’t be of service to others.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had and what your impact has been? 

Kevin Adler: An impact is a person who’s experiencing homelessness, potentially getting off the streets. About 20% of the reunions lead to housing. Impact involves the cost savings that generates. When it costs us thousands of dollars compared to cities spending between $40,000 to $60,000 per unhoused person per year to maintain them on the streets for one year. The impact can be measured in the lives and the perspectives of the volunteers, who say, “I never knew I could do anything on the issue of homelessness, I felt a very low sense of personal efficacy in making an impact. But now I feel empowered.”

An impact can also be measured in the fact that we’ve received over 100 million views on our videos on Facebook. We’ve had over a million shares, and over 700 articles written about us. These all change the hearts and minds of people. When you see a video about a person experiencing homelessness, reconnecting with a loved one or being in a phone Buddy Program, or getting $500 a month towards rent then it changes your perspective.

So you know, we take impact seriously. I also think anyone who listens to their unhoused neighbors and or volunteers and has their heart or mind shifted or opened as a result, that’s an immeasurable impact that we’re very proud of as well.

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for your organization, what would that be?

Kevin Adler: For us, that dream is that no one goes through homelessness alone. I would love to end that sentence one word early. No one goes through homelessness.  I don’t need to dream bigger, to know how that’s not going to be happening in the next few years.

I have been around enough where I see five-year plans, we’re gonna have homelessness by this year. Those years have come and gone and the numbers are increasing, right? And it’s only getting worse.  So, I don’t think we’re ending homelessness anytime soon. What we can do in a step towards ending homelessness, is making sure every single human being…. all 550,000 people who go to bed every night and wake up in the morning, homeless without a stable home in this country in 2022… that they have at least one person, they’re connected to either a family member or friend social support and that they know they’re not going through it alone.

To me is something we are able to envision and realistically achieve through Miracle Messages with our partners on the ground. You know, and I think giving people money so that they can resolve the issues that are in front of them. People generally have the knowledge and wherewithal of what is best for them but they just aren’t given the agency. They are not afforded the same opportunities that we all expect in this country. So just giving people the financial support, they need to make ends meet, and the social support, they need to get through tough times and be celebrated at good times. That’s really what we’re committed to at Miracle Messages.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Kevin Adler: Hearing the stories of our volunteers and why they commit their time, why they donate and why they show up. I get so much joy and gratitude, just being able to give and be there for someone else. We can all envision bank accounts with a couple more zeros at the end of them. Once you’re at a certain, baseline level, what do you need? What else are you really lacking? I mean, how many more square feet do you need in your house? Who cares? So just being able to see the joy of doing good with the time that you have on this earth and helping others unleash the good that’s within their hearts that they just don’t know how to share. That’s, that’s really what drives it.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Kevin Adler: My values are the same. What drives me as a person, my faith, and how I look at people have not changed.  I think I’ve grown a lot. I’ve realized that my story is about one story and the importance of really hearing other stories.  I’ve realized how much harder this work can be, but also how it’s so so important to keep the core foundation in mind to keep the perspective. So yes, I think I’ve grown a ton as a person. But I also think fundamentally, I’m still the precocious kid who was just comfortable walking around the neighborhood talking to my neighbors.




New episodes are released every Wednesday!  If you enjoyed today’s episode, please connect with us:

Copyright © 2022 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

Episode 16: Havens House Youth Services

I went to a school whose motto was “Actions Not Words.” This phrase was repeated my entire life in Kindergarten through high school and after a while, it does start to sink in.  A few weeks ago, I was speaking to the Alumni relations coordinator at my alma mater. She mentioned an incredible alumnus that I needed to meet, Abeni Carr. She went on to tell me that Abeni was not only a high school principal in Compton, CA but in addition had started a nonprofit when she realized a number of her students were homeless.

I am so excited to share our conversation about Abeni’s work helping high school youth deal with homelessness, her journey in founding Haven’s House Youth Services, and how she juggles it all. Actions Not Words definitely made an impact.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Havens House does?

Abeni Carr:  We really support homeless youth specifically and much of our focus goes for high school-age youth that are dealing with housing instability. We make hygiene packets, we also help with young people getting housing, we’ve helped with young women who’ve been trafficked, making sure that they are getting to safety and making sure they get lawyers, and we try to pay for some of their fees. 

We’re hoping to expand to have a community center where we can really have our clothing closet and be able to support high school-age youth, which I think is one of the most vulnerable populations. We started doing this work in 2018 and now we are in three different areas throughout LA County.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start  Havens House?

Abeni Carr:  I was adopted when I was three by my mom and I purposely waited until I was 30, to look for my biological family.  I found both my birth mother and my birth father about six years ago through a lot of Google searches on Facebook.  Immediately we were united and then about a year later, I just went through the process of meeting my siblings.  

My sister Miracle, from my birth mother, came out to meet me with her boyfriend. When I’d asked her a question, her boyfriend would answer it.  I thought it was very odd and so just through talking to her, and my mother I found out that my sister was being trafficked. 

 I ended up helping her and it really made me turn around and look at my students. Do I have students that are homeless?  We realized that maybe we did and just don’t know. So my school started doing the work.  We had to figure out how do we identify our students? Sure enough, I did have some students that I had no idea had been dealing with housing instability. Because people don’t willingly come to a school and say, “Hey, we’re dealing with homelessness.”

 One day I got like five phone calls for different needs. Some people needed, a hotel to stay at and another family that was living in a car. The school found out and asked me, “Do you know where they could get help? ”  I thought with the multitude of phone calls there’s a great need.  So I really just started reaching out to everybody I know. I have a great group of friends and we just came together and said, “Let’s help out as many people as we can.” That’s how Haven’s House got started.

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for your organization, what would that be?

Abeni Carr:  I know my dream.  I want to be able to build a campus that has a school, mental health,  a community center, and housing. Kind of like a one-stop-shop where we build a community and where students know it’s a safe place for them. Like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but it’s really true, right? If we can build safety, the home, the access to food, then you know, that’s the first step to even get them to that next place. So I would love one day to be able to have our own little community on the same campus. A place where there’s schooling, there’s shelter, there’s a community center and we help them with job readiness. 

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Abeni Carr:  I’m just very goal-driven. This work has really shown me how to slow down and really listen to people. Everybody really does have a story. Sometimes as a leader, I didn’t really take out the time when I was younger to really hear people out. I felt like my way was the right way. In time, I’ve really learned to slow down, delegate and trust people.  Just like I’m asking my young people, to trust me. You have to start trusting other people that they can get it done too.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Abeni Carr:  I got into education a long time ago, not because of the honors and not about what you’re going to get back from it. But I will tell you, this cohort that we have right now, every single one of them got into college.  We’re giving them the tools to learn, how do you advocate for yourself when you do go to college? Or how do you get a job? We are really trying to end cyclical homelessness. One of our board members actually was one of our clients. Now she’s 24 years old, has a job she’s living on her own. Every day she asks, “What can I do to help?”  I think that that’s what really reminds me why are we doing this.

