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How the Empowerment Plan Is Changing Lives One Coat at a Time

Insights & Ideas Team •  December 21, 2015 | Inspiring Stories

We’ve all done it: gotten swept up in the frenzy of finding the “perfect” gift for a loved one or friend at the holidays. But for millions of Americans living on the streets, the holiday season is often anything but merry and bright.

One organization that is working hard to make a difference in the lives of the homeless is The Empowerment Plan. This Detroit-based nonprofit makes warm winter coats that are distributed to people across the country who don’t have a place to call home.

The inspiration for The Empowerment Plan’s award-winning jacket came from founder Veronika Scott’s final design project while a student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Recognizing that the city’s growing homeless population needed protection during the harsh winters, she designed a coat that doubles as a sleeping bag and transforms so that it is easy to carry when not in use.

Scott’s design earned her an A in the class and the prestigious 2011 International Design Excellence Award from the Industrial Designers Society of America. She is also the youngest recipient of the John F. Kennedy New Frontier Award from the JFK Library and Harvard University. But while Scott appreciates the accolades she’s received, her focus is on using her now-famous coat to provide people living in shelters with a pathway out of homelessness and poverty.

“I remember bringing a prototype of the coat to a local shelter for input,” said Scott. “The residents there gave me lots of feedback that helped improve the jacket. But the most important thing I heard from the homeless women I spoke with was that they needed something more than a coat. And that something is a job.”

That was the moment that Scott’s coat morphed into more than a design school project; it became a calling. She launched The Empowerment Plan and started hiring homeless people living in Detroit’s shelters to help her manufacture her coats.

“Being employed is key to ending the cycle of homelessness, yet the homeless often face significant obstacles to getting hired,” said Scott. “By offering single parents living in shelters on-the-job training and a steady paycheck, The Empowerment Plan is helping them to build a better life. And, at the same time, it’s helping these people to think differently about their prospects for the future.”

Scott now employs more than 22 formerly homeless individuals as full-time seamstresses and is looking to hire more as interest in the coats continues to grow. In the last three years, her team has manufactured more than 10,000 coats, and they are on track to produce 6,500 this year alone. The coats have been distributed to individuals living on the streets in 30 states across the U.S. and six Canadian provinces. With the help of donations of money and supplies and the support of companies in Detroit such as General Motors and Carhartt, Scott hopes to significantly ramp up the number of coats she can produce in the months ahead. “Boosting production should help drive down the manufacturing cost of each coat from $99 to $60,” said Scott.

In an interesting twist, the coat’s ingenious design is also gaining popularity with outdoor enthusiasts and others—one reason why Scott intends to create a retail presence to help build the organization’s sustainability and fund its ability to provide even more coats to those in need.

The impact of Scott’s coats has literally been life-saving: According to The Empowerment Plan’s website, for every 1,000 costs they distribute, the organization can save 14 lives. The coats help reduce the number of emergency room visits homeless recipients make due to hypothermia. Assuming an average cost of $4,200 per ER visit, that translates into a health care cost saving of nearly $58,800 for every 1,000 coats The Empowerment Plan distributes.  

“By helping the less fortunate to help themselves and others, our goal is to create a snowball of economic opportunity that will eventually help improve the health and vitality of our communities and everyone who lives here,” said Scott. “It comes down to a simple promise: At The Empowerment Plan, we believe in giving second chances to those who want it and providing warmth to those who need it.”

It costs $100 to sponsor a coat. For the 6,500 homeless people The Empowerment Plan hopes to reach this year, that gift may be the best holiday present of all.

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