NCJW is on the case
By Shari Goldstein Stern
When National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) members Nonie Schwartz and Sherilyn Bird put their imaginations together, the synergy took them straight to NCJW, where they pitched an innovative project idea.
In 2017 the energetic volunteers kicked off the Suitcase Project (SP), with a goal of offering hope and dignity to survivors of human trafficking and domestic abuse, while providing them with their essential needs to live independently and comfortably. According to Schwartz, SP is designed to help women, men and children coming out of domestic violence or trafficking situations meet minimal, material basic needs. “NCJW volunteers help survivors live a more stable, secure and dignified life,” she said.
NCJW recognizes that many survivors arrive at a shelter with their only belongings on their back and in a trash bag. SP gives back their dignity by enabling them to transport their belongings in a suitcase or tote bag, which is packed with necessities for life at the shelter and beyond.
A core group of 12 volunteers under the leadership of Co-chairs Schwartz and Bird, collaborates with Mosaic Family Services, a nonprofit agency that provides temporary shelter to survivors of trafficking and domestic abuse.
Donations from the SP are distributed through Mosaic to those who require them, with priority given to those who need them most. Nancy Rocha, Mosaic shelter director, notes that the essentials most of us might take for granted, like soap, a toothbrush and a fork, aren’t luxuries for their clients. They are immediate needs and that’s where the NCJW cadre is on the case. SP’s mission is to help survivors get back on their feet.
Schwartz said, “Our partnership with Mosaic is built on shared values. NCJW strives for social justice by improving the quality of life for survivors. The agency creates access to opportunities for survivors of human abuse, empowering them to aspire to independence.”
What’s in the bag?
SP volunteers procure items for two sets of recipients: survivors while they reside in the shelter, and those who are transitioning to their own independent living.
Everything NCJW donates to Mosaic is brand-new, with the exception being suitcases in like-new condition. Items are not pre-used nor are tote bags grocery-store bags, but made of high-quality fabric, many handmade. The tote bags and suitcases the SP turns over to Rocha to distribute are filled with essentials for daily life while residing in the shelter. Examples are pillows, toothpaste and toothbrushes, deodorant, feminine products, soap, washcloths and towels. Children’s toys are included as well.
A team of SP volunteers goes budget-shopping at their favorite retail stores for everything a survivor requires to transition from the shelter to independent living in their own apartment. The team purchases kitchen utensils, cookware, cutlery, glassware and kitchen tools like strainers, dicers, can openers, timers, hot pads, mitts, towels and more. Cleaning supplies are purchased, like laundry and dish detergents, laundry baskets, waste baskets, mops, brooms and incidentals.
Bathroom and bed linens are purchased, along with toiletries, toothpaste and toothbrushes, new bathrobes, makeup, toilet paper, tissues and other necessities. For families moving into unfurnished apartments the team has supplied airbeds.
Making a difference
“The impact NCJW has had on our shelter is noticeable,” Rocha said. “Without the NCJW assistance, many of our residents were leaving the shelter without anything to start their new homes. They were packing their belongings in large black trash bags.”
According to Bird, “When we started the project, the shelter immediately needed two suitcases to transport a new mother and her baby from the hospital to an out-of-state shelter to protect her from her abuser. We quickly collected two large suitcases with wheels from NCJW members. Shelter staff put the woman with her luggage on a bus immediately after we collected it.”
Schwartz and Bird have grown the SP exponentially for three years, and they say they’re just beginning. They don’t mind if you call them “bag ladies.”
Rocha said that about 25% of Mosaic’s residents are single women and 74% are families. The shelter can accommodate 46-50 residents a night and stays full most of the time. “During the holidays we get more swamped due to an increase in violence. Some of that results from spouses being at home more. There’s typically an increase in alcohol consumption and children are on a break from school,” she added.
“If the shelter has to turn away survivors due to lack of space, we do a ‘warm transfer.’” Rocha explained that the staff checks for other shelters’ availability for bed space and tries to ‘warm transfer’ survivors over for screening and placement. She added, “We also use ‘safe night’ when needed to arrange a safe hotel stay with suitable accommodations.”
Rocha added, “The look on the residents’ faces every time they get a ‘starter kit’ is priceless. They are overwhelmed with joy at not having to spend their own money to get these necessary items. And believe it or not, as incidental as a pillow may be, it means all the difference in the world to someone who doesn’t have one.”
The co-chairs expressed their appreciation to NCJW members and friends, along with area synagogues for their help in making the project a success. They also acknowledged the East Dallas Rotary Club, of which Bird’s husband is a Rotarian, for their suitcase contributions.
“We appreciate the untold numbers of quilters and seamstresses who have supplied beautiful bags for the residents the agency serves,” said Rocha
Bird added, “The shelter ensures that our efforts go to support clients with the greatest needs first. These women and children have a lot of hurdles to overcome in their transitions to independent living. We want to relieve them from transporting their few belongings in trash bags to ensure they could travel with dignity, so we provide suitcases and tote bags. Once we learn that a family has signed a lease on an apartment, we budget shop for products.”
Mosaic is partly funded by federal grants including Health and Human Services and Office for Victims of Crime: Human Trafficking. United Way provides some funding as well, along with support from private and corporate grants. “Every $18 donation buys a bucket of basic cleaning supplies or five bed pillows. NCJW collects tote bags, backpacks, duffel bags and gently used two-wheel suitcases throughout the year. Pickup can be arranged and coordinated with the shelter through the NCJW office,” Bird advised.
Rocha said, “I love working for Mosaic and coordinating NCJW’s program from our end. This experience has truly changed my life. I never knew the impact that I had on someone’s life until a survivor changed her first name to mine during her immigration ceremony to remember me.”
For additional information and to volunteer or donate new goods, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. For more information about NCJW’s Suitcase Project, visit ncjwdallas.org/suitcase-project/ or Facebook. For information about Mosaic Family Services, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org/.