 If you can help people with the tools to get on their feet, they will turn around and help somebody else out. Right?  You want to take it from cyclical homelessness.  So when there are those hard days, I remember Marie and the other young people that I’ve been able to help out.  They have turned around and now become amazing advocates for other young homeless youth that now they’re helping, and mentoring. Being able to share their experience and say,” This is temporary, you can make it through this.” 



New episodes are released every Wednesday!  If you enjoyed today’s episode, please:
  • Post a screenshot & key takeaway on your IG story and tag me @heidimcniffjohnson and @Charitymatters so I can repost you.
  • Leave a positive review on Apple Podcasts
  • Subscribe to new episodes each week!
Connect with us:


Copyright © 2021 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.



Copyright © 2021 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

Episode 12: Alexandria House

Join us today to hear our fascinating conversation with today’s guest, Sister Judy Vaughan. We discuss everything from her work in founding Alexandria House to her tattoo, her motto, her sheroes, their feature in Justin Beiber’s video (see below), and most importantly to her tireless dedication to the community. Just last week Tory Burch Foundation and the Upworthiest nominated Sr. Judy as their Empowered Woman and once you listen to today’s conversation you will see why.

I knew Sister Judy Vaughan was someone special the moment we began our email exchange and she did not disappoint. A third-generation Angeleno who has been on a mission to serve women, children, and families with transitional housing for 25 years since founding Alexandria House.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Alexandria House does?

Sister Judy Vaughan:  Alexandria house, really as part of our mission has three things.  One is to be a long-term shelter for single women and women with children who are homeless. The main focus in the two houses is to serve families, who are really searching for ways to break out of being without a house and into their own place. We’re a long-term transitional residence program, about 85% of the women who come here are coming out of situations of domestic violence. We also have folks who have escaped trafficking.  

The second thing is we’re a Neighborhood Center. We wanted to be from our very beginning in 1996, to be a part of the community. So we have an after-school program, that it’s really for about 35 kids. Right now, most of them were doing mentoring with the kids in our program, through zoom.

The third thing is it comes out in our awareness. We’re just we’re really just the tip of the iceberg. We’re the homeless capital of the United States. In no way do we think Alexandria house is going to shift that. But we are a base for doing systemic change work.  We really are committed to changing systems that are keeping women and children living in poverty. So that’s sort of who Alexandria House is. If I had to say this in an elevator, I’d say we’re about really focusing on what is to make a difference but also trying to be a demonstration of what it is to be a demonstration of the Beloved Community.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Sister Judy Vaughan:  A very good friend taught us about the burden of knowing or being willing to have your heart be broken because there are so many things that make it so difficult for folks to really get out of a situation. So that’s definitely one, how you stay true to our commitment to trauma-informed care.

That really means opening your heart and being as empathetic as possible, even though it’s not your own experience, but really listening.  Listening to the pain and the grief and the heartache of others, and being willing to share in that. So that’s one piece of it. But the other is, there’s just not enough resources. And we see that over and over again. We get 1000 calls a month from folks, we’re not able to house here. There are at least 80,000 folks who are homeless on any one night in LA and 11,000 shelter beds and there are not enough resources. 

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had and What has your impact been? 

Sister Judy Vaughan:  I could go down the list of how it comes back to us in words, you know, you saved my life, I wouldn’t be where I am without you all. And I have to say, you know, I get a lot of credit, being the founding person and being the one and a half staff that started the place. But really, we have an incredible staff that is all committed to this mission. I think one of the outstanding examples of our impact is of the people that have moved through the program 93% have remained in permanent housing.

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for your organization, what would that be?

Sister Judy Vaughan: So this is what we thought of back in 1996. This is what the vision was. So to continue the work we’re doing even as it grows, because we have more people who come to us now is living the dream. But we do have a dream because housing is so difficult in LA. We’re really working right now to purchase the apartment building behind us.

 It would provide 31 more units of permanent supportive housing. More and more, we are finding folks having such a hard time finding permanent housing. 


Charity Matters: Do you have a phrase or motto that you live by?

Sister Judy Vaughan:  A really important one for me is that there’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God. And it’s in Romans and I believe this. So,  much so that I have a tattoo on my shoulder that has the glimpse of our hands connected, that there’s nothing that can separate us. It’s a really important thing for me. Because we all make mistakes in doing this work.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience? How has this journey changed you?

Sister Judy Vaughan: I definitely think I’m the same person and that I still have some of the same flaws and some of the same struggles. But I just feel so much more enriched and challenged as a person. You know, as a member of a religious community, we talk about living a life of simplicity.  I don’t even think I understood what that means, until living here at Alexandria House.

I have also learned about what it means to be generous.  Some people say that I get some credit for living and working here. But I have to say, this place saved my life in some ways because it enabled me to see who we’re really called to be, and what we need to do. 



New episodes are released every Wednesday!  If you enjoyed today’s episode, please:
  • Post a screenshot & key takeaway on your IG story and tag me @heidimcniffjohnson and @Charitymatters so I can repost you.
  • Leave a positive review on Apple Podcasts
  • Subscribe to new episodes each week!
Connect with us:
  • www.Charity-Matters.com
  • On IG @Charitymatters


Copyright © 2021 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.



Copyright © 2021 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

Charity Matters Podcast Episode 3: Eyvette Jones Johnson, Urban Possibilities

There are no words to contain my excitement about today’s episode of the Charity Matters Podcast. Eyvette Jones-Johnson is one of the most soulful and remarkable humans I have ever had the privilege of talking to. Get excited as she shares her amazing journey from growing up in the Southside of Chicago to a successful television producer and now entrepreneur nonprofit founder. Eyvette and her husband are the founders of Urban Possibilities, a nonprofit that provides inner-city job seekers the tools to reach their highest potential from the inside out. This episode is good for your soul!

Here are a few highlights from today’s episode:

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about Urban Possibilities?

Eyvette Jones-Johnson: Well, we teach homeless job seekers and low-income workers, the tools to reach their highest potential. And our approach is inside out. And why that is, is because success is an inside job. It’s really born out of what we think what we believe, which dictates how we act, what we believe about ourselves and the world dictates everything.

So there are so many forces that lead to someone becoming homeless, or people living in poverty. There are so many circumstances, so many systemic forces that cause that to happen. And so what I realized is that the person that’s being affected, if they are empowered, they can begin to navigate all of those barriers themselves.

So we are an empowerment company. And I know that words been overused, but it really is. How do we build power specifically and particularly with marginalized populations? And how do we do that from the inside out?

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Eyvette Jones-Johnson: Well, I mean, when we look at the numbers and 75% of our students with, after they’ve graduated, are either working or in school. These are people who lived under bridges on bus stops in their cars at shelters. But the biggest impact I think we have is that part of our program is also when we talk about the tools of success is how do you give?  How do you make a personal impact?

And so we have students who were formerly addicts who are now drug and rehab counselors. They’re paying it forward. We have people who lived under a bridge, who now have reunited with their family and working and have their kids in private school. We have people who are looking at starting their own nonprofits so that they can reach out to people that they were once like.  I think our biggest impact is graduating people that not only understand at a deep level, their self-worth. They understand now that they are gifted in whatever way that is and then they are applying those gifts in the world.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Eyvette Jones-Johnson: That’s a big question.  Well,  the entire orientation of my life has changed. I’m not chasing the next show the next job or the next assignment. My focus is no longer primarily on myself and my career and why I can achieve it is I’ve hooked myself to something bigger and that has changed everything.

I’m stronger emotionally because I’ve had to hold the space for people to be able to lay down some of their burdens as they pick up a new way of being. So I think that’s one of the ways I’ve changed. And, you know, I know what I know, what I know.

I want people to understand what you and I have felt that transcendent joy. Like there’s nothing like that transcendent joy. And it doesn’t take starting a nonprofit to feel that way. No, even though that was our call, right? But other people can do that, too. And I think I’ve become one of the ways it’s changed me is being bolder, and trying to call that forth and other people.

 I really am an advocate for the expansion that happens when people start to spend their energy and their time. Really going after something big, like changing the world.

Charity Matters


New episodes are released every Wednesday!  If you enjoyed today’s episode, please:
  • Post a screenshot & key takeaway on your IG story and tag me @heidimcniffjohnson and @Charitymatters so I can repost you.
  • Leave a positive review on Apple Podcasts
  • Subscribe for new episodes each week
Connect with us:
  • www.Charity-Matters.com
  • On IG @Charitymatters


Copyright © 2020 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

Tzedek America

I was raised to never discuss religion or politics, to respect everyone’s beliefs and to always be open to learning from others. Faith plays a large part in my life and in my nonprofit work. The nonprofit a group of us founded over seventeen years ago provided chaplains of all faith to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. That experience confirmed to me that believing in something bigger than yourself is something that will always serve as a life anchor, whatever that belief is.

I took my current job as the Executive Director at TACSC mainly because I loved being a part of planting the seeds of compassion in our children and teaching students about service. Right before COVID, I had the privilege of meeting Avram Mandell, who is doing similar work with youth but taking it to a whole different level with his nonprofit Tzedek America. Let’s hope that as millions of children get ready to begin school this month that they have access to the incredible experiences Tzedek America is providing.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what TZEDEK America does?

Avram Mandell: We engage Jewish teenagers through immersive social justice experiences. We try to teach empathy and not sympathy and we are trying to move the needle in the social justice world by connecting these teenagers to social justice issues and to people affected by these issues. The best way to do that is through stories and meeting people and coming into proximity with those who are dealing with these issues as opposed to watching a documentary or reading an article. After kids go on our trips they begin volunteering, donating their time, running drives at their school getting, and their parents involved. We are really seeing the impact of our work.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start TZEDEK America?

Avram Mandell: I have a Master’s in Education from Hebrew Union. I had worked at Jewish Summer Camps, been a youth group advisor, and had experiential learning in my blood. I ran school programs, adult learning programs, garden programs, video programs always acting as an innovator and creator. My attitude in life is that there is always a way to make things happen. 

In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit I wanted to go and get my hands dirty and really do something about this national natural disaster. So I reached out at the synagogue and twelve teenagers volunteered. We had a contact at the Methodist Church in Pearlington, Mississippi and we set out to do flood relief work. We all had a powerful experience bringing hope to that part of the world. I remember when we went to our cots there were little bags for us with toiletries and notes from kindergartners thanking us for volunteering. I had never been a recipient and it was such a beautiful moment for all of us.

We came back from the trip and all of those students wrote their college essays about this experience which was transformative. Teenagers care about social justice but they don’t know what to do about it. So I wanted to create an organization that would engage Jewish teenagers in their Jewish values and that those values support their passion for doing good in the world. I wanted to give them the tools to do something about it. We began in 2014, as a gap year program and people started calling and asking for half-day trips and then four-day trips. We were taking kids to skid-row, the border, and giving them these incredible experiences and word started to get out.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Avram Mandell: I think one of our biggest challenges is staffing. How do you find someone to be part of a start-up and has that same passion that fuels you to do this work? It’s one thing when the founder is up until 1 am working but if I am just an employee I don’t have that same commitment.  As we grow you try to do it all and realize quickly that you can’t. So, how do you find the staff member that is fun, engaging, charming, a good educator, good with teenagers, organized to plan the logistics of all our trips and experiences? 

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Avram Mandell: The feedback from our work reminds us that this is worth it. Knowing we are having an impact. I get the results I want from our students. I just got a text an hour ago of a picture of third-graders writing notes to people in detention centers.  It turns out that the 9th grader that went to one of our trips at the border was sharing her experience with this third-grade class and the third graders were so inspired that they wanted to write welcome to America notes. That is why we do what we do. 

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Avram Mandell:  We brought a group of 6th graders to a recovery group. A 27-year-old woman shared her journey with our students. After her story, the 6th grader said to the woman, “You are such a strong woman, we have so much to learn from you.” The little girl went on to say that she struggled with her relationship with her parents and told the woman what a great example of strength she was.

We create these experiences for teenagers on a weekly basis that students would not ordinarily have. The students learn that we are all just human beings. We all have so much in common and so much more to learn from one another.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had and What has your impact been?

Avram Mandell: Our impact is the stories like the one I just shared. It wouldn’t be the statistics. When you show up at a nonprofit with a group of teenagers and recognize one of the volunteers and say, “Don’t I know you?” She says, “Yes, you brought me here three months ago and now I volunteer here.” Then you ask is she doing this for required community service hours and she replies, “No, this is just what I do.”

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for TZEDEK America, what would that be?

Avram Mandell: I would love to have our programming in different cities so we can affect other students with what we are doing. I would love to have more capacity to make that happen. There is a quote from a book called Ethics of Our Fathers that says, “You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it.”  We know the ripple effect of our work and those we impact is large.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Avram Mandell:  I have learned so much from our program. I know more about immigration than I knew before, I know more about homelessness than I knew before. I am more socially aware and socially engaged than ever before.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Avram Mandell:  I think about my eulogy a lot. Eulogies are about people’s relationships and about people being there for one another. I think about the educational concept called design with the end in mind and the creators of this concept who wrote a book about what do you want your end to be?  I think about my end.

What do I want the end to be? I want to see that my kids and students are volunteering their time and that they know they have an obligation to make the world a better place. You can not ignore the problem. That is my end.  When my students have kids and take them to volunteer somewhere. When my students live their life with meaning.




Copyright © 2020 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

Project Ropa

If you live in an urban area, you are aware of our national homeless epidemic. Los Angeles alone has over 66,000 people living on the streets of our city, according to the latest statistics. Nationally, 17 out of every 10,000 people in our country are homeless, according to the nonprofit end homelessness.org.  The problem is so overwhelming and huge that most people don’t know where to begin. Everyone except Caitlin Adler that is. Caitlin and I spoke last month about homelessness, COVID, and her incredible work as the founder of Project Ropa.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Project Ropa does?

