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Fifth Annual Women's Empowerment Luncheon Benefitting WGB

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Founders Reflect on Women Giving Back's Growth

16 years of Giving Marked by 5th Annual Empowerment Luncheon

Article by Melinda Gipson

Photography by Melinda Gipson

Originally published in Leesburg Lifestyle

In March, Women Giving Back hosted its fifth annual Women’s Empowerment Luncheon at Westwood Country Club, supported by M&T Bank. There were more than 300 in attendance and the gathering raised more than $157,000 for the women’s charity. Since WGB’s first event was captured in our inaugural issue, and because all three founders of the group attended the luncheon – one traveling all the way from Utah – we thought it might inspire others to look back on how the charity got started.

Back in 2007, Terri Stagi was serving on the board of HomeAid Northern Virginia, now HomeAid National Capital Region, as the Communications Chair. HomeAid provides safe and dignified housing and programmatic facilities for those experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness by putting people in the building industry in touch with charities focused on ending homelessness.

At the time, the board was made up of all the major new home builder CEOs and presidents in the region – and they were all men. To foster diversity in their industry, Terri says the board asked her to find a way to get more women involved in their trade. She first interviewed officials at the shelters HomeAid had helped to renovate, asking what more the group could do to help them. “Overwhelmingly, they said clothing,” Terri recalls.

She explains, “Since most of the occupants had escaped domestic violence situations or other hardships, many entered WGB with only the clothes on their backs. Their children did not even have changes of clothing to wear to school, so this seemed a natural fit for us.” One of HomeAid’s board members, Doug Smith of Miller & Smith Homes, offered to sponsor an event to launch the initiative.

Terri called her friend Leslie Strittmatter and asked her to meet at Clyde’s. Leslie brought a third woman, Fiona Hughes. All three were employed in sales and marketing in the homebuilding industry, and were part of a professional women’s group called Women in Real Estate Marketing.

Together, the three came up with Cocktails for a Cause at the Tower Club, with admission consisting of a clothing donation. It drew 50 women in the building industry who all signed up to work as volunteers, and the mission was off and running. A few years later, the group formed its own 501c3 as Women Giving Back, “helping women and children in crisis by distributing clothing at no cost.” Most importantly, the group vowed then to make sure their clients were served with dignity in a way that would help to restore their self-esteem.

At first, the group operated out of a closet in the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association headquarters, so Terri calls WGB’s growth to fill an 11,000 sq. ft. facility in Chantilly nothing short of “astonishing.” From the beginning, the group collected not just professional attire like suits but clothing “for life” – for leisure, recreation, school clothes for the kids, pajamas, new underwear, coats, shoes, make-up, and even jewelry and purses. “Every month we learned something new; things were very fluid in the early days,” Terri says.

Fiona ticks off the trio’s early goals: 1. We wanted to share high quality high-end clothing accessories at no cost to our shoppers. 2. We intended that every shopper would be able to take up to 50 items of clothing free of charge. 3. We wanted WGB to be a high-class “boutique” – not just a thrift-type store; we set high standards for the clothing we offered to our clients. We didn’t offer out-of-style, or clothing that was stained or heavily worn. 4. Our army of volunteers acted as “personal shoppers” for the women we served, putting together outfits and accessories for each one of them. 5. We wanted to give our clients a chance to rebuild careers, and to ultimately regain their independence, pride and self-confidence. And, 6. “We wanted donating to, and volunteering with, WGB to be a fabulous experience. It certainly was, and our army of volunteers quickly grew – we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did without the volunteer network which we built.”

All three were surprised by both the strong demand and the donations and volunteers to help fill that need. Fiona says, “The most difficult thing was to raise the funds and find a permanent facility to house our boutique store and our warehouse. The hurdle now, with our growing success, is still the same; we need a bigger home for WGB.” The board will be mounting a capital campaign in the next year to start the process to build that “forever home.”

