Hearts of Gold
“I hope that everyone will roll up their sleeves and help this new administration. The best way to help this new administration is by helping ourselves, and by starting to work at home. We need to roll up our sleeves, America, because if we do, we can have an amazing country once again.” – Deborah Koenigsberger – Hearts of Gold Shines a Little Light: Rex grantee in NYC Enriches the Lives of Homeless Moms and Kids
By Mary Eisenhart
“Every 10 minutes in New York City another family becomes homeless.” – Deborah Koenigsberger
Deborah Koenigsberger’s on the phone to reschedule the interview we’d planned for that afternoon, because, she says with steely determination, she just got a phone call and has to go to court. One of her moms has a violent ex who’s trying to take her kids, and she’s got to go help out. The mom may be recently ex-homeless, but Koenigsberger’s got her back.
When we finally connect a few days later, Koenigsberger talks about how, back in the mid-’90s, she constantly saw homeless people on the street on her way to work. (Work, for Koenigsberger, is her Manhattan boutique, Noir et Blanc…bis, purveyor of distinctive European designs.) Instead of backing away in fashionable revulsion, though, the self-described “Stevie Wonder addict” thought of “Take the Time Out” and its message. “I was so inspired by the Stevie Wonder song, about people being more judgmental about that population than helping them. So I thought, I can do this. Everyone can make a change; you don’t have to change the world, just find a corner and see what you can do. So that was my inspiration.”
Taking this to heart, Koenigsberger-a fashion-world denizen who’d worked as a stylist and a model before opening her boutique, she’s also the wife of a senior Lufthansa executive and the mother of two boys-didn’t just sit down and write a big check. She made it personal, finding a nearby shelter for elderly homeless women and pitching in. “I wanted any work that I did to be hands on,” she explains. “I didn’t want to just do the money thing.”
Over a four-year period, she helped raise $100,000 for the shelter, allowing it to construct private spaces for medical examinations. Then one day she heard from her friend, makeup artist and cosmetic company CEO Bobbi Brown, who thought Koenigsberger was the perfect person for a project she was working on.
“Bobbi invited me to go to a shelter in my neighborhood to talk about what moms should wear, what to wear to a job interview, how to look presentable with what they had, and so on,” Koenigsberger recalls. “When I went to that shelter, I realized there were moms and kids in that shelter, and being a mom myself, kind of a new mom at the time, I thought I’d love to work with them, because that’s something I know something about-just the challenges of being a mom, the daily frustrations, the daily joys, whatever they are. So I decided I would get involved with that shelter.”
She noticed immediately that while the shelter provided the bare essentials of food and a roof over their heads, there wasn’t much else for the women and children they served. So that Christmas, Koenigsberger bought presents for the kids-and came up against a profound disconnect.
“I was shocked to realize the moms didn’t care that you’d brought Christmas gifts for their kids,” she remembers. “The kids were thrilled and trying to share it with their moms, but the moms weren’t interested. One of the moms said something, after her child showed her the toy she’d gotten, that really went home with me-‘Nobody ever did nothing for me.’ She couldn’t relate-she’d never had that childhood. She almost didn’t know where that emotion was supposed to come from, excited or elated because her child got gifts.”
This was such a contrast to the happy family celebrations Koenigsberger remembered from her childhood in Jamaica that she was even more determined to make a difference. When her own funds weren’t enough for the demand, she started calling on her friends, and in 2001, Hearts of Gold came into being, its mission “to enhance the lives of New York City’s homeless mothers and their children.”
“We started to make the celebrations about the moms and the kids instead of just the kids, and that went over really well,” she said. “I kind of modeled it after my childhood, where all these holidays were celebrated. If it was Christmas there was Santa, if it was Easter there was a bunny, and a meal. I got friends involved, and it’s just kind of taken off from there. It’s appealing to me because it’s very grassroots, very hands-on, very small. People feel they can actually make a difference when they donate $50 to a nonprofit where you can see where it’s going and what it’s doing.”
Since then Hearts of Gold has continued to step up, helping enrich the lives of the clients of three NYC shelters in myriad ways while remaining very grassroots, very hands-on, very small. “The idea is, let’s clean up our own back yards first,” Koenigsberger says. “There’s no point in me going across the ocean when I have people here who need help, and I can have direct impact, because I’m doing this work I want to do.”
