Lighting a Candle in the Darkness: How Thistle Farms Is Giving Women the Sanctuary They Need

There’s an old proverb that says: “It’s better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” And what could be truer than that? Instead of despairing over a problem you see, take whatever small action you can to make things better – or, in the case of Becca Stevens, founder of Thistle Farms, start small and just get bigger and bigger, helping more and more people. Stevens started with a desire to help women who have been trapped in the dark world of trafficking, drug abuse, and sex work, and has ended up, more than two decades later, with not only a series of residential homes that get women off the streets, but also a successful business that sells candles and body care products, run by and benefiting the women who need it most. 

“That Horrible and Hard Ground”

Becca Stevens smiling
Becca Stevens, founder of Thistle Farms, residential homes that get women who have been trapped in the dark world of trafficking, drug abuse, and sex work, off the streets.

Becca Stevens’ own journey began in a dark and difficult place. When she was just five years old, her father, an Episcopal minister (Stevens herself is an Episcopal priest), was killed by a drunk driver, and the man who stepped in to help their family, the head of the church elders, began to sexually assault her. The abuse went on for years, but instead of breaking her, it flipped a switch of compassion in her, and gave her a drive to brighten the lives of others. 

As she told us in an email: “That horrible and hard ground: that’s where the seeds were sown to do the work of Thistle Farms. Looking back now, a half a century later, I can see with the clarity of hindsight the wonders of my resiliency and compassion, not in spite of what happened, but in part because of what happened.”

Fast forward to 1994, and Stevens was working with vulnerable women in Nashville, in shelters and through ministry on the streets, women who she would discover she had a deep connection with, despite their very different backgrounds. They shared a painful history of exploitation – some studies suggest that well more than half of women working as prostitutes were sexually assaulted as children, and according to Thistle Farms’ website, “Most of the women we serve first experienced sexual abuse between ages 7-11, began using alcohol or drugs by age 13, and first hit the streets between the ages of 14 and 16.”

But it was something more than that: “When I began working with women coming off the streets and out of prison, I quickly learned I was meeting myself. These women and I had similar imperfect qualities that I found endearing and beautiful. I was free to laugh and share with them in a way I couldn’t with any other group of friends. Early on, I knew I was doing the work alongside survivors, not for survivors.”

Stevens began to seriously think about opening a two-year residential “sanctuary” for women looking for a way out of trafficking, drug abuse, and prostitution – after all, some studies show that up to 80% of women in prostitution report current or past homelessness – but it never seemed to be the right time. Then she got what she feels was the sign – literally – she needed to move forward. 

“The idea of opening a two-year free sanctuary for women survivors had been simmering for years. But with the demands of work and a growing family that idea was just sitting on the back burner. Then late one afternoon in 1994, I was leaving work and putting my four-year-old son in the car seat when he looked up at me and asked, ‘Momma, why is that lady smiling?’ The billboard he could see was a huge image of a stripper in a catsuit, smiling. The question broke my heart, because I knew one day he wouldn’t ask it. The sign would just fade into the landscape where women are bought and sold without notice. On that day I felt a fire burning in my chest and knew I needed to open the first home for women who have survived lives of trafficking, addiction and prostitution.”

room with 2 beds in it and a dresser
Becca created a housing program that helped transform the lives of more than 200 women, with 75% of graduates living “healthy, financially independent” lives.

“It Takes a Community to Welcome Them Home”

So, in 1997, Becca Stevens started Thistle Farms with one residential home where five women with histories of prostitution, drug abuse, and trafficking came to live together and begin the hard work of transitioning from struggling to survive to living empowered lives of their own choosing. The organization has since expanded to include five residential communities in Nashville, which provide various services for the women that take part, such as medical and dental care, therapy, substance abuse treatment, legal help, and education. 

This housing program has helped to transform the lives of more than 200 women, with 75% of graduates living “healthy, financially independent” lives, and Thistle Farms now also has 92 sister organizations, offering more than 500 beds for women who need them. And what makes their residential programs so unique? They are completely survivor-led, with no “authority figures” living in the house and running them; these homes are truly communities for the women who live in them.

As Stevens told CNN (she is a Top CNN Hero for 2016), “None of the women ended up on the streets by themselves. And so it makes sense that it takes a community to welcome them home.”

And while Stevens’ overarching philosophy for the work she does has always been that “love heals,” she also saw that when you have to struggle to survive, you can’t really live. You need the practical things in life, like a safe place to lay your head at night and a steady paycheck, which can also go a long way toward giving you the confidence you need to get back on your feet, and allowing you to make your own choices in life. The women she was working with couldn’t get jobs because of their criminal histories, so she took matters into her own hands, and began the social enterprise side of Thistle Farms, a company making candles and bath and body care products.

“[The first five women in the residential program] changed my understanding of what love looks like. In the beginning, it was all about keeping the bills paid, getting women to the doctor and therapist, doing outreach on the streets and jail, and building relationships in the community. We began the social enterprise part in 2001 because the residents were doing great, but couldn’t get jobs because of their criminal history. There is no long-term healing without economic independence so we started making candles and body balms in a small church kitchen to provide women [with] income.”candles with the words "love heals every body"

Why body care products? “It made perfect sense to me to make body care products that were about healing bodies – bodies that had been used and abused for so long,” she told CNN.

These days, Thistle Farms has grown to a $2 million business that helps fuel the nonprofit; it employs more than 75 people, two-thirds of whom are graduates of the residential program, and the products are sold in more than 500 stores. “The women have built the business. They run sales, accounting, manufacturing, shipping, and they keep growing the company so that more women can come through and be a part of it.” 

“Something to Embrace and See Beauty In” 

When asked about the name “Thistle Farms,” Becca Stevens told CNN, “I love thistles. Some (people) think of them as a noxious weed, and yet they have this beautiful purple and deep center. When we were going down to meet the women on the streets, that was the last wildflower that was there. So it made sense to name our company after it and remind us all that something to be discarded is (also) something to embrace and see beauty in.”

African American woman holding thistle smiling
Gwen, marking almost 16 years clean, is a manufacturing manager, and candle maker at Thistle Farms.

What grew out of Stevens’ “horrible and hard” experience, for her, is not just something to be discarded, but something that has given her the drive to change the lives of others who have walked that same ground., and not been so fortunate. And there is no judgement, no asking “What did you do?” to get where you are, just a shared sense of humanity; no one is left behind or forgotten.

For example, Stevens told us the story of Ty: Her experience of sexual assault started with a family member in middle school. She quickly ended up on the streets and the way she tells her story is that when other girls were thinking about what dress to get for their prom, she was trying to figure out which cars to get in and out of. She was running drugs too, for her pimp, and was involved in a sting. She came to us directly from prison and was doing really well. But she still had one charge pending and about a year after she started with us she got sentenced to fourteen more years.

