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“We Can Revolutionize Aid To Homeless Women By Focusing On Three Key Pillars: Stabilize, Support, Sustain”

Words of Wisdom With Deborah Koenigsberger


Words of Wisdom With Deborah Koenigsberger


“Stabilize is about navigating trauma and restoring a sense of dignity and self-worth. We do this through providing things like our Fresh Start Packages, which contain everything from towels and toothbrushes to cookware and a cutlery. For a mother entering a shelter system with nothing but what she carry, these packages allow for a sense of restored normalcy, and in a very basic sense, the ability to do something as simple as cook a meal for her kids. As one mom told us, she was so grateful for the pots and pans because she “just didn’t know how she was going to feed herself and her kids.” Then she “opened the package and cried” because it was just what she needed.

The second pillar is Support. This is about recognizing and breaking self-defeating habits. One of our most successful programs under this pillar is the Back-to-School Backpack Giveaway which is coming up in just a couple months! Started in 2012, this program has given out more than $158,000 in school supplies, and this year we will breach our 1,000th backpack given out to kids in need. By supplying kids with the tools they need to be successful in school, moms are relieved of the stress of budgeting for those items (which add up quickly!). In turn, kids are able to participate and perform better in class, which again, means less stress for mom! She can focus her money and energy on other things like food and maintaining a job.

Finally there is Sustain, which is about creating sustainable and long-lasting change. For us, this is the area that really differentiates what we do, because we put an emphasis on creating permanence. Once a mom is accepted into the Hearts of Gold programs, she has the opportunity to be a part of this community for life. We have moms who have been engaging with our community for over a decade, starting as recipients and now coming back and helping as volunteers or employees. It’s an amazing thing to see, and there is a real bond that is formed between these women. They look out for each, they give each other confidence and support, and that keeps them all on a path of stability for both them and their children.”


I had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah Koenigsberger, founder and CEO of Hearts of Gold

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

My backstory with Hearts of Gold and helping homeless moms and kids started nearly 25 years ago, but my drive to create this organization began much earlier than that. As with most backstories, mine begins with my family. I had family members who told me at a very young age that I would fail and never be successful. That basically I would be nothing. But at 9 years old, I refused to believe that, and I made it a personal challenge to prove them wrong.

Luckily, one family member — my mother — embodied a better outlook, for herself and for me. I watched my mother overcome all kinds of odds of her own, and I just followed — I followed what she did and what she taught me. She embodied this determination to rise above it all, and that was my inspiration. I knew her struggle and she put so much work into making sure I never had that struggle.

So ultimately when I see the moms that we help, I think about my mom and my other family members, how I was raised, and what I learned from being told, “you can’t” and then be shown that actually, I could. And that drives me. These moms are constantly told that they can’t do or be something, and I’m here, Hearts of Gold is here, to help them prove to the world that that is not the case.

Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

Right now our biggest project is working on scaling the Hearts of Gold business through building out our infrastructure and transforming the organization into an annual fund. We have touched more than 26,000 lives in the course of our 24 year history, and that is amazing, but it only scratches the surface of the problem that exists in New York and other major cities. By building out our programs, our team, and our ways of working, we’ll be able to have a deeper impact on the ever-growing number of afflicted families in New York.

Hearts of Gold started from my desire to help moms and kids to overcome the obstacles, stigmas, and stereotypes that come with experiencing homelessness. It has been my lifeblood for more than two decades and it’s impact has continued to grow each year. The next step in that growth is this transition — taking the incredibly strong foundation and building on top of it a sustainable, recognizable, and scalable model that will allow us to provide so much more help going forward.


So how exactly does your organization help people?

Hearts of Gold helps homeless women and their children by focusing on three key pillars: Stabilize, Support, Sustain.

Stabilize is about navigating trauma and restoring a sense of dignity and self-worth. We do this through providing things like our Fresh Start Packages, which contain everything from towels and toothbrushes to cookware and a cutlery. For a mother entering a shelter system with nothing but what she carry, these packages allow for a sense of restored normalcy, and in a very basic sense, the ability to do something as simple as cook a meal for her kids. As one mom told us, she was so grateful for the pots and pans because she “just didn’t know how she was going to feed herself and her kids.” Then she “opened the package and cried” because it was just what she needed.

The second pillar is Support. This is about recognizing and breaking self-defeating habits. One of our most successful programs under this pillar is the Back-to-School Backpack Giveaway which is coming up in just a couple months! Started in 2012, this program has given out more than $158,000 in school supplies, and this year we will breach our 1,000th backpack given out to kids in need. By supplying kids with the tools they need to be successful in school, moms are relieved of the stress of budgeting for those items (which add up quickly!). In turn, kids are able to participate and perform better in class, which again, means less stress for mom! She can focus her money and energy on other things like food and maintaining a job.

Finally there is Sustain, which is about creating sustainable and long-lasting change. For us, this is the area that really differentiates what we do, because we put an emphasis on creating permanence. Once a mom is accepted into the Hearts of Gold programs, she has the opportunity to be a part of this community for life. We have moms who have been engaging with our community for over a decade, starting as recipients and now coming back and helping as volunteers or employees. It’s an amazing thing to see, and there is a real bond that is formed between these women. They look out for each, they give each other confidence and support, and that keeps them all on a path of stability for both them and their children.





Can you tell me a story about a person that you helped?

Let me tell you about Anthony, an 11-year-old boy who lived in one of our adopted shelters. He was struggling in school due to learning disabilities. His mom was at her wits end because she was receiving calls from his school on a regular basis with complaints. Being a very hard working, ambitious mom, she enrolled him in the Hearts of Gold Learning Center.