Caitlin Adler:  We started Project Ropa in 2015 to address the challenges that homeless people face in obtaining and keeping clean clothes. Though homelessness is accompanied by many things, one of its greatest indignities comes from the absence of hygiene services.

Most homeless people literally have only the clothes on their backs. Access to clean clothing is essential to the overall well-being of a person and can be the key to opening doors to employment and housing. How you look affects how you feel about yourself and how others treat you. Now, because of the health threats posed by the coronavirus, the need to overcome those challenges has become ever greater.

Project Ropa provides a selection of new and gently used high-quality men’s and women’s clothing, shoes, and accessories, along with personal hygiene products (donated by local manufacturers, retailers, and nonprofit partners). Each week we bring the clothing throughout the city in a retrofitted van that acts as a mobile walk-in closet. At the same time, the people we serve can take a shower offered by another service provider, called Lava Mae, that we partner with.

Charity Matters: Did you have a background in philanthropy or nonprofit Prior to Project Ropa?

Caitlin Adler:  No, I didn’t have any nonprofit background.  My background was in hospitality. I was a pastry chef for 15 years and had a bakery in Boston. When I moved to LA, I was really burned out and began doing restaurant design. I wanted my life to have a purpose and I had a heart for the homeless but really didn’t know how to make an impact.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start  Project Ropa?

Caitlin Adler:  I  began volunteering for a nonprofit called Chrysalis, which helps people transition out of homelessness. I helped them sort their clothing donations and quickly realized that they had surplus clothing of some items that they couldn’t use and a shortage of other items. I began to help them redistributing the clothing between six other nonprofit partners.

After talking to other charities it became clear that there was a gap in the system. In 2015, I started Project Ropa by redistributing unwanted donations from local charities with the goal of using the remaining clothes to one day stock a mobile pop-up shop for people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles. Since 2016, we have taken the concept to the streets. Clean clothes and access to personal hygiene products significantly impact a person’s economic well-being, physical health, and emotional resilience. We received our 501c3 in 2017.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Caitlin Adler: We have a few challenges. Currently, with COVID we are the only organization that is handling clothing. The lack of education from other nonprofits on clothing distribution has been challenging. Maintaining good relationships with the city and county can be hard.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Caitlin Adler: At the end of the day, when you know that someone who is homeless can get a job because you have provided them access to a shower and given them something to wear. It is a great feeling. Once our clients get jobs they need to come back for more than one thing to wear to work but to stay employed.

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Caitlin Adler: We had a gentleman come in recently and he literally was in tattered rags and had maggots on him. He had a shower and we gave him new clothes, new shoes, a face mask, gloves and he felt and acted like a new person. He had dignity and a smile. Those are the moments when I know we have made a difference.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success and impact you have had?

Caitlin Adler: Since we started we have clothed over 30,000 people. All of that clothing was 84,000 pounds of clothing that did not go into a landfill. I think our biggest impact is the job that clothing helps people get. We have directly provided clothing for more than 800 people for job interviews. Once our clients have a shower, clean new clothes, and shoes, and dignity they are ready to get a job. When they come back for more clean clothes to wear to work that is a huge impact. 

The other impact is basic hygiene such as tampons and clean underwear that we provide. These small items make a huge impact on someone’s life. 

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for your organization, what would that be?

Caitlin Adler: I think if we could continue to franchise our model in other areas and build in a way that incorporates social enterprise. We would love to continue recycling as part of our model as well.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Caitlin Adler: I came into this experience naive and trusting looking out for the good of the community. I originally did this by myself and partnered with twelve other organizations. Over time I have learned so much more about the multiple facets of homelessness.

How has this journey changed you?

Caitlin Adler: I used to be so afraid of the homeless because I didn’t have any personal interaction. When you know people by name and care for them you learn understanding and compassion and we all need more of that.





Copyright © 2020 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

Faces In Between

There has been much conversation about the future of our country and the challenges that many of our young graduates are facing in these uncertain times. If ever there was a bright light that gives us all hope for humanity, it is Danielle Levin, the President, and refounder of Faces In Between. Danielle literally graduated from Columbia with her Masters in Public Health the day before our conversation last week. She is remarkable in what she has accomplished in 25 short years and I know the future is bright with compassionate leaders like Danielle changing our world through her inspiring work serving youth, families, and the homeless.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Faces In Between does?

Danielle Levin: Faces in Between is a community outreach and support organization. We focus on developing different programs that increase the well being of our community members who are experiencing different forms of economic disadvantage. We primarily work with youth and families as well as youth who are experiencing homelessness. Sometimes there are overlaps between those, sometimes there’s not.

For our homeless outreach, we distribute care packages and we’re in New York City so in the winter that looks like sleeping bags, blankets, hats, gloves, scarves, and things like that. We have a speaker series where we bring individuals who are currently experiencing homelessness into different settings to share their own stories and advocate on behalf of themselves and their community. There’s nothing more powerful than hearing it directly from the source and being able to truly ask the questions that many of us have and don’t really know who to ask or where to go to find the answer.

We also have an after school program called SNACC, which stands versus Stainable Nutrition And Community Connection. It teaches economically disadvantaged youth how to prepare healthily, but affordable meals with items that are available in their local grocery stores. We bring different New York City chefs in to teach students and then we incorporate different social, emotional learning components into each session that we have. However, with COVID, we have not been able to run our programming as we had planned. So we pivoted what we do while keeping our mission exactly the same.

We have developed a COVID relief food program, and we are currently delivering daily meals to over 200 people. We are working with a local farm to table catering company who’s bringing boxes of food directly to the doors, the homes, the shelters of elementary age students and their families. So that’s been our new way of connecting with the community. We are in the process of launching a Chef’s Table page on our website. We’re having chefs send us in video recordings of themselves doing cooking demos for the kids. The chefs are going to show the students and their families how to create healthy and affordable meals with the ingredients provided in the boxes. So we’ve really been creative in our approach and are just trying to meet the community where they are. 

Charity Matters: You are 25 years old and have already accomplished so much, You literally graduated last week with your Master’s Degree in Public Health. have you always been philanthropic?

Danielle Levin:  I’ve always been someone that wanted to be a changemaker; I wanted to be an agent for change. I would spend my summers interning for refugee resettlement organization or running a health clinic and interning  for HIV AIDS facilities abroad. I just always knew that I wanted to do something to increase well being and to help people be able to live their best lives.

Homelessness and economic disadvantage have always been something that’s of particular interest to me. Especially focusing on youth because kids have so much to look forward to and so much potential.  When I moved to New York, I had the opportunity to just really get to know my neighbors who didn’t have homes. There are over 65,000 homeless individuals in New York City on any given night.  I had the opportunity to really understand, and to sit down on the street corners and talk with my neighbors who didn’t have homes, get to know what their needs were, learn their stories, and that’s kind of where the speaker series developed from. Also, all the items that we deliver aren’t because I think that they should be delivered, it’s because I know it from hearing directly from the source.