 It took a lot of advocacy and work but she came back to our community after three years and was completely free of addiction. She got married and had a child with her husband. These days she directs the manufacturing at Thistle Farms. When the women come in she trains them to make these beautiful lavish products – candles and healing oils. She’s a joy and is completely fearless.”

To hear more from the graduates and employees of Thistle Farms in their own words, check out their stories here. There is much to learn from them, and one of the most powerful lessons is how similar we all are. As Becca Stevens points out, “Truly, the lines that separate any of us are thin. There’s so much more that we hold in common, and we are better when we all come together.”

To learn more about Thistle Farms, and to find out how you can help or how to purchase their products, go to their website. To donate, click here.

Walking a Mile in the Shoes of the Formerly Incarcerated

How does that old piece of advice go? Never judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes? How comfortable would you feel if that “mile” was spending 15 years in prison for a crime you didn’t commit? That’s exactly what happened to Richard Miles, founder of the nonprofit Miles of Freedom, which helps the formerly incarcerated find employment and housing, and also does youth outreach in Dallas, Texas. For Miles, though, it’s not a person’s guilt or innocence that makes them worthy of having someone to walk beside them and help them get on their feet: it’s their humanity. The goal of Miles of Freedom is not just to reduce recidivism, or get or keep people out of the prison population; it’s to make sure that everyone can strive for the same quality of life that we are all entitled to. 

“I Became a Number”

Richard Miles standing in front of a statue.
Richard Miles, founder of Miles of Freedom, a program that helps ex-convicts integrate back in to society.

“For 15 years, my life as I had known it ceased to exist. I felt kidnapped by a system that stripped me of my sense of individuality. It was a system that took my clothes, my name, my decision making, and gave me a uniform, a number, and endless commands. It took my identity and my authority as a human being.” These are the words of Richard Miles, on his experience of the prison system, which he entered one fateful night in May of 1994 when he was just 19 years old, but his experience is not unique, unfortunately: there are more than 2 million adults imprisoned or jailed in the United States.

What is unique, though, is the story of how each of those incarcerated people end up where they do. For Miles, his story is one of a miscarriage of justice. He was walking home from his girlfriend’s house late at night, and the next thing he knew, he was being handcuffed, charged with murder and attempted murder, and put on trial. And, despite a court case riddled with inconsistencies (and his complete innocence), he was sentenced to 60 years behind bars. 

It goes without saying that Miles would never be the same. He went from being a typical teenage boy, from a religious background (“We grew up in a very spiritual home. We were at church ten days a week!”), with typical drive and ambition – he had graduated from high school and was working in a fast food restaurant to save up money so he could study engineering at college – to being what the state described as simply an “inmate.” As Miles told CNN, “I oftentimes say, ‘May 15, 1994 is the day that Richard Ray Miles, Jr. died.’ I became a number – 728716.”

“I Started Looking Up”

Remarkably, the crushing weight of being locked up for a crime he didn’t commit, and the lack of humanity forced on him by the prison system, did not end up destroying Miles. He found “peace in being innocent,” as well as hope: during his time in Coffield Unit in Texas, which houses nearly 5,000 men, he met Benjamin Spencer, an inmate working in the prison barber shop cutting hair. Benjamin had also been accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and was working with Centurion Ministries, an organization dedicated to getting the wrongly convicted out of prison; he encouraged Richard to write to Centurion about getting assistance with re-opening his case. He did so, but the polite letter he received back said that they wouldn’t be able to get to his case for more than a decade. 

All Miles could do was wait, hope, and absorb prison life, tucking away his observations and thinking about how he could use those experiences to make changes in what he saw around him. He started with his own perspective: “My mom would always tell me, ‘When you look out the window, don’t look at the bars, look at the sky.’ It’s all about perception, you know. You might be in a situation that can’t change, but can you change in the situation? So, when they were gone and my situation didn’t change, I could change my perception within the place of incarceration. And that changed my whole life. I started looking up.”

Richard Miles awarded CNN Hero
“I founded Miles of Freedom, not because I was innocent, but because I had been in prison. I resonate with the countless men and women who desperately need the assistance I found myself needing when I returned home from prison.”

“Coming Home Is Possible ”

While Richard Miles told CNN that he lost faith in the system (“I felt the system let me down, the system is supposed to protect, it’s supposed to do justice”), he never lost his faith in his religion, or in his family, who fought tirelessly for him. In his first phone call to his mother after his arrest, she had said “I know that you’re innocent and your father and I are going to walk by your side every step of the way. We will do whatever it takes to prove your innocence. We are going to fight for you.” That phone call with his mother gave him the necessary hope to make it through the most difficult moment of his life, and the strength to use his experiences to help others once his family and Centurion finally won the battle and got him home, 15 years after his arrest. 

Re-entering the world after 15 years behind bars, though, is never easy, and wasn’t even for Miles, who was innocent, and eventually exonerated three years after his release. He faced a tremendous uphill battle when he was released from prison; first of all, the world had completely changed: “I was overwhelmed. I was 34 years old in age, but I was 19 from society standpoints. I had not dealt with the world, and I was literally scared,” he told CNN. “I didn’t know about taxes and employment. The world was totally different.” Smartphones had replaced beepers, paper job applications had been replaced by online job searches, and Miles didn’t know where to begin or what to think.

Second of all, the moment he walked out of prison, Miles was branded a “felon,” and, as such, had difficulties finding employment and an apartment. He was lucky, though: again, he had his family, and was eventually also awarded a $1 million settlement for his wrongful conviction. But what about the people who don’t have someone to “walk by [their] side every step of the way”, as Miles did? Unfortunately, according to the National Institute of Justice, almost 44% of released inmates end up returning to prison before the end of their first year on the outside. There simply isn’t any support for them as they struggle to re-enter society, and the obstacles they face can be too much to overcome. 

And that’s what led Miles to use 15% of his settlement money to start Miles of Freedom, which provides holistic re-entry services for people returning home from prison. Miles told “I founded Miles of Freedom, not because I was innocent, but because I had been in prison. I resonate with the countless men and women who desperately need the assistance I found myself needing when I returned home from prison. We created an organization that approaches re-entry from a holistic standpoint. Providing services for the person who was directly impacted, the family structure that was fragmented, and the community that lays dormant because of incarceration.” 