After about five weeks, she got a call from his teacher who wanted to meet with her. Anthony’s mom told us she went into the meeting with “fear in her heart” because she was expecting more of the same. Instead, she was ecstatic when the teacher told her that the reason she wanted to see her was to find out what had changed for Anthony. He was speaking up in class, getting his homework done in time (and it was correct!) and overall excelling compared to before. The mom said she left that meeting “with Joy in her heart”. She was so grateful to the Hearts of Gold Learning Center for the impact it had on her son. The Hearts of Gold tutors gave him the tools to be a good student and as a result, his self-confidence was up and Anthony knew that he was capable of being that kind of student.

This obviously is not easy work. What drives you?

I’ve realized is that my gift is passion. But I believe that gifts are only given to you for you to share them with others — they are not meant to be kept for yourself. So I share my passion, and anything I do with passion ends up being effective.

I also know that at any point you can say, “I’m tired, I’m going on vacation.” But for me, “tired” is a relative word. I look at the women we are helping and what they have been through or are currently going through, and it puts things into perspective. These women have every right to be tired, exhausted, mentally drained. They’re dealing with the whole of society telling them that they aren’t worth helping. When something as simple as a colander means so much to someone, when a bag of groceries changes someone’s life, how can you not drive to do more, to give more?

“I’m tired. I need a vacation.” Nothing in me can say that. The fire inside me motivates me. These moms and their kids motivate me. And I refuse to give up on them.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Yes. First, we need to re-prioritize what is important in our country and that comes from the top. When politicians decide that something needs attention, it gets attention. Politicians need to look at homeless need as an aberration. A human being should not ever have to sleep out on a sidewalk or outside unless they are going camping! If we decide as a society that this is a priority, it will be.

Mental health is also an issue, but not all mental illnesses are equal — they aren’t all debilitating, and there are treatment options available. So let’s provide those options to people without making them go into debt in order to receive them. There’s a social wellbeing awareness that we just don’t have in this country, and we need to have that. We need to look out for one another, because if we don’t, if we stay on this path, it doesn’t end well.

And finally, everybody should understand what their ‘enough’ is. If I have a loaf of bread and it is more than I need, there is no reason why I can’t give it to someone in need. Those of us who have many loaves of bread, it’s our duty to give to those who don’t have enough.


None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

The “problem” is there are too many of them! But I’ll choose one to highlight here. I remember when I hit a make-or-break point in my life a few years back. A great friend of mine, John Farrell, showed real faith in me. I literally didn’t know where to turn and he invested so much goodwill in me. He became the person I could and would not disappoint. And in life we all need that person. It helps us stand taller.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

First, I wish I had learned when I was young what a mentor was, and that I had had a formal mentor. The things I am learning now from my mentor are taking me beyond what I ever thought possible.

Second, I wish I had been taught business 101 — i.e. how to write a business plan, best practices around financial aptitude, etc. To be honest, when I started this, I didn’t think that it was going to be a real business — with metrics, and plans, and staff. I’m happy I didn’t know that at the time, because it might have been overwhelming, but now that we’re here, I recognize that some of that “101” knowledge would have helped a great deal along the way.

Third, know that not everyone has your best interest at heart. I look at people who have given me advice, and at some point down the road I realized that the advice wasn’t really for my benefit. I remember a customer, let’s call her Jessica, came into my boutique, Noir et Blanc, with her friend one day. Her friend, who we’ll call Rebecca, was being really negative — telling Jessica that she didn’t look good in this dress. But it just wasn’t true. Jessica looked great in the dress but ultimately didn’t buy it because of Rebecca’s comments. A few days later, Rebecca came back and bought the dress for herself, saying that Jessica had found another dress and that they had both agreed that this dress would look better on her. I later saw a picture of the two of them, and the dress that Jessica ended up in just didn’t look as good as that dress that now Rebecca was wearing. Months later Jessica came back into the store and was telling me about the party and how Rebecca had gotten all of these compliments on the dress. I told her, “those were your compliments, you should have been in that dress.” The moral here is that people are going to want to be in your light but if too many people get in your light, it will cast a shadow. So in my life I’ve tried to keep an eye out for that Rebecca who is telling me that the dress doesn’t look good on me, and I’m weary of the motive behind the advice when it comes from those people.

Fourth, do your homework. Nothing is more powerful than knowing yourself, and knowing that you’ve checked all the boxes. There’s a reason that the homework exists. I do my job as if everything hangs on the way I do it. Because in life it is so much easier to walk away than to take ownership, and many people float through life not doing their homework and then not acknowledging their accountability when it goes downhill. I do my homework and I cover myself, if for no other reason than to soften the effects if something should go wrong.

And finally — Dream. Dream. Dream. There is no downside to dreaming. There is only upside. And then follow your dreams. Because dreams are magical. I dreamt of having a clothing store and now I do. I dreamt of helping moms the way my mother helped me, and now I help more than 1,200 moms and kids every year. I don’t know if your dreams open the door to your passions or if it’s the reverse, but if you can dream and live a passionate life, there is nothing that you can’t do.




Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see just see this.

Michelle Obama. The reason being that I admire and am inspired by how quiet her strength is. She’s not flashy or in your face. She just has a quiet presence. She’s lived it. I recognize in her something that I recognized in my mom — she just gets things done. I can’t have a conversation with my mom anymore, but I see this wonderful parallel between how my mom moved through life and how Mrs. Obama use her work to positively impact other people’s lives. I think it would be a powerful conversation.

Originally published at medium.com

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