Charity Matters: Tell us how Faces In Between began?

Danielle Levin: It’s kind of an interesting story and series of events, and it’s all just so meant to be. In 2016, I was moving to New York, graduating undergrad, and I was going to work in a corporate healthcare job and wanted to really do something in my spare time working with homelessness and poverty. I came across this woman who had posted something online about how she started this organization called Faces in Between. Her name is Kendra and she filed the paperwork and set up the organization. She was a psychiatric ER doctor who worked around the clock and didn’t really have the opportunity to actually launch the organization in the way she had planned.

I reached out to her and she brought me onto the team. In 2018, I kinda said, Hey Kendra, nothing’s really happened with the organization in like a year and a half. She said, “Actually, I am going to shut it down. It’s not the right time.”  I said, well if it’s going to shut down now and fail now, why don’t I just take it over? I’ll rework it, I’ll rebuild it, I’ll flip it and keep the general mission exactly the same, but the approach to it will change. I thought it either fails with me, or doesn’t, but let’s see what happens. So she passed it over to me. And so I’m kind of like, the refounder.

 Kendra remains as my incredible mentor and she looks at what we’ve done with such pride. She had no idea that it would then turn into this and she’s watching it from afar and just seeing all the things that we’ve accomplished and the thousands of people that were touching daily. 

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Danielle Levin: I think our biggest challenge is also our biggest strength, the challenge is that we are 100% volunteer-based. Every donor dollar goes directly to the community. I am a full-time volunteer for the organization. I think that it’s our biggest strength but it definitely poses challenges because we make decisions on maximizing community impact versus a business model. I think that it is something so special and I will keep this model for as long as I can. It’s working for us. Upon graduating I’m going to be working full time for another corporation so that I can maintain this model. I think that it’s our strength, but it’s a challenge to figure out how to maximize and how to stretch every dollar to make sure that it’s truly making a difference in the lives of our community. I think it’s also the most beautiful part and it’s what makes us us. 

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Danielle Levin: I have so much passion for the work that I do that I don’t mind late nights and early mornings and weekends. For me, it doesn’t feel like work, I truly get so much pleasure out of it. Challenging myself to reach the next limit and figure out how many more thousands of people can we feed or how many more meals can we deliver by tomorrow or next week. To me, it’s time well spent.

I think that I have a unique skill– I am really good at creative problem solving when it comes to real-life issues and coming up with effective solutions. I mean, what fuels someone to want to finish a puzzle? There are things that I can contribute, and if I don’t use it, then it’s kind of going to waste. If you have a gift, you might as well share it with the world.

It fuels me to see the recipients, people who are receiving our services, and their reactions to it. When it’s going to be zero degrees out, and someone is handed a sleeping bag, and they know that that’s their lifeline, it fuels me. When kids learn a new recipe and they’re taking home nutritious food to their family, but they might have had pizza for breakfast yesterday, it fuels me. I love learning from other people, strategically collaborating, picking people’s brains, kind of figuring out how to accomplish things that could have at first seemed impossible. But, when you break it down, you realize it’s all within reach. 

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Danielle Levin: I have two answers. One is in terms of the work we do with homeless outreach. Those moments look like people reaching out who have spoken at our speaker series and saying,” you changed my life, you reminded me that I’m human, you made me feel human again”  and to help someone realize that they are who they’ve always been, is a really powerful moment.

With our youth and families, I think that, honestly, through our COVID relief is how I’ve realized our impact because when you’re teaching kids how to cook, you’re not home with them. You don’t see what they’re doing outside of the program. So you don’t know what type of impact you’ve truly made. But I think that seeing how we can so quickly jump into action  and pivot to support the community because of the infrastructures that are there was powerful for me and the team. Unfortunately, our list of in-need families is growing as the crisis evolves. This week, we officially took every single person off of our waitlist. That’s a really powerful moment to know that every person in this community who’s expressed the need for food, we are able to provide it for them. 

Charity Matters: If you could create a billboard that showed your impact, what would it look like?

Danielle Levin: I think that it would be a picture of our community members, smiling, being part of the community. I think that it would have some kind of message about the individuality of everyone that we serve, and the personal stories– kind of meeting the community where they are. We’re not just providing kids with a meal and saying we changed a life. What we are doing is much more than that.

I think that in all the work we do, it’s important to give people resources and tools, and we can’t expect that they’ll use it in a certain way or receive it in a certain way, or that they even want it but equipping people with resources and tools is so important. I think that meeting people where they are and understanding that one kid might act like they hate our after school program, but we don’t know what’s going on at home. So meeting people really where they are, and letting them participate in the cooking when they want to, let them serve, letting them take extra servings if that’s what they want, or skip out on the servings– I think that it’s really about understanding that we might be serving a community, but within the community, each person has their own story. 

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for your organization, what would that be?

Danielle Levin: That there’s no longer a need for us, that we have to go out of business because everyone has the resources that they need to live their day to day lives, and thrive in whatever way that means to them.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Danielle Levin: I’ve learned a lot. Every single day I learn something new. I think the biggest one is to take risks because everything I’ve done is a risk. I never knew if any of it would work. I’m 25 years old and I launched an after school program at a New York City public school. We just pitched it. We just went to a school and said we think that we’d be a good fit for your school and we pitched it because we had nothing to lose. If we didn’t take that risk, we would have gained nothing, they would have gained nothing, but we’re now providing their students with these meals during this crisis. I think that one thing is to just take risks and think outside the box.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Danielle Levin: I think that my entire perspective has changed. If you told me something, I would question where you learned that from, where you heard that from because to me, I’ve become so used to going to the source and saying to someone who’s experiencing homelessness, I heard this stigma, how do you feel about it? How does that make you feel? I think that hearing the story from the source and learning the facts from who they come from has definitely changed me and my perspective, rather than kind of just accepting what we as a society tend to believe is true.

I’ve always been someone who loves connecting with others, but my ability to do so has become much more well rounded because you might think you have nothing in common with someone who doesn’t have a home and is sleeping outside on the street for the last 10 years, but learning how to connect with someone who seems different, but then finding commonalities with them really changes you. I have become a lot more flexible in my life because when you’re working with individuals who don’t have as much structure as let’s say you and I might have in our lives, you have to learn how to be flexible and adaptable.

I think the biggest thing is knowing how to push limits and knowing that where I am now isn’t the end. There is so much more to do and so much more I will do. It’s easy to stick to the status quo, but to push the limits and see what happens has only led to success and has changed my perspective on how I live my daily life. 





Copyright © 2020 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

The Birthday Party Project


photo via: today.com

We all strive to use our gifts for the greatest good and purpose. We spend a lifetime honing our crafts and talents and usually putting those skills into our careers. For many of the nonprofit founders I have interviewed there is a moment when they realize that their skills and gifts can be used for a bigger purpose, one beyond their job. That is exactly the story of Paige Chenault the Founder of The Birthday Party Project. Paige spent her career as a high end party planner, organizing extravagant weddings and events to create lasting memories for her clients. Last week, I had the opportunity to meet Paige and attend a fantastic party to help support her beautiful mission of bringing joy to children living with homelessness.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what the Birthday Party Project Does?