The organization does this by providing help finding housing, getting an ID, and enrolling in college, as well as offering a three-month job readiness workshop that includes classes on résumés, interview skills, personal finance, and relationships – they even set up interviews at job sites during the last two weeks of the program. The participants can work for the organization’s lawn care service in the interim, which gives them an opportunity to make money and get on their feet. black shuttle bus with MOF on the side.In addition to these services for the formerly incarcerated, Miles of Freedom also provides a shuttle service that takes loved ones to see their incarcerated family members, and has a youth outreach program and a program that offers encouragement to people who are currently in prison. This one is near to Miles’ heart; as he told CNN:

“Going back to prison to me is probably one of the best things that I’m doing right now because I feel like the people in prison are the ones that really, really need to know that it’s possible. Coming home is possible. Being successful is possible. So, when I’m able to go back in the prison and they hear that I’ve been there, that’s one thing that gives them encouragement.”

While all of these powerful programs have been very successful – since 2012, Miles of Freedom has helped more than 1,500 men and women who are returning home from prison, or are working to regain their life after a felony conviction, and they’ve seen only a 7% recidivism rate – Miles wants people to know that focusing on recidivism rates is not the only goal of his organization. 

“Our challenge as an organization is fighting the belief that reducing recidivism is the goal. We are not comfortable with hanging our hat there,” Miles told “The mission of Miles of Freedom goes beyond just to keeping former inmates from returning to prison—we also address their quality of life. They may stay out of prison but some may live their lives homeless in Downtown Dallas. Instead, the question we ask ourselves is, can we sustain their lives in a way where homelessness or going back to prison isn’t the only option for them.”

“He Opened the Door”

As Richard Miles points out, statistics about recidivism are one thing, but making an impact on human lives is quite another. The Dallas News spoke to Stanley Moore, a Dallas resident who was released from prison and was having a bumpy reentry into society. He’d been in prison four times, spending around 20 years altogether – or almost half his life – behind bars, and he had been having trouble, well, staying out of trouble. 

After Moore’s last release, he wanted to make a change for the better: “When I got out, I changed my environment. I changed my friends. I changed my setting. I didn’t want to be that person anymore. I got tired of being that guy,” he said, but he was struggling to find support and a job: he applied at retail stores and fast food restaurants, and none of them would hire him.a yard with a sign that says "yard by miles of freedom"But he was determined. “If you shut the door on me, you know what I’m going to do? I’ll knock on another door,” Moore said. “Richard Miles, I knocked on his door. You see what he did? He opened the door.” At the time of the Dallas News story, Moore was enrolled in Miles of Freedom’s job readiness workshop, and was working for their lawn care service, getting on his feet so he could support his newborn daughter. “This is a second chance,” he said. “Everybody deserves one. Don’t you think?”

For Richard Miles and Miles of Freedom, that’s what it’s all about. Miles, who is now married with two kids points out that, “At the age of 19, all I had was 60 years and a bunk. And God has given me so much at the age of 44.” His organization is working hard to give others the hope he has: “Regardless of what you go through in your life, if you hold true to faith, your story will not be wasted. It will turn out to be good. The conditions of your story have nothing to do with your life being good.”

If you would like to learn more about Miles of Freedom, or get involved, visit their website. To donate, click here.

Downtown Boxing Gym: Fighting Hard for Young People’s Futures

Take a look at the FAQs on Downtown Boxing Gym’s website and, under the question “What does Downtown Boxing Gym offer students?” the first thing you’ll see is one simple, two word sentence: “Endless possibilities.” Khali Sweeney, the founder of the Detroit youth tutoring, mentoring, and athletic organization, grew up being told there were no possibilities for him, especially not endless ones; in fact, it was drilled into him from an early age that his two “choices” in life were prison or death before the age of 21. But Sweeney ultimately didn’t accept others’ low expectations of him, and nowadays, he doesn’t accept any low expectations of the young people who come to him for help – and the astounding amount of work, resources, and dedication he’s poured into Downtown Boxing Gym is paying off in big ways for his community.

“Don’t Be the Next Guy in This Picture”

Khali Sweeney smiling with a red brick wall background
Khali Sweeney, founder of Downtown Boxing Group, a youth tutoring, mentoring, and athletic organization providing young people with endless possibilities.

Life just started off on the wrong foot for Khali Sweeney: his parents gave him away when he was an infant and he, like so many children, fell between the cracks. He was understandably angry, and acted out and struggled in school; in fact, Sweeney says, “from about the third grade I realized I couldn’t read or write.” But his behavior and his academic difficulties didn’t get him the help he needed; instead, he was surprised to see good grades on his report card year after year, and was surprised to find himself elevated to the next grade year after year, until he reached the 11th grade knowing that he still couldn’t read or write. That was when he decided to take on board all of the negativity around him and give up on himself.

“I just dropped out…I saw my report card, I saw that there were good grades on it, and the only thing I kept hearing was the people around me, going through school, I’m talking 4th or 5th grade on up, just every time a teacher telling me: ‘You’re going to be dead or in jail before you’re 21, you’re going to be dead or in jail before you’re 21, you keep acting out and you’re going to dead or in jail before you’re 21.’ I started hearing my neighbors say it…and I was like, forget it. I know I can’t read or write, I got this good report card, I’m just being set up for failure, so I dropped out of school and I started running the streets. I started living fast because I figured I was going to die young anyway.”

So what changed for Sweeney? Fortunately, he has an older brother who didn’t give up on him and told him some hard truths: “He came to my neighborhood and was like, ‘Bro, you do understand that the rest of the world doesn’t live like this, right? There’s nothing around you but death and destruction. There’s no resources in your community, there’s nothing for you guys to do but get in trouble.’” Sweeney didn’t want to hear it, but his brother insisted he look at a picture of the guys from Khali’s neighborhood, pointing out that all of his friends were ending up dead or in prison. “He was like, ‘Bro, what do you want to do with your life? Don’t be the next guy in this picture.’”

His brother’s words finally hit home and Sweeney started questioning what it was he really did want to do with his life. And the first thing that came to mind? Learning to read. He decided he would go back to school, and once Sweeney got started on a new path, he fully committed to it: “I made myself a promise that I was going to change my life and just always try to do the right thing, and I did that…[before] I was on a suicide mission…so now let me turn that energy around and use that energy in the opposite direction to do everything humanly possible that I live a long and prosperous life.”

“I See a Kid Who Hasn’t Been Heard Yet”

Khali Sweeney indeed kept his promise to himself, and transformed all of the negative energy he’d been putting toward hard living into positive energy, spending his time working, reading, and surrounding himself with people who deserved his time. He felt like he had lost time to make up for, and threw himself into working three jobs, until one day his supervisor demanded that he do something extremely dangerous on the job; remembering his promise to himself, he walked off the job and into the next chapter of his life.

Sweeney decided it was time to not just focus on living his best life, but to also focus on changing lives in his community; he found some resistance until he decided that he could do the most good by getting involved with the young people in his neighborhood: “When I tried to talk to my peers about changing course, nobody could hear me because they were set in their own ways, living their own life…so I said you know what, the key to this thing is to actually concentrate on talking to the young people, as young as possible – and if we can get them headed on the right course, the better off we’ll all be.”

black and white photo of Khali and a young girl boxing
“I don’t see bad kids. I see a kid who hasn’t been heard yet.”