In 2008, Hearts of Gold received a grant of $5,000 from the Rex Foundation, which was used to send shelter kids to summer camp. So when we finally connected with the very busy Koenigsberger, winding down from her annual star-studded fund raising gala, we took the opportunity to find out more about her work.
Rex Foundation: How did you decide to work with existing shelters rather than start something entirely separate?
Deborah Koenigsberger, Hearts of Gold: The shelters already exist. That’s where the moms are.
My thing is more about quality of life. When you go into a shelter and you’re at the lowest point of your life, I feel like if you have something that brings joy along the way, just like in everyone else’s life, it breaks up that misery-puts a kink in the chain of that misery, so to speak-and you end up with some moments you’ll remember, and hopefully help you to a better place.
We try to go in with programs that are uplifting. We take them on trips. Every two months we have birthday parties for all the kids who have birthdays in those two months, with a clown and pizza and decorations and all the trimmings. We do Back to School-every kid goes back to school with two new outfits and a backpack filled with all the things that need to be in a backpack when you go back to school. When the moms move out of the shelter, we give them a fresh start package-a laundry bag that contains glasses and mugs and towels, and lots of other necessities for starting out.
Rex: You also have a support group for the moms-tell us about that.
Hearts of Gold: We’ve found that when a lot of moms leave the shelter, they kind of flounder; some of them end up back in shelters, because they need more structure. Nothing has changed. While they’re trying, it’s easy for them to fail, because there’s no continuum of support.
So we started a group for moms who are out there trying to make it happen and hit challenges. I have a mom who comes in saying she got laid off and her lights were turned off-these are challenges where they have no one to help them. We are that support group; that’s what we’re about.
We’re about pushing education. I’m getting all my moms who don’t have a GED to start there. I just had a mom get a bachelor’s degree last year and go on for her master’s. We’re all about education; I just think if you’re educated you make better choices.
This group of moms is about 12 strong now, and it’s here if you need it. Sometimes they don’t need it for a while, and then something happens and they come back. We meet every six weeks, we kind of share information-what’s working in your life, what’s not working, what did you do when you had this situation with your landlord?
I bring in speakers who talk about all kinds of different things -whatever difficulties they’re facing every day. It’s what you need in your everyday life, the kind of thing I can call a close friend about, but they don’t have that kind of support.
The coolest thing about the alumni support group is that these moms have started to help each other. They get together with their kids outside of us being present. They do stuff together-they go on outings, and someone will come over and cook, and if there’s a meeting and one of the moms can’t make it, one of the others will come and bring her kids. They say, “This summer let’s all get together and do the shopping and go to the park and have a picnic, just to spend some time together.”
It’s really good-they’re forming friendships they didn’t have before, so they do have somebody who’s down the street or around the corner, a neighbor with kids their own age.
We also spend time on voting workshops, reading newspapers, and general education. Geography. Maps. We don’t do a good job of teaching geography in this country. Europeans are so much more aware. They know what their bordering countries are, for example; these moms have never heard the words “bordering country.” You ask them what the most popular food in France is and they say “French fries!” But now I have them all excited, “You know Miss Deborah, I found out that this is how Belgium celebrates this holiday.” It’s really great, and they’re so proud that they know this information.
Rex: They’re probably the first person they know who does know that information.
Hearts of Gold: That’s exactly right, and they’ll tell you that. I remember one mom said to me that she was on the train going home from a meeting with her daughter and was quizzing her daughter to see what she knew, and the man next to them was European. He was very impressed, and he said, why are you studying this? And she said, because I want to know, and because my daughter’s going to be studying this in school, and I can help her.
It’s really interesting, they find out they have this capacity for learning. A lot of them were told very early on that they could not learn, they were too dumb. A lot of moms say that-“I can’t go to school, I’m too dumb.” When they were a kid, somebody told them that- “You’re too dumb”-and they’ve held onto that belief.
I have a mom I’ve been talking to for four years-finally, this past Friday I wrote the check for her six semesters. She’s finally going for it after getting her GED. She has 12-year-old twins and they’re going to do homework together. It brings families together; it does a lot of really cool things.
Rex: Stereotypically, you think of homeless people as single, especially men. How is it that so many women with kids are homeless these days?
Hearts of Gold: That stereotype is so not the case. There’s an average of 35,000 family members in shelters in the U.S. every night. Over 16,000 are kids under 8 years old. A lot of families don’t have fathers; a lot of domestic violence goes on, and that’s why a lot of them wind up in the shelters. So they’re trying to run from their lives and protect their kids and themselves.
