It’s been five years since Mike Mondy moved to Laurel, and what has impressed him most about the small town is the deep sense of community that is shared by residents.
“It’s pretty awesome,” he said. “People pull for each other and there’s a lot of diversity.”
Mondy wanted to give back to the community, but finding the time to do so was difficult for the Realtor and father of two young children. Then he enrolled in a leadership development program and was required to create a project that met a need close to his heart. He knew homelessness is an issue in the area and had read some seasonal forecasts that this winter may be harsh.
He had heard about EMPWR coats, a combination winter coat and sleeping bag designed to protect people who are homeless from the elements. He dedicated himself to raising $10,500 to purchase 100 of the coats and distribute them to people in the Laurel area in a project he has coined “Warm for the Winter.”
The EMPWR coats won’t solve the problem of homelessness, he acknowledged, but they do address a material need in a collective manner.
“This project … is an expression of who we are as a community,” he said. “We’re defined by our ability to connect and our ability to love and spread warmth.”
The EMPWR coats cost $100 each (plus shipping) and as of Dec. 21 the Warm for the Winter project is a quarter of the way to its goal, with more than $2,600 in contributions. The first few coats have already been delivered to Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services to distribute to those who are homeless. Mondy has also been in touch with groups like New Day Laurel and the Laurel Winter Shelter to help get the coats to those who need them.
The number of people who are homeless in Laurel is difficult to pin down.
Winter Shelter, which offers overnight accommodations for the homeless at local churches from November through March, has 41 registered adults this year to date, said Leah Paley, the executive director of LARS. LARS in the last fiscal year directly served 116 homeless individuals and families, including some on the streets or in the woods, and others living in cars, shelters or motels.
Paley said there are additional homeless people in Laurel who never access social services, often because of substance addiction or mental health issues. Those are the people Paley hopes can be served by the Warm for the Winter project.
“It fulfills a need for those who are not coming to the shelter and are risking the elements and staying outside in the winter months,” she said. Unless local hypothermia shelters are open, even those staying overnight at shelters need a way to keep warm during the day, she added, and the coats can also be turned into a backpack.
LARS staff are in the process of developing a plan to get the EMPWR coats to homeless people who don’t come to LARS, and Paley said the group may work with Prince George’s County officials who do direct service with those on the streets.
The EMPWR coats are also an attractive resource to Mondy and Paley because they are made by The Empowerment Plan, a Detroit-based group that employs formerly homeless parents to help them break generational cycles of poverty.
“There’s a dual purpose,” said Veronika Scott, founder and CEO of The Empowerment Plan. “The coats themselves share that warmth, shelter and dignity and pride, but we also hire individuals from homeless shelters and employ them fulltime to help to get them to a level of stability.”
About 50 people who were formerly homeless have been employed by The Empowerment Plan since 2012, Scott said. Their fulltime work helps them leave homeless shelters within four to six weeks of employment and the group has a zero percent recidivism rate thus far, she said. Some 25,000 EMPWR coats have been produced in five years and distributed in 49 states and about a dozen foreign countries. Employees are paid not only for their hours working as seamstresses, but also to attend training sessions to help them build their skill sets and transition into other fulltime work.
Mondy said much of the $2,600 raised so far to purchase EMPWR coats for Laurel’s homeless has come through his personal or professional connections at Keller Williams Realty Centre in Columbia, where other Realtors, vendors and clients have supported the project. He has reached out to the Laurel Board of Trade, Laurel City Councilwoman Valerie Nicholas and the Laurel Police Department. He’s working to spread the news about Warm for the Winter to others and is looking for someone to help him organize a fundraising dinner in the coming months.
In the meantime, he’s optimistic that the additional $8,000 can be raised to reach his goal of providing 100 EMPWR coats to Laurel’s homeless this winter.
“We’re taking a stand and we are going to do something for Laurel,” he said.
To support the Warm for the Winter project, donate online at warmwinterlaurel.com or contact Mondy at firstname.lastname@example.org.