He recognized that changing kids’ lives would mean changing the dynamics in the entire community around him: he remembered back to his struggles in school, struggles that were ignored because there just aren’t the resources in underserved communities to give every kid the attention they deserve:

“You’ve got people who are literally doing their best…you’ve got parents who are busting their butts to put food on the table, to make sure that the lights and gas are paid, they’re doing everything humanly possible, and they entrust their children to the school system. But what happens is, they don’t understand that the school system is overwhelmed…you know, I don’t fault any parent at all…and I understand that when you’re dealing with the amount of money in the inner city school systems, they’re strapped for cash…it’s just a crazy dynamic.”

Sweeney describes a vicious cycle of kids in underserved communities not having what they need, then acting out, then being disciplined and sent home to a parent who would need to take time off of work…and on and on. And according to Sweeney, that means “the problem never gets fixed for that young man or young woman.” They end up on the wrong path, but as Sweeney told CNN in 2017, “[Youth criminality] is a culture that’s being created. We have to break that culture, and we have to counteract that culture. I don’t see bad kids. I see a kid who hasn’t been heard yet.” His mission was clear to him: to find a way to make sure the kids in his community were heard. 

“I’m Doing It for the Right Reasons”

Once Khali Sweeney made up his mind to leave his job, he jumped in head first: 

“I took the money I had invested and I went ahead and opened up the youth program, because that was where my mind was at…trying to get the kids [in my community] off the path that I was on. So many guys that I was seeing in my neighborhood were on the same path…people were like, ‘Talk to him, tell him how you changed your life!’ And now I’m talking to them and I’m like, ok, how do I spend more time with these kids? And one of the things I read was that you learn more about somebody from an hour of play than from a lifetime of questioning…so let me start showing them what I know with boxing…I saw the potential in it, because I saw the discipline and the focus and the drive that it takes to [box].”

Nephews, cousins, neighbors…neighborhood kid after neighborhood kid came to Sweeney, not just for boxing, but for direction, and he knew he needed a space for them. He found the space that would become Downtown Boxing Gym, and the rest is history, even if it was a very bumpy one. Sweeney was so dedicated to getting DBG off the ground that he poured literally everything he had into it: not just his heart and soul, but all of his money, and even his physical health, as he tried to get the word out about what he was doing. 

a group of people standing next to each other smiling with a DBG banner above them.
“We started having that buy in, and when people started buying in, a lot of people started helping lift the program. It was a lot easier with more people trying to lift it than just me.”

“Those guys [that know me in Detroit], they saw me go from 218 of solid muscle down to about  140 pounds. They saw me literally walking the streets everyday…I ended up living in the gym because I lost my house, I couldn’t pay the bills and pay for the building [that housed Downton Boxing Gym so I lost my house]…I ended up sleeping in my car. I was like, I sacrificed my life for so much other stuff, I can do this for the kids and the community…That’s what I would tell myself, every time I would wake up in my car, I’m doing it for the right reasons.”

Sweeney was about to close up shop and head back to work to save more money to put into DBG, when he had an idea that would end up bringing in the help he needed, and get him off the “hamster wheel,” as he calls it, of keeping his organization afloat. Adults were coming in, asking to use the gym to workout, or for Sweeney to train them, and he offered them a deal: tutor a kid and you’ve got gym rights. That’s how the current executive director of Downtown Boxing Gym, Jessica Hauser, got started in the organization: she came to the gym to workout, stayed to tutor, and ended up believing in the mission so much that she poured all of her money into the organization as well.

But it all paid off in the end, all the pavement pounding and making cold calls, even the times when Sweeney and Hauser ran out of their own money: they gained the trust of the community and the corporations in their area. “We started having that buy in, and when people started buying in, a lot of people started helping lift the program. It was a lot easier with more people trying to lift it than just me…I had founders’ syndrome to the fullest, I was in the way of the program, I was trying to lift it myself…I’m not a business person…you know, I’m skeptical of everything and everybody…I was like, man, these kids trust me, the community entrusted me with their children, and so I’m going to do everything to protect that trust and not compromise it for anything, anyone, or any amount of money, and I’m going to make sure these kids continue to get 100% graduation rate, and we’re going to make sure they have a safe environment, and so for me I was just super protective of it. When Jessica came around, I started to ease up…and we started growing from there.”

“Books Before Boxing”

Even though Khali Sweeney can look back and reflect on the mistakes he made financially or resource-wise while building the organization, the idea behind it was always incredibly solid, focused, and effective: “It was always about academics. I just needed the draw – so if you told me to come to the Downtown Afterschool Reading Program, I would have said, ‘Man, get out of my face!’ But if I say, why don’t you come down to the Downtown Boxing Gym, you’re not just going to come by yourself, you’re probably going to bring all your friends, too. Because it’s cool…but once they get in the door, they realize it’s my rules, and my rules are: books before boxing. That’s my motto.”

kids standing next to each other holding a certificateAnd Sweeney’s “books before boxing” philosophy has worked, and been extremely beneficial for the young people lucky enough to be involved with DBG: the 100% graduation rate mentioned above is no exaggeration. By 2017, nearly 300 young people had completed the Downtown Boxing Gym’s program of tutoring, mentoring, college and career prep, and social-emotional skills building (and yes boxing, if they want!), and not one had failed to graduate from high school – and Sweeney has maintained that perfect record. Not only that, but 98% of their young people go on to college.The organization currently serves around 150 young people ages 8-18 (and has a 1,300 person waiting list!), giving them 100% free access to the academic and social support they need (as well as fun stuff like a rock climbing wall, a STEAM lab, and a music studio – they have an impressive list of extracurricular activities), and adding on necessities like access to technology, free transportation, healthy meals, and medical care when they see the need: “We just started putting the pieces of the puzzle together, little by little. We’re still trying to do that now, we’re still growing, still trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together, just to try and fill in the blanks wherever we can help.”

And where does Khali Sweeney want to take Downtown Boxing Gym in the future?  He’s hoping to take all the knowledge he’s gained and replicate his program in other places that need it: “I want to go wherever the need is, if there’s a need, I want to be there and just lend my support to the community…this whole thing is about the community as a whole, not just in Detroit, but everywhere.”

