Nonprofit Spotlight: On The Rise
1) Briefly describe the work that the On The Rise does, and your involvement at the organization.
On The Rise is a day program for homeless women. We support women who have been chronically homeless and living without services or networks to help them manage challenges like mental and physical illness, legal issues, addiction, abusive relationships, trauma, and poverty in addition to living without a home. Before setting goals and determining an action plan, women use On The Rise as a safe space to take care of day-to-day needs that we all deserve to feel human and to function. For example, we provide food, clothing, laundry facilities, private bathrooms, phones and computers, use of our address to receive mail, and a place to safely rest away from the dangers of the street. Our staff provides accompaniment off site to navigate the service system and advocacy to remove barriers and address challenges that surround a woman’s homelessness.
My role at On The Rise as Community Relations Manager is to educate the community members about our programs and services and share the ways they can become involved. Each year over 200 individuals help us by delivering a healthy and nutritious lunch each day we are open. Our volunteers run drives for in-season clothing, toiletries, and undergarments and manage in-house tasks so we can ensure On The Rise is well-maintained and consistently reflects the dignity that each woman deserves. I recently created an event series that engages current and new supporters of On The Rise to join us at local venues for wine tastings, shopping nights, bowling parties and dining events, for example, to share our mission and to enjoy a great night to support the programs at On The Rise.
2) How did you become involved in nonprofit work? Is there a particular story or event that has motivated your work?
As a child, the hospitality industry intrigued me; my mother was the VP of a New England hotel chain, and I was allured by the industry. I interned and worked at the Four Seasons Hotel Boston in Public Relations, moved on to a private jet company where my clients were celebrities and high net worth individuals, and later I worked for a jewelry company located in a hotel; all roles were similar in that the values of service, hospitality and a client-centric mentality were constant. Throughout these years I tutored at-risk children and youth because I always felt it was a responsibility to give back.
While tutoring a young boy in Boston who I recognized to have severe learning disabilities, I felt consumed by what his future would hold. His school was not addressing the disability, but instead continued to hold him back in grade level. Spending time with this boy and advocating for him through the tutoring service was beginning to preoccupy my thoughts. I realized then that I wanted to change my career focus to the non-profit world so I could work on behalf of people who had little voice, but whose needs were severe. Many people commented that I was making a huge change, but to me the move felt lateral; I would still be in the service industry in some ways working on behalf of people with truly time-sensitive, and in many ways, lifesaving needs.
3) What is the most powerful event you have witnessed since working at On The Rise?
After working at On The Rise I became more familiar with the challenges homeless people face each day simply to survive and get their basic needs met. A program participant who had been homeless for a number of years (I’ll refer to her as Jane) had been coming to On The Rise for some time. Jane was like family to many homeless women who lost all of their support systems. Jane was in her late 50’s and had an abusive boyfriend. Some nights she stayed at his apartment because it ensured a roof over her head, other nights he was too violent - so she left. Often Jane came to On The Rise with facial bruises that indicated the previous night’s violence. Jane’s other options were to sleep on the street, which she did at times, or go to a shelter where she had been victimized and didn’t feel safe. What was she to do to ensure a safe night’s rest? Jane found an abandoned garage and slept there when her other options failed. One night as Jane crossed McGrath Highway in Somerville to reach the garage; she was hit by a car and was killed. Sadly, Jane’s story is not unique. Being homeless is to know survival, you have to take each day as it comes to determine where you’ll find food, clothing, a place to rest and importantly, to feel safe. Services are not always guaranteed and options are scarce. Homelessness can be fatal and I am proud to work for an organization that provides women with a safe place to get their day-to-day needs met and advocates for them to find options, like temporary or long-term housing, where they can sleep at night.
4) Describe the most difficult challenges facing your organization.
In 2011, On The Rise served nearly 400 women, and our numbers are growing. This is a 22% increase in the number of women we have served since 2008. While we continue to spread the word about the growing number of women who seek On The Rise for services, we are challenged by the ability to get the word out to more businesses, like GivingSomeThing, who share our message and the ways they or the community can help us to provide tangible essentials and services to program participants. Each month we hold a one-hour event at On The Rise called Strong at the Broken Places. This is a tour and introduction to how On The Rise helps homeless women. We hope more community leaders will discover the strength and transformation that is possible when the community responds to one of our most troubling social challenges and will visit us to learn how they can become involved.
5) What is most rewarding about your work?
Being able to see the effects my actions have on a community of people is incredibly rewarding. If I’ve held a fundraising event, I know the funds are going directly to a specific need at On The Rise. If a group of volunteers visits to organize our clothing room, or if a family delivers a day’s lunch, I hear program participants’ joy and see the impact volunteers can have not only on the organization, but directly on an individual. The connection to working in the same space as the women we serve is inspiring, and it fuels an urgency in me to work on our fundraising initiatives so we can continue to serve hundreds of women.
6) How would you advise other nonprofits to effectively move towards their missions?
Listening to the people you serve is the most critical means to moving toward your mission. On The Rise encourages program participants to attend events like our annual meeting so that we can receive feedback on the big picture and the future state of the organization. It’s also important to determine an organization’s priorities and then to lay out a road map for how to reach and measure your goals. On The Rise educates our staff, Board, volunteers and community partners about our mission and goals so that with any interaction they have with outsiders; they can effectively communicate the organization’s needs.
7) What is important for supporters to know about On The Rise?
On The Rise is a day program for homeless women; we are not a shelter and do not have overnight beds. We fill a need to provide homeless women with a safe place to receive the tangible day-to-day essentials for survival that are not accessible on the street. Many women simply come to have a meal, take a shower and get clothes, but as women grow comfortable at On The Rise they begin to build relationships with our staff. After trust is established, we are able to learn more about a woman’s past and present. We help her manage the challenges that surround her homelessness and advocate for her in areas where she may not have a voice. We use a relational model in working with women; this means we pay attention to all matters in a woman’s life that she chooses to share with us, and have the flexibility to work with her on the issues that are important to her. When women ask, we accompany them to hospitals, courtrooms, government offices, shelter/housing agencies, and many other service and neighborhood settings throughout Greater Boston where they may need expert advocacy to remove barriers and address challenges.
8) From Carolyn Canina, Executive Director at Cambridgeport Children’s Center: Have you had success keeping alumni/former community members involved in your program? What are some of your strategies?
On The Rise is different in that there is not a graduation from our program. A woman can remain a part of our community for as long as she needs. When a woman finds housing and is no longer homeless she can join our Keep The Keys Program. This supports women with new challenges arise—such as feeling isolated, managing money, living independently, and making connections in a new community. The social support and early intervention provided by On The Rise has proven critical to helping women maintain their housing. For women who move a distance away from On The Rise we make sure to invite them to community related events like our holiday party, our summer barbeque, and our memorial garden ceremony where we honor the lives of On The Rise women who we have lost over the year. A number of women volunteer their time or donate clothing as a means of staying connected and giving back; others stop by to say hello or send cards to share their news. Women know they are always welcome at On The Rise.
9) Please pose a question for our next Nonprofit Spotlight.
What types of organizations or groups do you partner with to advance your mission?
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