by Elyse Wild | photography by Two Eagles Marcus
When you look at Amanda, she appears just like any other young woman poised on the brink of a promising future. Her smile is bright, and her demeanor is calm as she holds her 6-week-old daughter, Isabella, who has her mother’s dark hair and rich brown eyes. What you don’ t see when you look at her is the harrowing story of how she spent most of her pregnancy living at Dégagé Ministries Open Door Women’s Center, fighting to find permanent housing as the birth of her baby grew ever near on the horizon.
“It was extremely hard to be pregnant and homeless,” she expressed. “It was a very rough experience. There were many times when I broke down and didn’t know what to do.”
Most Grand Rapidians know Dégagé by sight: the grey four-story building on the corner of Division and Cherry, usually with a small crowd milling outside — lives coming and going as they navigate challenges most of us will be fortunate never to face. The ministry is an institution of benevolence, a vessel that guides its patrons — many of who are experiencing homelessness — out of their darkest hours by providing dynamic assistance. They offer food services, shower and laundry facilities, mail and document services, free legal counsel and more. Now, there is a growing group of women who are coming together to support female patrons of the ministry further; they call themselves Women 4 Dégagé, and they are changing the lives of women like Amanda through gestures great and small.
“I knew that it would work,” Linda Vos-Graham, who originally had the idea for Women 4 Dégage, said. “Dégagé serves so many women, and the need is so great— this is a sisterhood. I felt it in my heart.”
While just in its beginning phases, the group has quickly gained momentum. Its mission is simple yet powerful: Empower women who seek help through the ministry’s Open Door Center through developing and expanding services for housing, health, education and employment, fundraising or collecting items, building community partnerships and offering friendship and love to women in need.
Along with Vos-Graham, Carole Valade, Dégagé Executive Director Marge Palmerlee and Dégagé Development Director Brooke Jevicks are at the core of the group. As the women gather in Palmerlee’s corner office on a brisk weekday morning to discuss how to best connect those who want to help women in need, the energy in the room is palpable.
“Everyone wants to do something,” Vos-Graham expressed. “We want to provide all types of options for women to get involved, whether it is collecting something, sending a check, introducing more resources — anything.”
The group is currently made up of 20 women, all of whom respond to the needs of women at the ministry as they arise. Jevicks cites one who donated 50 pairs of flip flops for women to wear during the warmer months or in the showers; another who is running a pajama drive; another who organized an adult-coloring group at the shelter on Monday evenings. Vos-Graham even bought out the entire stock of hand weights at a local sporting goods store and donated them to a group of women who exercise at Dégagé.
“There is so much opportunity to provide help in any way you feel like you can contribute,” Vos-Graham said.
Amanda was approved for housing through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority three days before she gave birth.
“It was amazing,” she recalled. “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
While Amanda had overcome one challenge by moving into her apartment, her struggle wasn’ t over: The city bus was her only means of transportation to the hospital, and she had none of the supplies necessary for a baby. Julie Kendrick, manager of the Open Door Center, decided that Amanda would not be taking the bus when she went into labor; instead, Kendrick would drive her.
“I asked myself, ‘ Would I do this for anyone?,” Kendrick said. “And the answer was, ‘Yes.’ ”
When the day came, Kendrick drove Amanda to the hospital and stayed with her through the entire birth. Jevicks and Palmerlee alerted Women 4 Dégagé to the fact that unless they acted, Amanda and her new baby would be returning to an empty apartment. The group pooled their resources, and within two days, Amanda had a crib, a dresser that can be used as a changing table, a toy box, a Diaper Genie, a Pack n’ Play, three bags of clothing and supply of diapers — everything she and Isabella needed to embark on their new life together.
“That is what happens with the power of women,” Jevicks expressed. “We come together when we hear the need. It was an awesome response.”
As with Amanda, the group seeks to support women as they move on from the Open Door Center and into their own homes. Palmerlee points out that removing barriers to staying housed can be as simple as providing a mattress when a woman would otherwise be sleeping on the floor, bus fare so she can get to her job or even $50 to make a rent payment.
“You still need continued hope,” Jevicks said. “Knowing that there is a group of people who support you and love you and want to see you succeed is powerful.”
More than 300 women each year find overnight shelter at the Open Door Women’s Center, located on the 3rd floor of Dégagé. Currently, the space can sleep up to 40 women each night, which Palmerlee says is not enough. In March, the ministry announced plans for a $6 million expansion, which will double the number of beds at the shelter and allow them to accommodate children.
Today, the center has no capacity to sleep anyone under the age of 18, and women who are facing homelessness are often separated from their children. Had Amanda not found an apartment when she did, Palmerlee notes, she would have had to leave Dégagé.
“If we can have an area for women and children where they can stay together…going through homelessness is traumatic enough,” she stated.
Palmerlee goes on to tell the story of a woman who called the center during a blizzard this past winter, begging to sleep in the stairwell with her children. The center was full, and due to regulations, she was turned away. It is clear the incident haunts Palmerlee; while she speaks, her voice wavers and her eyes brim with tears.
“That should never happen in a city like Grand Rapids,” she said. “We can do better.”
Valade emphasizes that the power in Women 4 Dégagé resides in its accessibility: Anyone who wants to help may join.
“We are a circle of leaders, and that includes the shelter women,” Valade nodded. “We are trying to create empowerment for everyone. We have pledged to make sure that this group remains very inclusive.”
Jevicks nodded in agreement. “Everyone has something to offer. Our strengths are in different places, and the most significant thing you can give someone is love.”
As the group works toward implementing a solid structure, they remain focused on responding to the needs women at Dégagé currently have. While they continue to grow in numbers and impact, they welcome any woman who feels called to join them on their mission.
Today, Amanda is on a pathway to employment. She and Isabella are happy and healthy.
“I would like women to know that no matter where you are in life, don’t ever give up,” Amanda said. “If you have some kind of support system, take it and run with it and don’t ever give up on yourself.”
To get involved with Women 4 Dégagé, please email W4D@degageministries.org for more information.