The idea behind Downtown Boxing Gym might seem simple, and totally intuitive: give kids what they need and they’ll thrive, but somehow it’s a lesson we all still need to learn. In Khali Sweeney’s own words to CNN, when he was named a Top 10 Hero in 2017, it’s as simple as this: “Just imagine if you just fell in a hole and broke every bone in your body. It took you 20 years to crawl out of this hole, and the minute you crawl out, you see a young kid about to run right in that hole. You just move out of the way and let them fall in there? I can’t do it. So, I’m going to do everything I can do to stop people from falling in that hole. I’m going to cover it up; I’m going to block it. Whatever I’ve got to do.”letterman jacket with the letters DBG on it and a picture of a person with scrapes on their face and hands holding a book

The work that Khali Sweeney and Downtown Boxing Gym are doing might just be, as he calls it, the piece of the puzzle needed to stop the cycle of neglect and acting out, show them kids what they deserve and how they can achieve it, and change underserved communities for good. If you want to find out more about DBG or how you can help, head to their website; to donate click here. And if you want to hear more about DBG in the words of this year’s graduating class (which we highly recommend!), check out their blog.

ABLE: The Brand That’s Making Accountability and Ending Poverty FashionABLE

When is a fashion brand about more than being fashionable? And what do scarves and leather bags, beautiful as they might be, have to do with empowering women and lifting them out of poverty? These questions aren’t riddles; in fact, they can be easily answered by checking out one brand: Barrett Ward’s ABLE, an ethical company that sells clothing and accessories, and is deeply committed to employing and empowering women as a solution to the plague of poverty, here and around the world. This deep commitment to employing and empowering women is actually the whole reason for the existence of ABLE, and the products it sells are a (very lovely) means toward achieving that end. According to Ward, “For us, empowering women isn’t a marketing tactic. It’s the solution to ending poverty.”

So how did someone who describes himself as “the least fashionable person in the office” make the decision to start a fashion company, and how is ABLE changing the lives of women, as well as changing the game when it comes to responsibility and transparency in business?

“One Inevitable Step After the Other”

barrett ward with a quote
Barrett Ward, founder and CEO of ABLE.

According to Barrett Ward, founder and CEO of ABLE, “I didn’t set out to start a fashion company – my team would resoundingly agree that I’m the least fashionable person in the office. This journey is one that found me.” And Ward’s road to building his fashion brand has certainly included some long journeys: while working in the corporate world, Ward ended up on a trip to Peru, a trip which would alter the course of his life. “I was struck by the feeling that I was missing the entire point of life, and I began to grapple with the chasm between the life I lived and the poverty I witnessed. This started a journey of self-discovery that led me to the nonprofit world for the next 5 years…I don’t actually remember making a decision to jump in and do something. Instead it felt like one inevitable step after the other. I stumbled into that trip to Peru, and from there I wanted to continue my travels around the world to see what might be next.”After some more travels, what was next was marriage and another long journey, this time a move with his new wife to Ethiopia. It was there that the idea for ABLE found him: he and his wife were living in close proximity to the commercial sex trade that is very common in that country, and were constantly seeing what poverty can force vulnerable people to do. “Young women having to sell their bodies to make ends meet is just unacceptable. You either have to ignore it completely, or you have to do something about it,” according to Ward.

So he met women who were struggling to break free from that life, and listened to their stories: “I met one woman who had gone into prostitution to save her sister from breast cancer, and I felt compelled to find a sustainable solution for these women who were actually making heroic sacrifices, ones I couldn’t imagine having to make, for those that they love.” The women he spoke to agreed that they were interested in a “sustainable solution”: they weren’t interested in charity, they were looking for opportunities. 

According to Ward, “If you’re going to be serious about solutions to poverty, then you have to create jobs, and you have to do so for women. That is a socially scientific fact. So that’s really where we started. It wasn’t this grand vision of changing the world. It was simply a few women saying ‘we need a job.’” The idea that the women came up with? Making scarves.

“Taking Care of the Person Next to You”

Ward and the women he met were ready to flip the script – on the fashion industry, on the expectations of these women, on their impoverished circumstances. As Ward explains, “In Addis Ababa, scarf-making is a big industry, but it was largely male-dominated. So we trained women how to make scarves and sold them during the holidays. In just 2 months we sold over 4,000 scarves. We were blown away, but we knew we were onto something.” So, before he knew it, and without any previous fashion experience, “we had become a scarf company.”

Since its beginnings in 2010, that little scarf company has grown and evolved, and is now a full-blown lifestyle fashion brand, offering not only handwoven scarves, but also leather goods, shoes, jewelry, and apparel that are made in the U.S., as well as in partnership with manufacturers in Ethiopia, Mexico, Peru, and Brazil. Ward has brought ABLE to the United States, setting up headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, where he continues to run it as a truly woman-led company, with women making up 64 out of the 67 employees at HQ.

barrett ward with a young child and mom

For Ward, expanding in this way is the key to keeping his business sustainable, so they can stick to their founding conviction that “Creating economic opportunity for women is the key to ending generational poverty around the world.” After all, as Ward and ABLE have moved on from simply being a way to help three women escape the sex trade, Ward has learned more and more about how truly transformational empowering women can be. He points out, “A woman spends an estimated 80% of her earnings on her family and community, whereas a man only spends 30 to 40%. So that means when a woman is empowered, there’s a greater investment in children’s health and education. The impact that it has on poverty is exponential, so this is the first data that drove us as a company to invest in women.”

But there’s more than just cold, hard data here. Ward sees first-hand, every day, how ABLE is making a difference: “I could tell you 5,000 stories, but a couple of weeks ago a young woman that came out of heroin addiction said, ‘Hey look at my new glasses. I’ve never had glasses before because I’ve never had health insurance. And I’ve never had vision insurance.’ Those kinds of moments just break your heart and also fill it up.” 

For Ward, it’s all about “taking care of the person next to you…And even in that kind of cheesy but seemingly obvious way, when a loved person leaves your office and loves someone else well, that’s not cheesy. That seems factual and strategic to me. So we really believe in starting in our core company. We have a ten thousand dollar contribution to women that are experiencing infertility; we have a ten thousand dollar contribution to women going through adoption; we have fully paid health care, and every woman is an owner in the business. All those little things established for us early on made a statement within our budget of who we want to be.”

“It Feels Right”

african american woman with an apron on and tools in her hand
“Creating economic opportunity for women is the key to ending generational poverty around the world.”

As he has gotten more involved in the fashion world, Ward has learned that it has a distressing dark side, and that, for the hidden women working in this industry, just being employed is not necessarily positive or empowering. Says Ward: “The fashion industry itself is broken. It is estimated that fashion employs more than 60 million people – 75% of whom are women. It’s one of the largest industrial employers of women in the world! Yet less than 2% of fashion’s workers earn a living wage. That’s nearly 45 million women unable to afford the basic needs of themselves and their families.”

So, in the last few years, Ward has decided to do something innovative through his work with ABLE, and it isn’t developing a new fashion accessory or other product: he’s decided to bring radical transparency to the fashion industry, and to hold it accountable for the way the women involved in it are treated. After all, while the whole purpose of Ward’s company has been to empower women and lift them out of poverty, many big players in the fashion industry are simply exploiting them. 

