THREE DREAMS REALIZED THROUGH NONPROFITS THAT ENRICH, EMPOWER, AND ENTERTAIN COMMUNITIES AROUND THE U.S.
BY KIMBERLY PINNIX
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Meet three Princeton Seminary alumnae: Stefanie Shumaker (M.Div., 2006), Gretchen Sausville (M.Div., 2005), and Eleanor Norman (M.Div./M.A., 2006). All three women are entrepreneurs who are working in different geographic locations toward a common goal—fulfilling a need in the community through ministry.
Having first been introduced to a refugee at just five years old through her church and later watching her family “adopt” a refugee family, Stefanie Shumaker said, “Throughout my life, anywhere I go, I always seem to be drawn toward and interacting with refugees, either through the church or during my day-to-day routine.” Shumaker’s town, Salt Lake City, Utah, is home to an estimated 25,000 refugees, which sparked her interest in developing a way to help them succeed in the U.S. “Many people don’t realize that a refugee is a ‘survivor,’ who was forced to leave his or her country due to persecution over political views, race, religion, or even nationality. They’ve suffered hardships and I want to help them establish a life in the U.S.,” said Shumaker.
Shumaker began Ambatana Threads, her Salt Lake City business, when she combined her hobby—sewing—with her passion for helping local refugees. “Ambatana,” a Swahili word that means “uniting people,” describes the mission of Ambatana Threads—a clothing and accessory company that employs refugees in a variety of capacities: accounting, clothing design, manufacturing, marketing, and communication. “It is a place where women from different countries come together, make new friends, and share business ideas,” explained Shumaker.
In Utah, finding employment is the biggest challenge facing the largest groups of refugees—Somali, Sudanese, and Bosnian. In employing refugees, Shumaker is growing her business; more importantly, she is providing them with job experience and an income, which she hopes will help them “make it” in the U.S. Shumaker is particularly interested in hiring women (refugees), so they can learn skills and earn a paycheck to provide for their families. In most refugee families, the men are the sole “providers,” but if they are injured or get sick and can’t work, it is nearly impossible for a refugee family to survive.
Similar to Shumaker’s call to empower women in the community, Eleanor Norman founded an organization that recruits women to change the face of philanthropy in a Virginia town. In 2010, Norman’s call as temporary supply pastor led her to Bayside Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. After relocating, she made an effort to make new friends by joining a community group, Lead Hampton Roads, a networking forum for young leaders. Inspired by the meetings, which shed light on the need for charitable assistance in the community, Norman established Impact Hampton Roads just a few months later. Her idea is simple: women volunteers (members) each donate $1,000 in dues to Impact Hampton Roads. The dues then support grants for local charities.
“The idea of women coming together, giving up a few hours of their time each month, and making a donation to benefit a local organization empowers them and shows women that they, too, can have a lasting impact on the community,” said Norman.
Although Impact Hampton Roads focuses its efforts on engaging women, young adults and men can also join. Youth can participate by making an annual contribution and men can support the mission by joining Men of Impact. Together, the members’ fees are pooled to award $10,000 and $100,000 grants to charities to support critical needs or new ventures in the arts, education, recreation, or family health and wellness.
“Sharing our story with the community, seeing the excitement when we give applications to organizations, and encouraging them to think ‘big’ is extremely rewarding,” said Norman.
Impact Hampton Roads is a sister organization of Impact, which was founded in 2001 by a group of women in Cincinnati, Ohio. To date, the fifteen Impact sister organizations in the U.S. have raised more than eleven million dollars for charities throughout the country. Likewise, the success of Impact Hampton Roads is truly a testament to the passion of its members and leaders—all staff are volunteers, 100 percent of donations support the grants, and overhead costs are covered by corporate sponsorships. The members also play a pivotal role in recruiting new members and raising awareness about the organization.
Similar to Norman’s efforts, community engagement is also part of Gretchen Sausville’s call, but with a slightly different approach. After participating in a community production of Godspell in the spring of 2010, Sausville recognized the need for a community theater in Granby, Connecticut. Along with a few “good” friends, she founded The Good Company Theater just a few months later. Her hope is that the theater will support community members who are interested in the arts while producing shows for the enrichment, education, and entertainment of the community.
Although Shumaker, Norman, and Sausville are working in different ways to further the mission of the church through community ministry, they all share a desire to make their communities better places. They recognized a need and chose to take action, despite how risky or time-consuming their ideas were. Norman said, “I want all members of my community to live in a clean, safe, and culturally rich environment with access to quality education and healthcare. That is why I am working to provide charities with larger grants than are typical,” said Norman. Many nonprofit organizations must piece together multiple grants to fund a program or provide a needed service to the community. “By offering generous grants, we hope to streamline the process and make it easier for charities to implement new programs, which will benefit the entire Hampton Roads community,” continued Norman.
