In May 2022, the members of Many Hands selected My Sister’s Place (MSP) to receive the Many Hands $100,000 Impact Grant. My Sister’s Place provides emergency housing in Washington DC for domestic violence victims escaping an abusive situation and helps clients transition to permanent housing. MSP also provides counseling, legal aid, and other services and referrals, depending on the clients’ needs. Executive Director Mercedes Lemp explains, “We really have a motto of embracing our clients and being a family as long as they need us.” (Watch the 3-minute clip above to learn more about MSP’s mission and approach.)

The Many Hands grant came at just the right time, Mercedes says. Many MSP clients work in the service sector and lost their jobs during the COVID pandemic. That, combined with the rising cost of groceries and gas, put their families in an especially difficult position. But the Many Hands grant supporting MSP’s Fresh Start Fund enabled the nonprofit to respond quickly to their clients’ growing needs.

The Fresh Start Fund, which was launched just before the pandemic, provides emergency or immediate financial support to clients. “A lot of times,” Mercedes notes, “a financial situation could destabilize somebody’s housing or job.” Previous programs required a longer approval process, but “if you have a flat tire on the way to work, you can’t wait a week” to get money for a new tire.

When COVID hit, Mercedes says, “the requests for the Fresh Start Fund [were] not just car repair, educational pursuits. It was literally food, utilities….So many things were working against our clients, and so the $100,000 Impact Award came at just the right time.” With Many Hands funding, MSP has been able to purchase Giant food cards, buy school uniforms, pay clients’ rent, and help clients finish educational certificate programs so they can get jobs. (Mercedes shares the stories of three clients who have transformed their lives with the help of MSP funding in the 2-minute clip above.)

The impact of the grant was also especially meaningful this year because the incidence and severity of domestic violence increased during COVID–although, as Mercedes points out, we don’t know the full scale of the problem, due to continued underreporting. Last year, MSP provided 1,247 case management and counseling sessions and helped 98 domestic violence survivors move to transitional or permanent housing. Nonetheless, over the more than 40 years of MSP’s existence, Mercedes says, there has always been “much more demand than we can possibly serve.”

MSP’s capacity received a meaningful boost this year in the form of a significant grant from the DC Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants. The funds allowed MSP to purchase a new building that includes six apartments to be used as emergency shelter for families escaping domestic violence. The new building expands the number of clients being sheltered and provides clients with more space and more privacy than MSP’s older shelter building, which has individual rooms for clients and common areas and a shared bathroom.

Other changes in how MSP operates can be traced back to lessons learned during the pandemic. For example, before COVID, MSP conducted two weekly legal clinics for clients. During the pandemic, those sessions moved online and reached many more people. Clients didn’t have to get transportation to the clinic, find parking, arrange childcare, or sneak away from work, Mercedes explains. Therefore, MSP will continue to offer virtual legal clinics as well as virtual art therapy sessions.

This adaption highlights My Sister’s Place focus on the needs of its clients. Mercedes says clients are key to their work, and “we are always seeking feedback from them.” MSP’s work is trauma-informed, which Mercedes says means listening to the client and providing individualized services. If there are 15 clients at the emergency shelter, they will get different services based on what each person needs. (Mercedes talks more about how client voices inform and shape her team’s work in the 2-minute clip to the right.)

If MSP does not have the ability to provide certain services, they will find a partner organization to make sure the client gets the needed assistance. Among MSP’s partners are two other recipients of Many Hands grants–Capital Area Asset Builders, which helps MSP clients establish savings accounts, and The Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, which provides therapeutic play sessions for children in MSP shelters. “We try to be really good at what we do, but we can’t be the best at everything,” Mercedes says. “If we’re not going to be the best at x and somebody is, let’s let them do that thing. We want to connect our clients to good partners. It’s nice to see these great partners also be recognized by Many Hands.”

-Stephanie Nealer

If you’re interested in supporting My Sister’s Place as a volunteer, please watch the 3-minute clip below for more information about opportunities: