Photo: L-Ameika Malcolm, R-Bryan Stoffregen
NORRISTOWN PA - Eight years ago, Ameika Malcolm was standing at a bus stop on a Norristown street corner. She had just arrived from Jamaica and was feeling alone and a little depressed. She had no job and missed her home and her friends.
A woman standing next to her struck up a conversation. She was excited about a place called the HopeMarket where she volunteered, a place where people could find clothing, food and some friendly, welcoming people.
That’s all Malcolm had to hear.
“I’m a very community-oriented person,” Malcolm said. “It aligned with my personal values. Supporting each other as a community. We cannot survive without each other no matter how independent we are.”
She found her way to Hopeworx where the HopeMarket is located at 1210 Stanbridge St. She instantly felt at home.
“It’s a place to be yourself and grow,” Malcolm said. “They create an environment for you to choose which direction you want your life to go in. It could be inside or outside the organization. They always encourage. You are able to get comfortable and confident.”
She remembered bumping into a woman with red hair who seemed to be always laughing, teasing people and telling jokes. It turned out to be Sandy Watson, the former Executive Director of Hopeworx who helped start the market.
“Somehow, we established HopeMarket, a wonderful, confusing, chaotic and very effective peer run service,” Watson said. “It kept going even though it didn’t always make sense.”
Watson always emphasized that Hopeworx – the parent company for HopeMarket - was not a program. She said people don’t fit into a proposed treatment model. Their trials, their experiences, don’t lend themselves to this kind of model. People would come and learn about Hopeworx and be comfortable.
“It’s so different from their program way of life,” Watson said. “They don’t have to ask permission to just be.”
For Malcolm, it was a place to be, and to be connected. She found clothing and housewares, and a place where she could stay busy and meet new people. HopeMarket was also a springboard for growth where Malcolm found opportunities to work for the Consumer Satisfaction Team (CST), another affiliate of Hopeworx. Over the years, she worked as a CST Specialist, a data entry employee, a CST Project Coordinator, and currently as the new Community Development and Integration Coordinator for the HopeMarket.
“I came around full circle,” Malcolm said. “I was meant to be here.”
The HopeMarket is a peer-driven community that strives to create opportunities for people to get what they need, including learning something new, spending time with other people in a social setting, and earning things they need for their household. The core value of the HopeMarket is that every person is their own best expert on what they need.
Hopeworx Executive Director Sue Shannon said they strive every day to stay true to the mission.
“It is really challenging to build and maintain an environment that really gives individuals an opportunity to be the creators/drivers/leaders of their own community – everyone’s instinct is to create, and accept, rules and boundaries and requirements,” Shannon said. “The dream for HopeMarket is for it to become a place where anyone and everyone can find a place to learn and grow and thrive by helping each other.”
The goals of the HopeMarket will always remain, at the core, to offer opportunities for people to gain confidence, learn new skills, and share their talents with other members of the community, Shannon said.
The HopeMarket started in 2009 as a barter community among the staff and friends of HopeWorx, with people coming together in a small room to trade things, and share skills. As word of mouth spread, the organization moved into a larger space and created set hours for people to come in and participate. As new people have come in, HopeMarket has formed partnerships and done projects with a variety of organizations.
Shannon said there is no typical day at the HopeMarket – every day is defined by the people who show up and what they want to do. Ongoing projects happen when individuals in the market take on the project and follow through.
HopeMarket started with HopeWorx staff members, and their neighbors at Circle Lodge, a nearby residential program, and CHOC, the Coordinated Housing Outreach Center, so people who use mental health services and people who have experienced trauma are at the heart of how much of the community has been built. Anyone is welcome at the HopeMarket – all that is required is the willingness to participate, but most people have mental health system experience or experience with homelessness and food insecurity.