Like Norman’s efforts, The Good Company Theater is also focused on bringing “good news” to the community by performing shows that deliver positive messages. With the busyness and stress of everyday life, the theater serves as an “outlet” for community members—both performers and audiences. “It’s remarkable how theater connects so many people of different faiths, socioeconomic levels, and professional backgrounds,” said Sausville. “Whether by attending a show or by performing, everyone benefits.” In addition to providing entertainment, the theater supports neighborhood businesses by using local seamstresses, carpenters, caterers, musicians, and designers. “We involve the greater community and use and share the gifts of many individuals,” said Sausville.
Shumaker also does her part in engaging the community. In addition to employing refugees and directing them to local transition services, Ambatana Threads supports employees by raising the community’s awareness about the refugee population and the challenges they face—finding a job, learning English, and adjusting to life in a foreign country.
Although the three women are contributing to their communities through their businesses, ironically, becoming entrepreneurs was not their intent. “I never thought I would found an organization, but looking back, I’m not too surprised by where I am today. I’ve always been very philanthropic and involved in fund-raising—even in high school and college,” said Norman. While Sausville does have a background in performing and visual arts, she didn’t initially set out to establish a nonprofit theater company. She said it happened “organically,” and now she can’t imagine life without the people she has met through the theater.
Not having a background in business made it a little more challenging for Shumaker in establishing Ambatana Threads. But, she took courses and immersed herself in books that gave her an overview of business management. Through her own “trial and error,” she now manages the company’s web site, designs clothing labels, and sews many of the products—children’s clothing, aprons, wallets, tote bags, and lunch boxes. “Having patience with myself and learning along the way has been challenging, but interacting with the refugees and hearing their success stories makes this venture worth all of my efforts,” said Shumaker.
Similarly, Norman has a busy schedule, balancing two roles—as a temporary supply pastor and as the president and founder of a fund-raising organization. “At times it can be difficult, but I believe being a community leader is part of my call. Every time we receive a check toward our $100,000 goal, we are inspired to work harder and to think of new strategies to meet our goals,” she said.
All three women agree that their time at PTS benefited them, though in different ways. Sausville said, “My participation in The Vagina Monologues at PTS gave me the confidence to pursue theater professionally and showed me that ministry is not confined to the walls of the church.” Sausville is also grateful for many of the experiences she had at the Seminary, in particular collaborating and interacting with diverse groups of students and faculty. She said, “The experience of sharing different theological viewpoints and listening to each other’s ideas ultimately sharpened my interpersonal skills. Today I rely on much of what I learned at PTS to run The Good Company Theater.”
Although Shumaker is not currently working in a church as she focuses on building Ambatana Threads, she also relies on what she experienced at Princeton Seminary. She said, “In helping my employees assimilate, I often find myself providing counseling and relying on the pastoral care techniques I learned at PTS.”
In addition to their “side ventures,” Norman and Sausville serve the church on a full-time basis. Sausville, who is associate pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut, said, “Having the theater as an outlet creates a spiritual discipline that brings balance to my life. By carving out time for myself, I am ‘fresher’ and have become a more tuned-in pastor.”
The future is looking bright for these Princeton Seminary alumnae: Ambatana Threads is a nonprofit organization, but Shumaker is in the process of applying for a license as a Limited Liability Company (LLC). If the company becomes incorporated, she is hopeful that the business will continue to grow, allowing her to expand her employee base. Through her business venture, Shumaker is raising awareness about the refugee population and the struggles they face while also supporting a larger goal—helping to ensure that refugees in the Salt Lake City area become viable citizens who can sustain lives in the U.S.
Norman, who set out to bring good will and generosity to Virginia, is doing just that. In November 2011, less than one year after Impact Hampton Roads was established, her efforts were realized. Members and board members of Impact Hampton Roads awarded the first $100,000 grant to a Virginia nonprofit organization.
The Good Company Theater recently produced The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and in upcoming months will mount productions of Daughters of the Appalachians and Abracadabra!, an original musical based on the Gospel of Luke.
These three young women who once shared classes at the Seminary are now “bonded together by a passion to make a difference in the community,” said Norman. w
For more information, check out these web sites:
Ambatana Threads www.ambatanathreads.com
Impact Hampton Roads www.impacthamptonroads.org
The Good Company Theater www.goodcompanytheaterct.org
Kimberly Pinnix is a writer in the Office of Communications/Publications.