Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
The path to success is a two-way street at the Woman’s Co-op
in Battle Creek, says Stephanie McNeil, a member of the Co-op.
McNeil came to the Co-op 10 weeks ago to take parenting classes ordered through Child Protective Services and learn skills that will enable her to find a job so she can support herself and her infant daughter. On Dec. 1, McNeil will regain custody of her 10-month-old daughter who has been staying with a foster family in Marshall. That's possible in no small part to the work she has put into staying clean and learning job skills at the Co-op.
“I didn’t know I was pregnant for the first five months and I was using drugs. When they found out I had to go through CPS,” McNeil says. “I got clean, but they still considered me a threat. It definitely made me get on the fast train for recovery.”
That recovery has included daily visits to a methadone clinic -- Victory Clinic in Battle Creek -- and working in various jobs at the Co-op, including as a frontline receptionist, organizing clothing donations at a clothes closet, and putting together food boxes for Co-op and community members who are struggling financially. She also has taken parenting classes taught by Teresa Momenee-Young, Executive Director of the Co-op.
Teresa Momenee-Young, Executive Director of the Co-op, near the organization's Butterfly Closet stocked with hand-sewn items made by Co-op members available for purchase.
As McNeil was sharing her story on Monday with On the Ground Battle Creek, she was preparing for an interview as a shift worker at the Women’s Life Recovery Program
at the Haven of Rest Ministries. In a hallway inside Trinity Lutheran Church
where the Woman’s Co-op is located, McNeil was receiving last-minute words of support and encouragement from Momenee-Young.
“This is at the heart of the Co-op, what we are and the roots of who we are,” Momenee-Young says. “What started us was a network. Women in Battle Creek were struggling to meet the demands in their lives as single mothers, like being able to feed their kids, keeping a roof over their heads, and finding work. The resources they needed weren’t necessarily in the community or weren’t being delivered in a way that they could access them. We started helping each other.”
What began as a small group of women grew to nearly 40, each one helping others in whatever ways they could -- whether it was providing a meal or a ride to work or babysitting services.
Realizing that they needed a bigger space to meet in, they were offered space at Chapel Hill United Methodist Church by Jean Krohn, who would become the Co-op’s first board president after it became a full-fledged nonprofit. The Co-op moved in 2005 into Trinity Lutheran Church
. Krohn passed away on Sept. 14 at the age of 90.
The Co-op now serves about 350 families annually, in addition to having that network of members, women, and men, who fill needs for one another including childcare, food, or laundry.
For example, McNeil says members donated diapers, formula, and clothing for her daughter.
Momenee-Young says of those served annually, about 60 percent participate in workforce development programs, job training, or study to earn their GED. The remaining 40 percent come because they are in crisis and in need of help.
The Co-op has partnerships and contracts with employers such as Marshall Excelsior
, the Michigan Works at the state level, and organizations including Goodwill Industries of Central Michigan’s Heartland
, Kellogg Community College
, and Michigan Works
KCC contracts with the Woman’s Co-op to provide support staff and the Co-op works with its clients to ensure that they are fully prepared to take on these front desk jobs by providing on-site training in key areas such as Microsoft Office products while also addressing critical needs such as proper attire available at no cost through a free store operated at the Co-op.
“We can train them, but we can’t certify them here, so KCC offers that,” Momenee says. “They bring a virtual classroom on-site to our location and our people go through frontline service training and get certified in all of the Microsoft products and get a certificate from us and make the transition over to the college.”
Through a $30,000 contract with Michigan Works, the Co-op trains Michigan Works clients on-site for jobs in industrial sewing and janitorial.
Everette Weathers, 56, has been taking computer classes to earn a certificate in that field while also doing janitorial work at the Co-op. A chef since the age of 16, he says he had to give up that work because of the physical toll it was taking on his body. He was referred to the Co-op in June by Michigan Rehabilitative Services.
“I had retired from the restaurant and I was sitting around the house and I just couldn’t sit around and do nothing,” Weathers says. “Being here means a lot to me because I can build up my skill level which will make it easier to find a job.”