What Ward has realized is that the industry isn’t going to change itself, and that governments aren’t going to step up and hold it accountable, so, for him, the only way to start making things right is to rely on consumers to demand better. To this end, he has decided that consumers need all the facts about the companies they are buying from – and he’s started with his own, publishing not just the highest wages of employees, or the average salary, but the lowest wage they pay their employees around the world, as well as a sort of nutritional facts sheet of their wages and practices. 

And what does he say about the flaws in his business that this transparency has uncovered? He makes it clear that, while perfection would be great, progress is what really matters: “I want to run our company putting out into the world that you don’t have to be perfect before you can be honest. And so we’ve put that out there with publishing wages. It feels right. When you’re aligned with your ethics, you’ll run the business that makes you happy and makes you feel at your core that you’re living out your mission.”

woman with a tool in her hand working
“We hope to break the seal of the secret that is keeping women oppressed in fashion manufacturing.”

Ward is also working to help other businesses evaluate the practices of their supply chains, specifically in how they affect the women working at every level. He’s created an auditing system called ACCOUNTABLE: “A couple years ago, we were going through other auditing platforms and realized that there was a gap in the market for an assessment tool that specifically evaluated the impact on women, so we started to think about creating our own…[T]he only way consumers can protect these workers is if they have concrete information about how much the lowest-paid workers are making. We wanted to create a nutritional label of sorts, where consumers could see clear data on those making their products.”

From helping three women find jobs making scarves, to becoming a leader in the push to bring accountability to an industry that is known for exploiting women workers, Barrett Ward is not just changing lives, but hopefully changing what consumers expect from their purchases, so we can begin to make a dent in the massive problem of global poverty. He is choosing honesty and transparency as a way to take care of the most vulnerable in our world, and giving consumers the chance to protect the people making their products. In the words of Ward, “By doing this, we hope to break the seal of the secret that is keeping women oppressed in fashion manufacturing, putting us on the path to long-term sustainable change once and for all.”

Check out ABLE’s website for more about their mission and products, and if you’re a business owner, consider getting involved in their #PublishYourWages movement. 

Advocating for Transgender Youth

Think back to the toughest time of your life (besides the 2020-21 lockdown). Was it sometime in your adolescence or early teenage years? For many people, all of the confusing changes of youth can be difficult; it can also be difficult figuring out who you are and dealing with the way that others see you. Now think about how tough your childhood and teenage years would be if you felt like you weren’t what everyone treated you as or what they expected you to be: what if you knew as a young person that you were transgender? Or, try looking at it this way: what if you were the parent of a young transgender person, and didn’t know where to turn for resources and support? Thanks to Susan Maasch, founder of Maine-based national nonprofit Trans Youth Equality Foundation (TYEF), transgender children and their families have had somewhere to turn since 2007. 

“We Felt Like We Were Floating Alone”

picture of Susan Maasch
Susan Maasch, founder of TYEF, created the non-profit organization after her son came out as transgender and there were little to no rescources.

Susan Maasch didn’t have to imagine what it would be like for a young child to come out to their parents as transgender. She watched it play out before her eyes: her own son came out as transgender at the age of 6 back in 2002. He was one of the lucky children, who had parents who wanted to support him. But, back in 2002, the key phrase was wanted to. Maasch talked about the frustrations that she came up against when her son came out in a recent podcast: “For myself, I had a transgender son, he came out to our family, he was 6-years-old at the time and we definitely felt like we were absolutely floating alone. The pediatrician didn’t know anything, anywhere we turned…and I remember thinking, ‘I’m  a very resourceful person and a lot of people aren’t, a lot of parents are overwhelmed and how are these other parents going to get help that are going through the same thing?’ We were unable to get any advice, or certainly any appropriate advice from doctors, schools…so that’s how we decided to start the foundation.”

TYEF is founded on Maasch’s “resourcefulness” and her determination to advocate for and support her son. According to Maasch, “One way that we funded it was my son had experienced some very serious discrimination at school and we sued the school –  and wilth some of the money that we received from that suit, we took some of that and started the foundation.” With some good friends and some transgender and youth providers, she began, from the ground up, to build the support and advocacy network that she had been unable to access for five long years. And so, in 2007, TYEF was born.

It immediately took off: “You know, I can’t say how many children we helped in those first few years!” says Maasch. “One of the reasons it grew so quickly…was sort of marketing – I came from a fine art background…I had to learn a lot about art marketing over the years, and I just used that marketing background. So we just sort of aggressively made sure that kids and parents could find us at a time when they could have been coming from anywhere, because there were no local resources, that’s how we got started.”

group of kids hugging In 2017 alone, for example, TYEF served over 2,600 kids, up from over 800 in 2014 and 1,200 in 2015. And what do they do to support trans children? They have an impressive array of services and programs that they offer, and they serve children all over the country. For parents of transgender and gender non-conforming children and youth, they offer supportive shared experience discussions, resources, guest speakers and more. For transgender and gender non-conforming kids, ages 2-18, they offer support group discussions, community-building and social activities. They also offer things like legal and medical council, as well as resources for educators. They even have a summer camp specifically for trans youth. 

TYEF has changed the landscape of support and advocacy for trans kids and their family, and it couldn’t have come soon enough. As Maasch says, “In those days [when her son came out] we definitely had kids that were more in a dark place, there was less help for them…It was so great to be at the beginning of the trans child movement and to be pushing that forward in a way that was so needed.” But the work is not yet done.

“Things Are Going to Get Dark Before They Get Better”

no one id free when others are oppressed written in front of purple flowers
“What many [families] would do…is to pretend that they are going to will it away.”
Trans Youth Equality Network and the work it does is vital: the need to support transgender youth can’t be overstated. Unfortunately, though, as Maasch acknowledges, many kids do not get what they need, even from their own families:  “what many [families] would do…is to pretend that they are going to will it away.” Wishing one’s child’s true identity away is not helpful – and it is not realistic. There is a sizable portion of the youth population that identifies as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. In fact, the CDC actually estimates that almost 2% of young people identify as transgender, which means that there are at least 1.3 million trans youth ages 0-17. That’s a lot of kids in need of support; unfortunately, though, studies show that only 27% of trans youth say their families are very supportive, and fewer than half (43%) say they have an adult in their family they could turn to if they felt sad or worried. In addition, only 9% of trans youth say their community is very accepting. 

All-in-all, those are worrying statistics, especially considering how essential having a support network is to trans young people’s mental health. Trans youth are especially vulnerable to mental health issues, including thoughts of suicide; according to a major study done by The Trevor Project in 2020, more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth have seriously considered suicide. As Maasch says, “If you ignore the needs of a transgender child, things are going to get dark before they get better if you don’t support them and listen in some way.”


