Women helping women philosophy guides the work of the Woman’s Co-op of Battle Creek

The store isn't quite how one would picture a store.

"It's just, like, a small closet," Teresa Momenee-Young, Executive Director of Woman's Co-op of Battle Creek, says of their storage area of non-food household items.

It's found at the Co-op's headquarters, at Trinity Lutheran Church, 2055 East Columbia Ave. Co-op members can "purchase" items by helping other members.

The humble store represents the foundation of the Co-op's reason for existing: Women helping women.

The Friend Business

The Woman's Co-op can serve 160 families in need, with a network of female members that "fluctuates between 350 to 500," Momenee-Young says. Those who arrive looking for help often, after their heads are well above water, stay on to help new members.

There are a "multitude of reasons" for women to turn to the Co-op for help, she says. "But the bottom line is still the same. They're broken and alone. That's what drives you here."

Momenee-Young began the Co-op in 2004, but it all started a bit before that for her, when she felt broken and alone herself.

She grew up in Toledo, Ohio. "My mother was a victim of domestic violence, and I lived most my life with my mother and those relationships. When I was 31 my mother died at the hands of her abuser," she says.

"My significant other at the time, we weren't married, but he was the father of my baby, was in prison for a brutal attack. And I sat on the end of the bed, holding my mother's ashes, saying, 'This is ridiculous. I don't want to live the same life that she did, yet here I am.'"

She moved to Battle Creek to be with her brother, but he couldn't help her, she says. She moved her children into a trailer at the Triangle Mobile Home Park, and got a part-time job at Green's Tavern. "It took me three hours a night to walk there, to get to work." She had no car or public transportation.

One night she went to make dinner for her kids, "and there's only a pack of pork chops. That's literally all I had. It was devastating."

She called her best friend and neighbor, Melissa, "crying into the phone, telling her that I need to send the children home to their other family and other parent, because I wasn't fit to raise them. I couldn't even feed them. I was just devastated by that fact, because here I am trying so hard."

A few minutes later, there's a knock at her door. "Here stands my friend with a bag of potatoes, a jar of applesauce, some green beans, and this Twister game."

They made dinner for both families, ate, played Twister, and Momenee-Young realized she was no longer planning on sending her kids away. She felt hopeful.

"Melissa and I are talking about how we solved some of the issues.... Maybe there's some way I could help her out, too? She said, 'You know, we should be in the friend business!'"

They soon made fliers, put them around the park: "If you struggle with daycare, transportation, paying your bills, or if you're just lonely, come to Lot 37 and we'll talk about it."

Around 10 women arrived for the first meeting. They filled up a notebook with needs and worked to find ways to fill them. A support system formed where daycare duties could be paid with laundry duties, where one who could sew could fix the clothes of one who could do auto work, and in return, the non-seamstress could change the oil of the non-mechanic, etc. "And it just took off from there."

Not Alone

In 2004, the Co-op became a nonprofit, helping women, often single parents, in desperate need. Services now include case management, help earning GEDs, and training for job interviews.

They also still do what Momenee-Young's neighbor did on that night of frozen pork-chops. Women arrive often unable to feed their families. So other members pitch in with whatever food items they can spare.

"Donors will say to me, 'Oh my gosh, how can you take food from your families to feed other families?'" she says. "No, you don't understand. When Betty needs a food box, we call all of our members. One member gives a tub of butter, another a box of macaroni and cheese, another gives a pack of hamburger.... nobody gives more than what they can afford to give."

Collectively, all can help out one, then she can find ways she can help in return. "There's always enough if you have the mentality to take what you need and leave what you don't, there's always enough in this group."

But once dinner is made, how can one wash dishes without dish soap? How would a member do laundry and take care of basic hygiene? They opened the Co-op store to address these needs.

"It's still stuff that's critically needed to run your home," Momenee-Young says, pointing out that governmental food assistance gives no help with non-food items.

Members who volunteer time and skills to help others can turn that time into money-less purchasing power at the Co-op store. "They earn the goods with their community service."

With the arrival of holidays, the demands members face are especially heartbreaking. Do the stressors increase this time of the year?

"In the utility and rent assistance world, yes. And that's not something we can always help with," she says. The Co-op does some work as mediators, trying to connect members to outside help. "We've noticed there's a huge decline in what you can get in the community for rent and utility assistance.... And food dollars are dropping -- the amount they get from the state for food assistance."

Looking back at her darkest time, Momenee-Young says, "You know, I wanna cry. My son who was 3 at the time, is 22 now, and it still can bring tears to me. It's a horrible feeling for a mother to be out there -- for a lack of a better way of saying it -- busting her ass to make a living, not trying to take from the system, and yet at the end of the day she still can't feed her babies. That's horrible, and it should not be."

She felt alone, until a friend knocked on her door with support,  saying "you don't have to do it alone!" 

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.