Every 10 minutes in New York City another family becomes homeless.
Rex: Is this because of foreclosure, or job loss, or what?
Hearts of Gold: It’s a mixture of things. A bit of it is foreclosure, but a lot of these families never really had their own homes-they get evicted because the landlord can get more money, or whatever, and people treat them like they have no rights. Literally they just get evicted, and if they don’t move the landlord starts shutting down the lights, and the water, and they have no choice because it’s winter in New York.
There’s an affordable housing crisis. If you’re a mom who has three kids and makes $10 an hour, what are you going to do with that? People need more and more basic things. They’ll ask you for food and toiletries. Shoes. Clothing. It’s not as if they’re asking for these huge things, they’re asking for the basics.
Rex: What can people do in their own communities to help out?
Hearts of Gold: Everyone can get involved in their own communities, and that’s where you need to start. People need to look around and figure out, what can I do to help? Volunteer in a soup kitchen. Or if you see someone on the street every day, maybe you can buy them a brown bag lunch. Homeless people have become so much the norm that we just step past them, overlook them, avoid them, more than anything else. We’re annoyed that they’re on our street. But those people all came from somewhere. They’re somebody’s child too.
Life has gotten rough for some people, but sometimes I feel, especially in this economic crisis, we’re all two paychecks away from this. If you’re not making millions of dollars-and even the people who are are also concerned about the economy right now-when you’re at the bottom of that economy, or even in the middle, you get crushed. It doesn’t take a lot.
As a mom, I would like to reach out there and say, start your kids out early understanding these issues. Kids are aware, and when you raise awareness, that’s how things happen. This generation is so smart, so educated, so young and fresh, and if we start them off early, we all benefit. It’s a win-win-win all around.
And don’t wait for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Every shelter has way more help than they need on Thanksgiving and Christmas-we have to turn people away. But there are 10 other months of the year, and those people are homeless those other 10 months of the year as well. Just do something kind during the year as well, and we’ll all be better off for it.
Rex: Do you think anything will change with the new administration?
Hearts of Gold: I would hope so. The new administration seems to be one of reason.
I’m big on what makes sense. Barack Obama makes sense to me. He doesn’t live in a bubble; he’s very down-to-earth, and when you’re close to the ground you actually see what’s going on there. It’s easy to remove yourself and not be aware at all, but he came from a neighborhood that was not million-dollar homes and mansions. I hope the new team is going to focus on these issues.
Unfortunately there are so many issues for this new team to focus on that I don’t know that this will get addressed any time really soon. It’s so complex, and you really have to take it on. It’s not a quick fix. It’s not a bailout.
I hope that everyone will roll up their sleeves and help this new administration. The best way to help this new administration is by helping ourselves, and by starting to work at home. We need to roll up our sleeves, America, because if we do, we can have an amazing country once again.
A lot of people have gotten kind of complacent waiting to see what somebody’s going to do for you. I think America is fed up, that’s clear from the elections. I think we want something different, we can do this, and we want somebody to lead us to this.
And that said, I hope they’re not just going to sit and wait for Barack Obama to do it, because it’s not going to happen. It can’t happen. There’s no one person, it’s about every single American taking responsibility.
I’m going to roll up my sleeves and work, and I know that the results will come, because I see it every day.
“Homeless people have become so much the norm that we just step past them, overlook them, avoid them, more than anything else. We’re annoyed that they’re on our street. But those people all came from somewhere. They’re somebody’s child too.” – Deborah Koenigsberger
Rex Board Perspective
When Relix publisher and Rex Foundation board member Steve Bernstein first met Deborah Koenigsberger, he was immediately struck by her passion for Hearts of Gold’s work and the successes she’d achieved. “She gets it,” he says. “She’s smart, she’s thoughtful, she’s charitable, so it works.”
One thing led to another, and Hearts of Gold was a beneficiary of Relix’s guitar-string bracelet fund raising program (which also benefits Rex), ultimately raising enough to send a Hearts of Gold kid to college.
Steve realized that Hearts of Gold was also an excellent candidate for Rex support, and his fellow board members quickly agreed. “At Rex we’re trying to help underfunded charities continue their mission,” he says. “It’s helping someone foster and grow what they’re passionate about, helping and being charitable, and giving them the funding to do so.”