Maasch drives home how a lack of support can end in tragedy. “We did have a kid [we supported at TYEF] whose father was just adamant that there was no way he was going to support this, and unfortunately his son became more and more depressed… and took his life…,” Maasch says, and his father realized that he “waited too long to come around… It was heartbreaking.”

“It’s a Beautiful Journey”

But there is good news: supporting trans youth has a measurable effect. It works, and the numbers confirm that: studies show that trans youth who have support experience a 52% decrease in suicidal thoughts, and a 46% decrease in suicide attempts. She also points out that it sometimes just takes reaching out to people to change things: “I always tell the kids that parents that seem absolutely like they will never come around often do come around.”

And experiences like TYEF’s camp, where kids who are transitioning can meet other trans kids at different points in the journey, can make a huge difference in these young people’s self-esteem. For example, the parents of one young trans girl, Maya, told Vice News: “‘When she came back from camp, she was bounding across the kitchen,’ [Maya’s mother] said. ‘She was more talkative after that. Her personality was amplified,’ [her father] added.” Being around other trans kids showed Maya that she wasn’t alone. “’I know who I want to be, and I’m just going to do it,’ Maya recalled thinking. ‘Now it’s not who I want to be, but it’s who I am.’”i am who i am paintingUltimately, what Maasch wants us to remember is that trans children are in need of support and more understanding, and that needs to come from everyone, not just families with trans children. According to Maasch,

“[All experts agree] the mental health issues that transgender children experince is from the rejection, rejecton from their peers, from discrimination. It is not inherent to transgender children that they have mental illness, and of course many don’t, especially if they have support…The only reason they suffer from mental illness and have that kind of deep pain, higher rates of suicide, three times the depression of other children is because of that actually says that in the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders], we want to keep that in mind…I’ve thought about this a lot as the parent of transgender child…we teach our children to not make fun, I mean its a pretty cruel world out there, but to not make fun when children have medical conditions, and yet children feel that they can make fun of and be abusive to transgender children…they’re thought of as ‘less than’ in some places and we need to fight that.”

And the takeaway for parents of transgender children? As Maasch says, “Remember that it is stressful, and it’s time for you to practice self-care. And know that as tough as this journey is…that it’s also a beautiful journey and not to lose sight of that, because it’s a beautiful thing to be on that  journey with your child, a journey of acceptance and reliability and trust and guiding your child and protecting them and teaching them what authentic love is. I mean there’s something beautiful about that and they’ll always, alway remember that you were there for them and it will give them inner strength.”blue, purple and white drawn on the palm of a hand.If you would like to help, you can donate to TYEF here. If you are in need of resources, including recommended books, legal advice, Q&As, and helpful videos, please check out their website.

No Age Limit on Service: How One Young Person Is Proving Youth “Cancerve”

It can be hard to tell an eager young person that they’re too young for something. There are some things that just have to wait, though, until adulthood: driving, staying out as late as you like, getting your own credit card. But how about giving back to your community? Can you be too young to dedicate yourself to service? Grace Callwood, founder of the nonprofit We Cancerve, which raises money, gives out grants, and provides fun experiences for sick, homeless, or foster children, has the answer to that question, and it might just give everyone hope for the future. 

“Let’s Give Them Our Food!”

Grace Callwood
Grace Callwood, founder of We Cancerve.

According to Grace Callwood, “There’s no age limit on service.” And she has certainly proven that: celebrating 10 years of working hard to help others would be an achievement for anyone, but when you’re not even old enough to drive yet? That’s an astounding achievement. Grace, who is now 16, started We Cancerve when she was only 7, but she has been focused on giving back for as long as she can remember.

It all started when Grace was only 2 years old. She was hospitalized with a minor illness, and recalls how the toys the hospital provided were a bright spot for the children there. The most fun, she remembers, was a red wagon they could ride around in – the only problem was, there was only one. So, when Grace asked for one for herself from her parents, she made sure to ask for one to give to the hospital, as well.

And so Grace got her first taste of giving, and she kept going from there, making each of her birthdays an opportunity to bring joy to others. For her third birthday, she had a princess party, like many children; but unlike most children, she requested that her guests give gifts to the hospital. The next year, after hearing that the Maryland food bank was running out of supplies, she excitedly turned to her mother and said, “Mom, let’s give them our food!” Instead of raiding her pantry, though, Grace ended up gathering donations for the food pantry for her fourth birthday.

Grace would most likely have continued on in her efforts to make the world a better place in whatever ways she, as a child, could do, but then something happened that changed everything, and led her even further down the path of service.

“I Could Relate to Them…I Could Really Help”

When Grace was 7, one of the most devastating things that can happen to a child and their family happened: Grace was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. According to her, “That was completely new to me, I mean I was 7, I had just gotten into first grade and I had no idea what cancer was or what it meant. It was a very fast process and I just kind of had to go with it, because I had no choice.”

While doctors worked quickly to remove the cancer from Grace’s body, her aggressive illness meant that she would have to be on chemo for the next three and a half years, and the cancer and treatment took a toll on both her body and her young life.  “Being diagnosed came with tons of changes,” she said, describing how she has always loved school, but was unable to attend first and second grade; she couldn’t see her friends, she gained and lost weight, and she lost her hair 5 times. 

Grace with a box of socks
Grace delivering a box of socks to a homeless shelter.

But even in the midst of all this, Grace remained as deeply compassionate and as committed to helping others as she had always been. When a family friend shared a story of a local family who had lost everything in a fire, she made up her mind to give them the brand new back-to-school clothes that she would not be needing. 

She was touched by their situation: “They had two little girls, and all I could think about was how they had lost everything, and they had just entered homelessness and this super scary and sad situation – and I had just entered sickness, this also different super scary, sad situation…it just made sense to me…my mom delivered the clothes to them because I was too sick to go, and when she told me how happy the girls were, I knew that I wanted to keep doing more work like that, because I’ve always loved to make people happy. I definitely wanted to keep that going – and I knew that they needed it, especially because they were my peers and I could really relate to them.”

Soon after, Grace went on a Make-a-Wish trip to Disney World, where she was given some much-deserved fun, and a whole lot of toys. Recognizing that she had more toys than she needed, Grace donated the toys she had received to the same transitional housing program that the girls who had been affected by the fire were staying in. Her generosity even made the news – but she didn’t stop there. Next was a lemonade stand that raised over $600 for charity, and, for her, “That was a huge indicator that I could really help a lot of people because people believed in me.”

Grace, still only 7, and still battling cancer, knew what she wanted to do next, although it took a little bit of persuading on her part, and, eventually, some help from her mom and her grandma to formulate her idea. “When I first brought up the idea of wanting to start an organization to my mom, she was initially against it. I mean, I was 7 years old, I was in first grade, and I was fighting the battle of my life. She was like, that’s nice, but you have to get better first! But I kept pushing for it…and over time I was able to – well, just not stop pushing!”