What kept them going? Says Terri, “Once you work at the Boutique, you are hooked by the stories of persistence from these amazing women. They overcome horrible situations and strongly forge ahead. I love watching our teen volunteers come and have their eyes opened. I remember one teen coming over and saying ‘OMG! She’s in my 10th grade class!’ She had no idea she was living in a shelter and reliant on programs like ours. Not only do we help our clients, but we serve as education for our youth. We teach them the value of giving back.”

Each has been strengthened by the resilience and success of the women they have assisted, and has been goaded by tales of teenagers exploited by human trafficking. Terri, who chaired the board for a decade, often sees women in the neighborhood who were served at some of their lowest moments. “It’s wonderful when they arrive at the other side and we know we had a little to do with that.... We have created something magical.” Adds Fiona, “Once it became clear that we had landed on a desperate need and a gap in services that were currently offered, our passion for what we were doing kept us going!”

Leslie was particularly proud of being able to bring TJ Maxx into the fold, as she puts it. Forging a relationship with Sue Bills, TJ Maxx District Manager, who saw the need to make WGB the official community charity for the 13 stores she oversaw. Now the chain is a regular donator of school supplies, backpacks, Halloween costumes and toys for the charity’s Santa’s Workshop, in addition to $10,000 in annual support. When the manager invited WGB to the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new store and used the occasion to deliver a check, they learned that many of the store’s new employees had received the clothes they wore to their TJX interview from WGB. “Without the new clothing, they would never have been able to land the jobs they so desperately needed. It was a ‘full circle’ moment like no other.”

Each of the three says she had her career impacted by her service. Terri notes, “I had no notion that I would end up in the non-profit world. It opened my eyes to what was around us in this affluent area. It’s very easy to close your eyes to what’s going on, but once they are opened, you cannot go back. We did not quit our careers. We were able to juggle with the help of our volunteer army. A lot of very caring women and men made it work.” Leslie says she is not only still involved with the charity but says, “WGB Founder Is part of how I define myself and my life. It fills me so much pride (and) taught me so much about gratitude and service.” She adds that when the three were chosen 2020 “Washingtonians of the Year” by Washingtonian Magazine, it was, in a word “unreal.”

Fiona is now an interior designer in Utah but faces every day with the gratitude of “There but for the grace of God go I.” Terri and Leslie still sit on WGB’s executive board and are involved in most of the group’s decisions. Terri has her own ad agency The Stagi Group, and is president of Ms. Fixit, a new company she started.

For others like them who are moved to fill a need in their community, Fiona says, “Just do it. We learned as we went along, and really had no structure to start; we had an idea and went for it.” She adds, “Be flexible in your mission. Show gratitude and write personal thank-you notes to your supporters. Be positive. Be prepared to be surprised, and always laugh.” Adds Terri, “Don’t get discouraged... and don’t be afraid to ask for help!”

All three credit Executive Director Nicole Morris for her seven years of service and supporters like M&T Bank Regional President Cecilia Hodges for raising the organization to a level of service they could only have imagined would serve more than 24,000 women and children annually. Now you can be part of the journey! On Thursday, May 4th from 4-7 p.m. at its 20 Export Drive, Sterling location, WGB hosts its annual Cinco de Mayo Fiesta celebrating all its sponsors, donors and volunteers outdoors under a fiesta tent with Latin-inspired food, drinks, wine and tequila tastings, a raffle and an online auction. See to buy tickets and bring a friend!

“It’s wonderful when women arrive at the other side and we know we had a little to do with that.... We have created something magical.” Terri Stagi

  • WGB Founders, Terri Stagi, Fiona Hughes and Leslie Strittmatter
  • Fifth Annual Women's Empowerment Luncheon Benefitting WGB
  • Exec. Dir. Nicole Morris, Supporter Erica Rowe, Associate Maleeha Darab
  • Domesic Abuse Survivor Jennifer Haas, with a board member,  brought several new work associates to the luncheon, with WGB board member Jane Lyons