Everette Weathers, who provides janitorial services for the Co-op, is hoping to find a supervisory position in this field. He also has been taking computer classes to earn a certificate in that area.
His computer training will end in January, but he says he may want to take a supervisory role in janitorial work.
Momenee-Young says Weathers has an eye for people and their skills and is good with managing people. How long he remains with the Co-op is something he’s not sure about.
Momenee-Young says some members have decided to stay and work for the Co-op while others find jobs in with area employers.
“People need these opportunities but they also need these opportunities delivered in a way that they can access and utilize them,” she says. “We’re a small organization and if we train someone to work at the front desk then we’ve got a candidate who can go out into the world, but while they’re here we get someone who will answer the phones. It’s the same with janitorial work. They’re learning a skill they can take out into the community and we’re getting someone to do that work for us while they’re here.”
Ayanna Williams, a Sewing Supervisor at the Co-op, holds a denim jacket that she will be embroidering.
For Ayanna Williams, that skill was sewing, something she had shied away from because she thought it was too difficult to learn.
“I thought it would be much more difficult but after coming here I was taught basic stitches that come with the machine and it took off from there. I started watching videos and reading different ‘how to’ materials,” she says. “They had an embroidery machine that hadn’t been used. I do embroidery now here too. We can embroider just about anything. I’m getting ready to do some denim jackets.”
Those jackets and other hand-sewn items are available for sale at the Co-ops Butterfly Boutique. A small portion of the profits from each sale goes to the Co-op with the remainder going to the individuals who make these items.
Ayanna Williams displays materials that she will be using to make a purse.
Williams has become so proficient that the Co-op has hired her to be a supervisor in their sewing program. She came to the Co-op in August to fulfill community service requirements through Michigan Works and says the Co-op changed her life.
“I was a nursing aide for 15 years. In 2019, I had my own aide business and lost my last client. When I lost my last client it was so hard because I had been with her for so long and I decided I didn’t want to go back to doing this,” she says. “I Doordashed for a little while in 2019. Then I caught COVID three times and got depressed and stayed in my home for two years. I had a lot of anxiety at first about coming to the Co-op, but it’s so comfortable and welcoming. I just didn’t want to leave. I wanted this to be part of my home and family.”
When asked what the Co-op has meant to her, she says, “everything.”
“I worked in nursing and factories but I was never able to use my creative side. I’m 50 and for the first time I’m able to be creative and I love it.”
As Williams was beginning her embroidery work in the sewing room, Penny Springer was making hand-sewn ornaments that she will sell at holiday craft fairs and bazaars. Springer has been working at the Co-op for one year. Like Williams, she says the organization was there when she really needed support and resources.
She had been working in the fast-food industry, but escalating health issues and the deaths of her husband and mother within two months of each other left her in a dark place.
“It was a rough year. Emotionally, I was a basket case,” Springer says.
She was referred to the Co-op by a 211 representative after contacting that service to look for help in finding a job and other resources, including food for her dog. She has no immediate plans to leave her work at the Co-op and says she values the support and friendship she has found there.
A percentage of those who work or train at the Co-op are there as part of court-ordered community service. Taykiah Guy says she was given the option of doing her community service at the Salvation Army or the Co-op. She settled on the Co-op because she says, “I feel secure here.”
Taykiah Guy sits at a table where she studies to learn more about the Co-op in preparation for promoting the organization at Washington Heights United Methodist Church.
Guy says she has learned how to sew “a little,” write resumes, and help others.
“We’re all a family here,” she says.
Her community service requirements will be fulfilled at the end of this week and she plans to take what she’s learned about the Co-op to Washington United Methodist Church where she will talk to women and families about the services available to them at the Co-op.
At its core the Co-op works because it is relational, Momenee-Young says.
“I like to say you can find a friend, not a form you have to fill out here and that puts us in a position to say that we can be honest with each other. Sometimes, it hurts, but sometimes it’s exactly what you need to hear in that moment,” she says. “This is a place where conversations begin.”
As McNeil sat on a padded bench gathering her purse and resume together for her interview, she said, “I am a walking success story that it is possible and you can get better. I’ve hit rock bottom many a time.”