“Happiness Shouldn’t Have to Wait”

As Grace pointed out, “I was a sick kid at the age when most people get passionate about things. This community service is what I did.” So there she was, at age 7, the leader of the nonprofit We Cancerve, which is founded on two main principles, the first of which is “Happiness shouldn’t have to wait.” 

For Grace, this means that vulnerable children who are sick, experiencing homelessness, or living in foster care situations are also entitled to joy in their lives – and We Cancerve works hard to make that happen, reaching more than 23,000 children to date. They give out grants (so far more than $14,000) and in-kind donations (worth more than $300,000) to organizations that serve these children; Grace herself, according to We Cancerve’s website “has been awarded more than $140,000 in national and global prizes for her service work, and she’s raised more than three times as much in in-kind and individual cash donations.” Not only all that, but We Cancerve also runs their own programs meant to enrich young people’s lives.

Grace with a kid in the hospital
Grace talking with a sick child after delivering a Beach in a Bucket.

Grace’s founding project with We Cancerve, for example, is Threads of Hope, which donates new back-to-school outfits to kids in need, just as Grace had done when she was 7. Since then, they have added projects that bring fun to children who are experiencing illness or other hardships, like their Beach in a Bucket and Eggstra Special Easter Bags-kits. Both of these projects not only bring the magic of the beach or Easter morning treats to vulnerable kids, but they also involve other young people in collecting donations and stuffing buckets and bags, teaching them about the value – and joy – of service.

We Cancerve has a very long list of grants they have given, as well as projects they have branched out into, like a relatively new venture into creating libraries for children (for a complete list, check out their website!). Grace’s favorite, though? Camp Happy, a free, 4-week camp for homeless and foster children offering themed daily programs with a camp carnival as a finale. “We were the first organization to make a camp for homeless youth in the country,” Grace proudly told me. And the twist of this camp? It’s created by youth for youth and is run (in a 1-to-1 ratio) by counselors who are all under the age of 18.

In fact, Grace launched the camp when she was just 10 years old. She’s proud of the fact that they run it on a very small budget, and involve the kids who participate in making things for their camp carnival. But it’s the reaction she gets from the participants that really keep her going. She recalled one girl who attended: “It was our first year of Camp Happy, and I was only 10. This one camper was 16 – she was way older than me! She was moody at times, but would sometimes participate. At the end, though, she said that Camp Happy was the most fun she’d had in 3 years!”

“We See the Bigger Picture…We Aim Straight for the Issue”

The fact that young people are not only the recipients of We Cancerve’s generosity, but also the force that drives their programs brings us to the other founding principle of We Cancerve: “There’s no age limit on service.” Grace’s organization is invaluable to the children who benefit from its grants and programs, but it is also a powerful force in the lives of the young people who volunteer for it. “We Cancerve makes it easy to get kids into community service,” according to Grace. 

The organization itself is run by a board of advisors made up of youths ages 8-18, who serve one-year terms. They are backed by an adult board of directors, but Grace is clear that they come up with the ideas. Why have a whole board of young people running an organization? According to Grace, “I like the way young people think. We see the bigger picture, we aim straight for the issue. I wanted this organization to be about kids helping kids. We know what kids focus on.”

“Ask Grace, She’s in Charge!”

a collection of food for the homeless
“We can bond over giving back. All that other stuff doesn’t matter.”

So how does someone so young take charge so successfully in the way that Grace has done, what does she want us to know, and where is she headed? “I’m used to being the youngest person in the room,” said Grace; not only she has been mentoring 13, 14, and 15-year-olds for a while now, but she is also a popular public speaker and a strong leader who can hold her own when adults doubt her youth-run organization. 

“People struggle to understand – parents sometimes assume our parents are doing the work, but then they realize. When people go to my mom she says, ‘Ask Grace, she’s in charge!’… How do I have so much confidence? I know I’m justified, I have the credentials to be heard. But I had to practice and step out of my shell. Maybe it came from learning to talk to doctors when I was little. It’s a bit intimidating sometimes, but I know what I’m talking about.” 

Grace, though, made it clear that she doesn’t see We Cancerve as “as a one man show. I do shy away from the spotlight sometimes and my mom says, ‘People are here to see you – you have the vision.’” And while it is clear she is the shining star of her organization, being honored in multiple ways, like with the Peace First Award (at age 10!) and being named the 2019 World of Children honoree, for her, the best part of being head of a nonprofit is seeing everything come together and watching her team succeeding.

It’s not all smooth sailing all the time, of course. Running a nonprofit at such a young age comes with sacrifice and frustrations. She admits that she has lost friends along the way because she’s so busy, and she has to deal with assumptions about her and a lack of understanding from people on the outside. But what’s more important to her – and what can really be frustrating – is getting people to understand the young people that her organization serves.

 “What we really need to do is dive deep into research. We need to look at how and why youth are ending up where they are. Race, sexuality, bad living situations can all play a part, and I can understand that. People can become homeless in the blink of an eye, and homelessness can cause issues at school, which can set kids up to just be part of the school to prison pipeline.” It’s true that, according to many studies, kids who experience homelessness are much less likely to complete high school (which, in turn, makes them much more likely to experience homelessness as adults), and are much more likely to be harshly disciplined at school.

Grace delivering a little library with two other people
Grace delivering a little library to the Windsor Valley Community Center.

Grace has a vision, though, for the future, and her own thoughts on how to move us forward to a more equitable world for all children. “We all need to take a step back and learn,” she said, “We can bond over giving back. All that other stuff doesn’t matter.” We Cancerve is also now addressing systemic racism and the interconnectedness of homlessness and youth vulnerability with race. According to their website, “Black lives matter. Black children’s lives matter. Black homeless youth lives matter. Black foster care youth lives matter. Their lives matter so much that I’m pledging $8,460 to be dispersed over the next four years for rapid rehousing, mental health services, education and vocational services, and emergency services to Maryland-based nonprofits with proven records of servicing mostly Black homeless youth, and Black foster youth who are aging out or are aged out of the foster care system.”

Her organization is certainly giving back to the most vulnerable among us – children. It is also helping to teach the next generation that service can be life changing for both the recipients and those who are doing the serving. And Grace herself? What does the future hold for her? She hopes to head to Howard University in a few years and study political science, and is thinking about trying for elected office afterwards. “I want to make a longer lasting impact. If I can help change policies, then grassroots organizations won’t have to do the heavy lifting,” she said. If we can look forward to Grace Callwood advocating for us and our children, then the future certainly looks bright.

If you’d like to help We Cancerve, you can donate here