WOMEN SHAPING HISTORY
Veronica Kelly, Director Special Projects, The Bowery Mission
Doubters, cynics, stand aside. Veronica Kelly, volunteer extraordinaire for The Bowery Mission, is The Real Thing: a dedicated, deeply committed advocate of The Bowery Mission’s special program for women, a former medical sales representative who, on retirement in 2000, began to turn her skills to helping establish and then serving the 131-year-old institution’s Upper East Side residence for homeless women. Retired? “I’m working longer and a lot harder,” she says with a knowing laugh. Purposeful, with a tenacious energy offset by modesty and a sense of humor, Ms. Kelly recalls how the mission’s now-thriving five-story brownstone came into being.
A familiar figure at Bowery Mission holiday events, Ms. Kelly recalls how at one, she was asked if she would consider being a “personal shopper” for women who came to the shelter for clothing. She said yes and found herself working with another woman, checking Dress Barn donations and trying to assure that the women did not get odd-sized ensembles. She and her partner hit it off and between them felt that they had done a good job. Only when the event was over did she learn that her teammate was herself homeless. It was, says Ms. Kelly, one of those “life changing moments” you hear about, but this time it had happened to her. The woman had been living in a church, but clearly performing — “we were equals.” That realization — there but for the grace of God — made Ms. Kelly feel “very blessed … we could all be in her place.”
She soon found herself scouting for a building where such women, homeless and alone, many newly released from prisons or rehab centers, might live while they received assistance — Christian guidance as well as vocational and social assistance. She got into gear, gathering ten like-minded philanthropically disposed women to work with her, a volunteer group that included a decorator who would ensure that the quarters they settled on would be appropriate and attractive. Ms. Kelly remembers how when they met, they held hands and said a prayer — another “life changing moment.” And thus was born the Bowery Mission’s special home for women, now in its sixth year — the only faith-based live-in shelter for women in the city and a house “created with work and love.” And Veronica Kelly became its PR operations guru, with an indefatigable refusal to accept No.
Designed to accommodate 20 women, mostly minorities of an average age of 49, the building, once acquired by the mission, underwent extensive and costly rehabilitation. Ms. Kelly went into cold-calling mode and outreach. The results, she said, were wonderful, though she never hesitated, and still does not hesitate, to say with humor and charm that generous donations by businesses could be even more generous. The owner of Gracious Home, for example, after sending what Ms. Kelly gently called a “hodgepodge” of wonderful items, himself came to see the mission premises and then invited the shelter board to shop directly from the store. Home Depot was also one of the first to respond, as were Bed, Bath & Beyond and a major floor company. Some of the acquisitions were inspired, including a bookcase to contain photos of the women who live in the house at the time. The women, 40 or so who come through each year, have stays of between nine and fifteen months, with two to three women sharing a bedroom and with each woman taking on various monthly management assignments in the house.
But The Bowery Mission already ministers to women and to children “caught in the cycles of poverty, hopelessness and dependencies of many kinds” and offers numerous programs that provide compassionate care. So why this new facility? Women have needs that differ from those of men, Ms. Kelly points out, and thus they need special attention, wardrobes and staff trained to deal with anger management, community living, and accepting responsibility. It costs approximately $400,000 a year to run the house, a number that includes sleepover staff, teachers, administration, three meals a day for 20 women (medical and dental needs are also provided), double of what it costs to minister to the men at the mission downtown.
The Bowery Mission Board has been fully supportive, though at first it was skeptical that Ms. Kelly and her volunteer group could find the funding to turn a decrepit building into a warm and welcoming shelter, with a garden no less, and to maintain it. They did it, of course, and the site now contains a Tree of Hope, where donations may be made in a woman’s name. Funds that are not used directly for the garden go to continuing restorations and repairs and acquisitions — elevators, second-generation computers, utility upkeep.
How successful has the house been? The women get jobs, saving approximately 75 percent of their salary, and some of them — remarkably successful — have already given back. It’s a “true and honest place,” Ms. Kelly says, but she still pushes for more, at galas and graduation ceremonies. #