From the coat factory to the computer store

Designing a winter coat that converts into a sleeping bag for people living on the streets would have been enough for most folks to sit back and revel in a kind deed done well.

Others would call it good if they managed to take the endeavor a step further by creating jobs for homeless people in Detroit to sew the garments.

“The crazy coat lady”: Veronika Scott designed a coat that doubles as a sleeping bag. (Photo by Brad Ziegler Photography)

But Veronika Scott wants those achievements to be just two of many stepping stones on the path to dreams fulfilled for single parents struggling to provide homes for their kids. Her vision has grown far beyond the design-school project conceived five years ago, when she was a 21-year-old student and people on the streets started calling her “the crazy coat lady.” Now The Empowerment Plan is a full-fledged business that has provided convertible coats to more than 20,000 globally, given jobs and education to more than 40 parents, and helped move more than 80 children out of shelters. The organization aims to expand in Detroit and around the country.

Scott said she’s proud of the sleeping-bag coat she designed, but her main goal is getting people to the point where they and their families would never need one. That means looking past merely giving homeless parents jobs, but also helping them gain the education and skills needed to leave The Empowerment Plan after a couple years and pursue their dreams.

“We wanted to give people the opportunity to learn as much as possible while they’re with us so they can be competitive out in the workplace,” Scott said. “What we really try to do is to be a stepping-stone employer, and part of that is strong computer literacy skills. That is just a requirement now. So that’s very important as we continue to grow.”

At 3 p.m. every day, employees stop sewing coats and start taking classes on everything from leadership to financial management. The classes are free, but best of all, they’re on the clock – an important benefit for parents whose kids need them at home in the evenings.

Just outside Detroit, home to one of the country’s poorest inner cities, the Microsoft Store hosted a 10-week workshop series to give The Empowerment Plan employees hands-on training in digital literacy.

“When we learned about everything they were doing for these women who were once homeless, who are now trying to rebuild their lives, immediately I thought of a million things that we could potentially do to help them,” said Shy Averett, the community development specialist at the store. “I don’t know of any job where there’s not a computer involved in some kind of way, shape or form. “

Shy Averett smiles as she looks over a row of The Empowerment Plans working on laptops at the Microsoft Store near Detroit.
Shy Averett, left, the community development specialist at the Microsoft Store near Detroit, helped develop a 12-week workshop on digital skills for The Empowerment Plan employees. (Photo by Brad Ziegler Photography)

Averett worked with store colleagues and Scott to design custom classes that covered everything from computer basics to fraud protection. Although the students were hands-off at the beginning and didn’t want to touch the computers, their fears were quickly abated, she said.

“I’ve enjoyed all of it and have been utilizing all the skills I’ve been taught,” including how to send emails and set events on her calendar, said Jessica West, a floor manager at The Empowerment Plan.

Being asked to visualize her five-year plan with a PowerPoint presentation turned on the proverbial lightbulb for West. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got goals I need to work toward,’” she said. “My next step is to finish my bachelor’s degree for leadership and organizational studies so I can move on to the next level.”

Ebonie Sharper’s next aim – after four years as a seamstress with The Empowerment Plan, during which she got her GED diploma and learned everything from how to cook healthy meals to how to write professional emails – is getting a bachelor’s degree in finance.

“I really do want to obtain that and show my son and my daughters that mom can do it,” Sharper said. “Breaking that cycle, not just being the first, but getting it accomplished, is my main goal. Here at The Empowerment Plan, they give us drive and motivate us.“

Scott’s drive stems from her own upbringing as the scared child of parents who both struggled with unemployment and addiction. “The Empowerment Plan was a way of creating something that I wish my own family had had growing up: an employment opportunity that would allow them to stabilize and get the financial stability they never had.”

Jessica West, a floor manager for The Empowerment Plan, not only learned to sew coats that convert into sleeping bags but also how to send emails and set events on a digital calendar. Now she’s working toward a bachelor’s degree for leadership and organizational studies. (Photo by Brad Ziegler Photography)

Scott wanted to show parents and their kids “that living in a homeless shelter isn’t a defining characteristic, nor a life sentence.” Her employees all have been able to move into permanent housing with their children within the first four to six weeks of working for The Empowerment Plan, she said.

With guidance from social workers and the education provided, The Empowerment Plan helps them cross the bridge within two or three years toward new jobs or even starting their own companies.

“I want to grow to the top and blossom,” said West, the floor manager. “And now I’m able to plant my own seeds.”