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The EMPWR coat: warming bodies and souls

In a Tuesday, March 3, 2015 photo, Veronika Scott of The Empowerment Plan Detroit, helps Todd Frank test wear one of her sleeping bag coats she designed, in Pontiac, Mich. Scott, a former design student is trying to help the homeless population in two distinct ways by employing and training homeless women to manufacture a garment that serves as both a coat and a sleeping bag. The coats then are distributed back to homeless people at no cost to them. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)It began as a school project from a professor at Detroit's College for Creative Studies: design something "to fill a need." The Empowerment Plan has since evolved into a successful non-profit organization that has made and distributed more than 15,000 free coats to homeless people around the country and the world. In the process, they employ many of those same people in order to help them get off the streets and into a more stable, life-giving situation. It's been featured on CNN, The New York Times, and the Forbes 400 Philanthropy Summit as a model of what can happen when you focus on the whole person rather than their momentary need.

Veronika Scott, the organization's founder and CEO, had no idea that her answer to that professor's challenge would change so many lives, including her own. The EMPWR coat was the product of simply taking the time to meet with and observe the plight of the homeless struggling daily to survive on the streets of Detroit. While there are several shelters around the increasingly impoverished city, many are still forced to live on the streets where "approximately 7% of homeless individuals die from hypothermia" each year. Scott's solution was to create a coat to be worn during the day that could double as a sleeping bag at night.

As she described, "So many people on the streets are wearing somebody else's trash. The coat itself was meant to offer people warmth . . . but also to give them a little bit of pride." However, she soon realized that the problem went deeper than frigid temperatures. While handing out the coats one day, a woman in a shelter yelled "We don't need coats. We need jobs." So after graduating and starting her non-profit, Scott decided to hire women from the shelters to make the coats.

The Empowerment Plan currently employs twenty-two previously homeless parents who, on average, were off the streets and into a home or an apartment within three months of starting at her company. In addition to making coats, the women spend the last two hours of their day getting paid to study for their GED, take financial literacy classes, or participate in a number of other educational programs designed to help further improve their prospects. And, while she didn't fully realize it at the time, Scott's background played a key role in her decision to hire homeless parents.

As she told a group at the Forbes Women's Summit, both of her parents were unemployed addicts and, growing up, she and her siblings were seen as an extension of their parents. Most people outside the family expected that "these kids are going to grow up just as worthless as the parents have been." She goes on to say that it wasn't until college, when she got a clean slate of sorts, that she was able to move beyond those negative beliefs.

Whether it's because of time in prison, life decisions, or a tough background, that clean slate has eluded many of the homeless her organization employs. By helping these parents, Veronika aims to break the cycle that threatens their children as well. She hopes that her organization's model can be incorporated by other groups in order to continue helping people around the nation who long for a similar opportunity.

I don't know if Veronika Scott is a Christian, but her ministry among the homeless in Detroit and the thousands of lives The Empowerment Plan has benefitted are an excellent model of what God has done for us and of what he calls us to do for others.

 As Christians, God has given each of us a clean slate upon which to build our lives in relationship with him (2 Corinthians 5:17). However, what we choose to do with that opportunity will determine the quality of that relationship. Just because Jesus wiped the slate clean does not mean that we can't muddy it up again by bringing the sins and baggage of our former life into the new one he has given us. And while we can never lose our salvation, far too often we choose to live like as though Christ never set us free from our slavery to sin. Once you have accepted his offer of salvation, the only one that can wrap those chains back around you is you.

Yet, we would be mistaken to conclude that God saved us simply so that we could be set free for our own good. From the time of Abraham, God has intended for his people to act as a blessing to others, guiding those that don't know the Lord into a saving relationship with him (Genesis 12:2). Part of how we do that is by sharing his message of freedom with those that so desperately need to hear it. What God has done for you, he longs to do for them as well.

Just as Veronika's background helped her better serve the homeless of Detroit, your past can play an instrumental role in helping others come to understand the forgiveness and freedom that only God can give. However, we will never be effective in helping guide others to freedom in Christ until we understand and embrace that freedom in our own lives.

So how's your slate looking today? Our God stands ready to remove whatever sin we've used to mar it each time we go before him to humbly ask for his forgiveness and his help in leading a life that honors him. When we do that, we are better equipped to help others find the clean slate they so desperately need.

God blessed you so that you might be a blessing to others. Live accordingly.

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