Paige Chenault: The Birthday Party Project is a nonprofit that throws birthday parties for children who are experiencing homelessness. The Birthday Party Project partners with homeless and transitional living facilities and we host birthday parties for the kids that are staying there.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start  The Birthday Party Project?

Paige Chenault:I was on an airplane reading a magazine article about kid’s birthday parties and for almost a decade I had been in the party planning business, so I was getting excited about my  daughter’s upcoming birthday and the party I was going to throw her. As I flipped through the magazine and saw images of these picture perfect parties thinking that I could totally do this for my daughter Lizzie.

Then I put that magazine down and picked up a Time Magazine with an article about children living in Haiti and the extreme discrepancy between the party that I had envisioned for my daughter and what I saw this child in the article living in every single day. That was the moment that it hit me that I could do more with the gifts and talents I have been given. There were children that were out there that would never know the power of a celebration of people coming together. In that moment I knew that I was the one to do something for these children.

I do believe that we are called into service and absolutely do feel that I was called to this. 

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Paige Chenault: Some of the biggest challenges that we face has everything  to do with the amount of interest we have for people to get involved with our mission and the kids that we are serving and celebrating. Knowing that so many people realize that these children are human beings going through things that are incredibly difficult and traumatic. These are families that are truly experiencing crisis and whether they are in sex trafficking rehabilitation programs or if they are chronically homeless or in a domestic violence agency trying to get help and to stay alive. These families are facing things that we don’t have to face.

In knowing that there are measures in place that allow children and families to feel safe and because of that we have worked really hard on the way we celebrate with kids. Treating people with dignity is our ultimate goal and we have worked very hard with our birthday enthusiasts which is what we call our volunteers to do this. There is a tremendous opportunity for people to get involved with our organization. Yet, we still can’t seem to catch up with the excitement around our mission.   We have scaled incredibly fast in these past eight years and to celebrate in fifteen cities is incredible for us. What we do know is that we do things well and unless we can do them in honoring our agencies and shelters and continue to keep up with the excitement and enthusiasm can be a challenge for us sometimes.

I think as founders I think it is really important that we stay true to our core values and that we let those be our guide post. I can see where it could be very easy if someone wanted us to do this and that moment that we begin to do things that don’t align with our values that is the moment when there are tension points. We have worked very hard to honor our core values, be good stewards of the dollars we have been given and that we are serving our kids and families well. These are hard lessons to learn as a young entrepreneur.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Paige Chenault: Our core team of volunteers, our party coordinators, these are volunteers who host parties on our behalf all around the country. For me, those are the people that fuel me the most because when I am so tired and can’t take one more call or email or whatever it is…I have the opportunity to look online and see what they are tackling for us on our behalf and it is so powerful to see the way that they are giving of their time and resources to serve our mission. We are extraordinary in that way because we have 150 party coordinators around the country who show up on our behalf. Some of these people have been doing this work for almost eight years with us.

Our retention rate is really high and we have worked really hard to care for those people because these are the folks on our team who are doing the work. I have a team in Dallas and we call ourselves the support team because we need to support our volunteers/party coordinators.

Charity Matters: When do you know that you have made a difference?

Paige Chenault:I get really energized when my team comes up with great ideas solve a problem, when we get it right and everything goes really well or when I get emails saying that this was the best experience I have ever had volunteering. Those are the moments for me that I am most proud of the work that we do.

 We do have stories of impact and the ways in which our kids are impacted. I would say those moments are extraordinary and incredibly special.  We have immediate impact with our work but the ripple effect takes ages to come back. Recently, I had the opportunity to truly run into someone who she said to me, “Do you know you celebrated my 14th birthday with me when I was living at a shelter?” I had never met her before and I was at a speaking engagement and she came up to me and she was now the youngest intern ever at this company and for me it was incredibly special and this was my moment. It was everything for me.

 For me that was a four year gap before we saw her again and she still spoke so fondly of her party in such detail and to me that speaks volumes to level of work that we are doing making lasting moments that help me over come those hard days of the grass roots building of this organization. We are leaving lasting effects on the children that we are serving and that is what matters. These moments are the greatest gift that have been given.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about some of the successes you have had?

Paige Chenault: We have celebrated 10,000 children’s birthdays in eight years and we have done that alongside 50,000 children. So we have celebrated 10,000 birthdays with 50,000 children there with us celebrating. We have done that with the help of 38,000 volunteers which we call our birthday enthusiasts, which is extraordinary to me. That is a lot of kids reached, a lot of birthday cakes.

We have done that with our agency partners or transitional living facilities or homeless shelters. The Ronald McDonald House is a prime example of a transitional living facility. Covenant House is a teen living facility and there we celebrate children 17-23 and often these kids revert back to their childhood because they never celebrated a birthday before. We partner with domestic violence agencies, sex trafficking rehabilitation programs and then we have homeless shelters and emergency shelters which are typically 24 hour facilities .

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for your organization, what would that be?

Paige Chenault: I think there is an opportunity to go big and give people an opportunity to have experiences that they would never otherwise have the opportunity to be a part of. Yes, I want every child in America to feel celebrated and yes I would love to take The Birthday Party Project internationally but in addition to that there is always room for us to do more for others. I want to partner with people who dream really big. Allowing kids to experience Disneyland, or a movie lot or having a larger than life birthday party in the middle of a field. I just want them to see how creativity can bring people alive. 


Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Paige Chenault: I think I am more sure of who I am as a wife and a mother and a leader. I have always been empathetic, compassionate and a giver and I have always expended most of myself for others. I now realize that I don’t have to do it all or be the hero of the story. So for me, the narrative that has switched since this endeavor. It doesn’t have to be about me but it really can be about more and everyone together and thank goodness for that because there are plenty of others who can share in the joy of this. It is like taking off the cape and the in charge mentality and saying people there is plenty to go around.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Paige Chenault:I think for me the biggest lesson for me is that we gain people’s trust when we operate from a place of authenticity and vulnerability. If I were to continue along this journey with all the answers or needed to be the person with the first and last word, we would have crumbled by now. I think for me it was incredibly important as we brought people into the fold that I was incredibly honest from the beginning that there was a lot that I didn’t know but that I knew we needed to it.

By sharing just who I was and what my strengths and weaknesses were and by being able to share that with the people around us we created a movement. People realized that I didn’t have all the answers but maybe they had a piece of the puzzle and by allowing them to do what they do best and to get out of the way, we were able to build this incredible community of these magic makers that I trust and that trust us.

That has probably been the biggest take away from this experience. When we get out of our own way and rely on the expertise of others that is where community is built and that trust exists in those moments and when you are able to do more. I believe strongly in the power of people but allowing others to find out what they are capable of is even more rewarding.

Charity Matters


Copyright © 2019 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

Family Promise

Every one of us has passed a homeless person on the street but not every one of us stops, especially when we are in a hurry. That is exactly what happened to Karen Olson in 1985 on her way to a meeting in New York City.  On an impulse Karen not only stopped but she bought the woman, named Millie a sandwich. Karen began speaking with Millie, who explained to her that homelessness brought about profound feelings of disconnection from society and a lack of self-worth.  That moment changed everything for Karen Olson and from that meeting, she began to look at a new way to try to help connect those in need to those who wanted to help. Little did she know that this encounter would become the birth of Family Promise.

Earlier this week I had a fantastic conversation with Claas Ehlers who is now the Executive Director of Family Promise, as Karen stepped down a few years ago after almost twenty-eight years at the helm. Claas not only has a personal connection to this mission but has been working at Family Promise since 2002. I can’t wait to share the rest of this story and enlightening conversation with you. It is remarkable what one sandwich did and continues to do for thousands of homeless families across our country.

Charity Matters:  Tell me a little about what happened to Karen after the sandwich and The beginning of Family Promise?

Claas Ehlers: So, in 1985 the number one reason the State of New Jersey was placing children in foster care was not because of abuse or neglect but because their mothers had become homeless. At that point, homelessness was a relatively new phenomenon and family homelessness was totally unheard of concept. In 1985, you thought it was an urban problem of single homeless people but not of families out in the suburbs. Karen had worked in the city with individual homeless people but when she discovered the statistic about children and families she got motivated to do something.

Karen decided to arrange a conference and was smart enough to recognize that the faith community would be engaged in this. There were over 80 congregations represented by over 200 people at that initial meeting, in late 1985. She simply asked the question, “What can we do about this problem of family homelessness?”

Congregations said we want to do something more meaningful than writing checks. The initial thought was to get a church or synagogue building and turn it into a shelter. Then these congregations realized that they had space and they had volunteers who already wanted to help. The YMCA offered space, Autoland gave them a discounted passenger van so they could offer transportation. So out of that meeting in an ad hoc way the program started. 

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Family Promise does?

Claas Ehlers: We are a national organization, somewhat like the headquarters of McDonald’s but we don’t actually make hamburgers here. What we do facilitate is to empower families towards success and we mobilize volunteers and we cross those over so that each one is stronger as a result of the other. When we look at empowering families, we are looking specifically at families that are experiencing homelessness, which is not a sharp line….there is a lot of blurring, people that are at risk of homelessness, people who are nearly homeless and people that are experiencing homelessness.

Overall what Family Promise does is provide more than just shelter for families but a holistic solution that includes the prevention of family homelessness and the stabilization of families at risk. What we do here is to try to maximize our affiliates so that they can serve as many families as possible and engage the community in ways that bring in many more resources than one might expect to address the issue.

Charity Matters: How did Family Promise Grow so quickly?

Claas Ehlers: After that first meeting it took about a year and a half before we were operational and in October 1986 we officially started serving families. Neighboring communities began to see what we were doing and the program took off organically and kept spreading to Philadelphia and Ohio.  In addition to shelter, meals, housing and job support our affiliates began developing programs for transitional housing, childcare, and homeless prevention. In 1988, Karen said,” we should make this a national organization.”  As a result, we renamed our national organization Family Promise. Karen had a vision from the beginning. We are so lucky to have incredible engagement with communities across the country who are innovative with how to solve their communities problems. 

Charity Matters: What are the biggest challenges in your work?

Claas Ehlers: One big challenge is that people do not understand family homelessness. People view homelessness as chronic singles homelessness and the bigger issue is housing and stability. Another challenge is to ensure that we have resources to meet our mission and overall awareness of our work. We recently had a piece on the Today Show that did a wonderful job telling the story of our work in a very compelling way. (click above to watch)

The terrain is changing too with artificial intelligence and how is that going to affect jobs and homelessness?  We are thinking about these things. We do have a goal to increase the number of people we serve but at the same time, we think about how are we going to push the bell curve to the right. We are always trying to find out ways to help our affiliates do their jobs better.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Claas Ehlers: Certainly there are always lots of challenges and obstacles but I wake up every morning feeling like I am the luckiest person in the world. I have the most amazing team, they are mission-driven, talented, and work well together. I go out into the field and I work with a group of volunteers who are so committed to having an impact on homelessness in their community and that is just SO inspiring.

The other side of that is the alumni of our program, the people who serve on our guest advisory council. I work with these people who have faced adversity they have been homeless and come through our program and are now committed to helping others be successful by paying it forward. They are working, have families and are dedicating all their time and energy to help others in any way they can. I have my own personal stories and have been in Foster Care but that is nothing compared to what a lot of these stories are. These are people that say that this community supported me and now I am going to give back.

When I see the children who leave our programs and see the future they have that they didn’t have before that keeps me going.

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Claas Ehlers: It is a tough question for me to answer because I am self-critical. I always see what I haven’t done. There are so many moments. Recently, when the Today Show piece came out, I emailed it to a number of our partners to share. The responses I received from current partners and potential partners saying, ” I am just so proud that our firm partners with Family Promise.” Those moments remind me of the work we are doing.

This morning, I was talking about the weekend with our relatively new Chief Operating Officer, she told me that she took her children to volunteer for Family Promise. She told me she couldn’t believe that her 14-year-old son was so compassionate working with a 4-year-old at one of their shelters. There are so many moments that show me the impact. Every statistic is a human, a person whose life we touched. There is magic everywhere. There is just magic.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had? What has your impact at Family Promise been?

Claas Ehlers: We always really try to look at how we are successful and how that can drive innovation. First of all, we serve over 90,000 people a year in all different ways and 60% of those people are children. What is really important is that we have our core Shelter Program that is about 18% of the people that we serve. In that program, 88% of those people move into long term housing (traditional, permanent, or shared) after 57 days. We are not about getting people into housing, we are about getting them into housing they can sustain. That is critical that we get them into sustainable housing.

We have 200 affiliates (chapters around the country) that have over 1,700 distinct programs that address some element of prevention, shelter or stabilization that are run by 200,000 volunteers. We are launching a new program at our National Convention this week that trains volunteers to understand the grief and trauma that happens when you lose your home.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Claas Ehlers: I always had a connection with helping children who were under-resourced. My children have been raised with this work. Now that they are grown, I get to watch their service. All of my three children serve and this work has helped define our values. We have always prioritized helping those that are not as fortunate as we are. If we can all just incrementally be better people each day then that is what really matters.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Claas Ehlers: What I have learned is that things are rivers and you have to understand that things are rivers. And that when you are at the river the water at the river is the way it is now but might not be the way it is next time. The water that you see at the river today will be entirely different than the water you see next month. It is higher or lower or not as clean. You have to realize that everything is fluid and that things are never the same at any one time. That every time something changes it is a new opportunity.



