“Taking the time to love someone, reaching out your arms and touching someone... be it king … or some homeless one, this is a direct quote from Stevie Wonder’s song Take The Time Out and it’s the song that started me on this journey,” says Deborah Koenigsberger, founder of the charity Hearts of Gold in New York, that works to reimagine the future of the city’s homeless mothers and their children.
Rituals USA has supported Hearts of Gold for some time, since the charity is based next door to the Rituals office. Rituals has donated Soulwear and make-up for its holiday gift sets for the women in the shelters and is looking at ways to work with Hearts of Gold in future, especially to support their Sustain pillar (more on that later). This summer, Rituals is exploring kindness, something that Hearts of Gold offers to women and children in abundance, and so we took the time to speak with Deborah about her mission.
The charity started with no specific mission except “the goal to provide assistance in whatever form and do whatever it took to get a mom and her children through today’s challenges. Sometimes that meant a warm coat. Sometimes that meant a warm meal. Sometimes that meant the warmth of a smile and a listening, non-judgmental ear,” says Deborah. Over time, Hearts of Gold evolved to have a board of directors and three clear objectives: Stabilize, Support, and Sustain. “At Hearts of Gold, our goal is to meet the mom “where she is” in her life and to help her to navigate the path to a reimagined future where she and her children can stand on their own, be self-sufficient, get off of public assistance and break the cycle of homelessness for her and her family and, therefore, generations to come”.
Hearts of Gold at its core
The first of the charity’s three objectives, Stabilize, is aimed at helping the women and children navigate the trauma and negative emotions, such as anger, self-blame, sadness and fear, caused by homelessness. Hearts of Gold offers basic supplies including MetroCards so the women and children can travel to work and school, food and groceries, clothes, school supplies and more. To date, Hearts of Gold has raised over $258,000 that has been spent equipping kids with backpacks filled with things they need for school.
Then there is Support, focused on helping the moms with life skills be that financial literacy courses, parenting skills, and summer enrichment camps for teens.
Lastly, Sustain, is a suite of programs that the women and kids can enroll in to help ensure a positive future in the long-term. This includes interview workshops and job training for the moms, and free tutoring and educational trips for the kids.
The famous quote ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’ reminds me of what Hearts of Gold is doing. “[Helping women to become self-sufficient] remains one of our greatest challenges but also what we are most determined to accomplish and one of the benchmarks we care most about hitting for each life we touch,” says Deborah.
Hearts of Gold is supported through donations and volunteers. It also has another more unique revenue stream - its resale store the Thrifty HoG. “I was trying to figure out how to provide a steadier income stream for the charity instead of counting 100% on private donors. Because fashion is my background [Deborah was previously a model and stylist], I was determined that by opening a resale store, I could do exactly that. As the store became more established, after four years, I transformed it into a job training program for the moms.”
A true Hearts of Gold success story
“When I met Jacqueline, she was living in a homeless shelter with her then 5-year-old daughter,” says Deborah. “We met at a HoG sponsored Easter party, held at the shelter. Over time, I came to know her and her heartbreaking story. In spite of all the hard knocks, instead of making her hard, she remained proud and determined. This spirit drew me to her and kept me in her corner all these years.
“Jackie became pregnant again. When she went into the hospital to have her son Jordan, her daughter stayed at my home. When she came out of the hospital, Jordan came to my bed first. I will never forget his ‘tinyness’. Over the past 22 years, Jackie and the HoG family forged a beautiful relationship and our families formed an even more personal one. Directly as a result of our support and programs, Jackie went back to school and got her General Educational Development (GED) at age 41. She also went through our job training program at the Thrifty HoG.
“I attended every graduation and every celebration, and they were welcomed at all of ours. Her daughter Jazz, pursued a college degree. Through the many starts and stops, we fought side by side for them to all have a better life. A reimagined one. This involved fighting all kinds of demons including slumlords. Jordan was recently accepted to 12 colleges! With each acceptance we cheered. Ultimately, Jordan chose Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, with the goal of becoming a pharmacist. I flew them both to Iowa to take a campus tour and have a live experience, two months ago. Last week I attended his high school graduation. You could not find two prouder “moms” in the audience. In August, we will once again fly to Des Moines, where for the first time in his life, he will be without his mom and all things familiar. He will be on his way. The odds will lose this one.”
Volunteering and starting your own charity
Deborah was volunteering long before starting Hearts of Gold, “I grew up in a family that was all about service. It was in my DNA, so it came naturally to me. I was taught at an early age that “to whom much is given, much is expected”. One of my volunteer positions was at a drop-in centre for elderly homeless men and women called Peter’s Place. It really opened my eyes to the degree to which I was fortunate to have the love and support of my family and friends.”
If you’re interested in starting your own charitable venture, Deborah has some sage words of advice, “If you want to start a charity, start a charity. That said, be aware that it will take a boatload of work and that the saying “no good deed goes unpunished” has a lot of truth to it.
“There are many pitfalls so get a mentor at the beginning of the process and volunteer heavily for efforts dealing with the problem you want to tackle before going out on your own.
“Lastly, make sure you are passionate about the cause you wish to help solve. Some days, passion is all I have to go on. On those days it's the thing that keeps me pushing on.”
If the idea of starting a charity feels overwhelming, start small, “all acts of kindness, both small and large count,” says Deborah. “It is easier to be kind than not.”