Sharing is caring, if you are so moved or inspired, we would love you to share this to inspire another.

Copyright © 2019 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.


I Am Waters Foundation

You never know what a lunch invitation is going to lead too…..A few weeks ago a friend of mine reached out and invited a handful of girlfriends to connect with a remarkable woman named Elena Davis for lunch. She was coming into town from Houston and had started a nonprofit organization there serving the homeless in 2009. I of course could not wait until lunch to meet and connected with Elena last week via phone to chat and ask about her journey in beginning I Am Waters Foundation.

I have to say, it was one of the most remarkable stories and amazing conversations.  Elena is truly an inspiration and  I am sure you will feel the same way…

what is the i am waters foundation’s mission?

Elena Davis: I Am Water’s mission is to do one perfect and complete thing: to deliver water. Clean drinking water in a bottle with a message of hope, love and faith to remind the person holding and drinking from the bottle that something important lies beyond physical sight.

charity matters:  there is usually a connection between nonprofit founders and their causes, what is yours?

Elena Davis: My life as it stands now is far from where I started. As one of four kids raised by a single mother on less than three thousand dollars a year and food stamps, my life was lived in extreme need and on the margins of society, with struggle as a constant companion. At the age of fourteen, after having attended over a dozen schools, I started dreaming of a better life than the one into which I was born.  I was introduced to a photographer who took the first shots of me and I began to realize my dream of becoming a fashion model. At the age of 16, having signed with the renowned Ford Agency, I set off to Paris to begin what was to become a lucrative and successful career as a print and fashion model.


 After 15 years of hard work and a successful career as a model, I was able to contribute to alleviating my family’s financial woes . In 1994, I married into one of the country’s more prominent families. Twelve years of marriage and 3 kids later, I had all that I had dreamed of. Or so I thought.   In 2009, while going to pick my kids up from school a homeless woman knocked on my car window. I reached for money and she shoved it back to me and said, “Please, I am so thirsty can I please have your water?” As I handed her the water and felt a jolt, like an electric current. She said, “Thank you and God Bless you.” And she disappeared.

Charity matters: what was the moment you knew you needed to start your nonprofit?

Elena Davis: After meeting that woman, I couldn’t get her out of my mind and I knew that I was being called to do something. I just wasn’t sure what. Then a series of things happened that kept pointing to water and homelessness. I knew I needed to revisit my past and I was scared to face the deeply buried part of myself, my childhood, that I had kept a secret from my friends and the people I knew. Yet, I knew that if we could heal one crucial aspect of the intense need that a person without a home has to deal with daily, by providing water, we could make an impact and so in 2009 we began the I am Waters Foundation.

charity matters: homelessness has so many layers where do you start?

Elena Davis: Did you know the average age of homeless person is 9 years old? We have more than 3.5 million people that are homeless in this country every night and of the 31 million people living in poverty more than 12 million of them are children. We start by providing the most basic human need, water.

charity matters: what keeps you doing this work when The job is never ending and the need is enormous?

Elena Davis: The work is hard but I really believe that I was called to do this. The short answer is God. What are the chances that I was born into poverty and married into a great family? I think I am a bridge between two worlds and this was God’s way of saving me.  Also, my husband has been incredibly supportive through this entire journey.

charity matters: when do you know you have made a difference?

Elena Davis: On a micro level I think we have been able to track people and follow our progress. On a macro level we have worked tirelessly to help change the systems by working with cities, calling out injustices and simply by not giving up. We are excited to be launching a new program I Am Jobs to continue our mission to serve this underserved  population.

charity matters: Tell us the success you have had and your impact?

Elena Davis: We have distributed over 4.1 million bottles of water to the homeless in six states.  We have partnered with countless homeless agencies and 45 shelter partners that we research. We are now working with cities to begin an I Am Jobs program in addition to supplying water and hope to the population we serve. The water continues to be the tool we use to reach people and connect. Each bottle has a phone number that connects us to the individual in need. We have partnered with incredible organizations to help the next steps in the job process. It all starts with the individual person who is asking for help.

charity matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience and how has this journey changed you?

Elena Davis: Growing up transient I kept to myself. My heart was buried and this journey has cleansed me, given me gratitude and perspective. I have learned that our gifts are tied to our wounds. You need to go down to the core of who we are and face that to move forward to help others.

charity Matters: Thank you for sharing your remarkable story, You truly are an inspiration and more than a super model but a super role model for us all.


charity matters



Copyright © 2018 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

Homelessness…where to start?

Regardless of where you live, you have witnessed homelessness. It seems to be an epidemic on the rise and a problem with so many layers, that many of us simply don’t even know where to begin? In communities across the country people are coming together, as Americans do, to roll up their sleeves to support those in need.

Last week a dear friend of mine, reached out to tell me about his amazing aunt, Norah Miller, and the work she is doing in her community to help the homeless. Norah lives in Pennsylvania where the economy has struggled, the opioid addition has skyrocketed and Veterans are unemployed and facing homelessness. It would be easy to turn a blind eye, but Norah simply couldn’t look away. Instead she decided to act.

In 2009, Norah and four friends came together to do something and founded Cornerstone, to support the homeless in their community and by 2016 these five received their official nonprofit status.

Here is what Norah had to say last week:

CM: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start your non-profit?    

Norah Miller:  It was a bitter cold morning in western Pennsylvania, January 2012, when a young man called me. He identified himself as a veteran who had lost his job and his home in Akron and was doing temp work at a steel mill. His take-home pay wasn’t able to cover the $40 a night charged by the motel. When he called me, he didn’t have enough money for gas to get his family to a relative’s home in Ohio. I met him in a parking lot and gave him $100 in gift cards for gas or food. The windows in his old car were steamed up and he looked toward his wife, three children and their dog. I told him I could help him with housing. He said, “It’s too late.” Then he thanked me profusely and said, “I wish I had met you sooner.” That’s when I knew.

CM: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Norah Miller:  Committed colleagues, support from the faith-based community and a lobby full of people including a 10 month old baby girl in an old stroller, extending her arms to me last week.

CM: When do you know you have made a difference?

Norah Miller: When someone – a recovering addict, a disabled veteran, a family with children – is handed the keys to their very own apartment.


CM: Tell us what success you have had? What has your impact been?

Norah Miller:Prior to its 501c3 designation, The Cornerstone was already recognized as the single point of entry to the county’s homeless and housing stabilization programs. $64,000 in private funding was raised in the first 9 months, $450,000 in government funding was allocated and more than 100 people a week receive assistance.

Norah and her team are working to make a difference. They spend every penny they raise on helping others, they do not have a web-site, a logo or a marketing budget. When I asked her what she needed she said, “Our vote.” The Cornerstone is one of three non-profits chosen to win a website. If you are so inclined to take three seconds to click this link, https://digitalboostvoting.isynergy.io to help an amazing woman who is helping others, then you too will be making a difference.

Every decision we make with our time is a choice. Thank you Norah for inspiring us all.

Charity Matters.


Copyright © 2017 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.