Back in the days before HopeMarket and Hopeworx, ideas were swirling at the Consumer Satisfaction Team (CST) headquarters located on the grounds of the Norristown State Hospital. The team was led by Sandy Watson, at the time CST Director, who shared ideas from the staff with Mark Boorse, a former consultant with Consultants in Context (CIC).
Boorse and Watson were grappling with ways to effectively use the talents and skills of the CST staff, many of whom were also doing odd jobs around the office to earn money and learn new skills.
“CST had all sorts of people on the payroll doing all sorts of things…it informally expanded out from CST”, Boorse said. “They were helping people, giving them jobs.”
The jobs ranged from answering the phones, typing notes and cleaning the office to driving staff to and from work. Sometimes they would move a co-worker or a friend from one apartment to another. The funds to pay for the odd jobs around the office came from donations or unrestricted grants from foundations.
Boorse and Watson met with some of the CST staff to brainstorm how they could accommodate these multiple priorities into something bigger with more value. The idea to form an Association surfaced where people could participate but not necessarily be on the payroll and still be part of a community. The Association didn’t make it very far but it led to the creation of an umbrella organization – Hopeworx Inc. Under the umbrella came CST and Community Advocates, an affiliate that was established in 2005.
Watson said in 2005 CST and the Community Advocates occupied office space in Building 6 at Norristown State Hospital. When the hospital library next door was relocated to a different building, the large space adjacent to the CST offices became available. The staff and users of mental health services in Montgomery County were very creative when bolstering their low income needs and they all loved to talk about thrift shop deals.
“Bartering was a concept that was exciting to everyone and we all agreed to get some operational suggestions from others,” Watson said.
They reached out to Boorse who was involved in a similar concept to meet and discuss the idea. He suggested that staff bring objects and service ideas to the meeting.
“Well, we had the empty space,” Watson said with a laugh. “Soon tables were filled with appliances, clothing, books etc. Ideas for trading included laundry services, cleaning, transportation, and many more. Our usual chaotic, flat democracy energies were used as we tried to make a ‘fit’ that would work.”
Boorse, who now works for Access Services in Ft. Washington, would go with the flow, trying to fit the ideas into a tangible, viable enterprise.
“Nobody knew who was on first,” Watson said. “Mark kept trying to put some order to it.”
Next a steering committee would be assembled to pick up where the Association left off. The HopeMarket – not to be confused with a thrift shop – was born. In the beginning, to practice the concept, participants used Monopoly money to trade and purchase items and services from each other, Boorse said.
“We were testing the waters around equal dollars,” he said.
“Equal dollars” was a term used by Resources for Human Development (RHD) for assigning value to goods and services that could be traded fairly for other goods and services. RHD used the concept at a community store in Philadelphia where individuals could earn equal dollars to purchase items in the shop. Individuals would do jobs that were assigned equal dollar values and they could use those “dollars” for clothing, furniture, produce and other items at the store.
Boorse said at Hopeworx they weren’t able to sustain the practice around services although for a while people were banking their time and keeping track of how many hours they volunteered at the market. Membership was $5 – if you could afford it. Keeping track of the hours proved time consuming and difficult without a dedicated staff person in charge.
“It didn’t quite land where we wanted,” Boorse said with a laugh. “It landed where it wanted to. It’s great!”
Today, the HopeMarket has a dedicated staff person in charge – and a budget.
The Montgomery County Office of Mental Health approved a request this year to fund the HopeMarket with a budget of $70,000, Shannon said.
“With a dedicated full time coordinator, a small budget to pay for some specialized skill building and supplies, and a budget to cover the overhead costs of our physical space, we can stabilize the opportunities we already offer, so that they are available more consistently and in a more organized way, and also develop more opportunities that we have had to forgo so far because of lack of resources,” Shannon said.
A more organized, predictable community would allow HopeMarket staff to welcome people who previously were unable to participate due to the barriers inherent in a self-driven environment, and would provide more measurable outcomes and a structure that would give the organization the opportunity to apply for more foundation funding, Shannon said.
With the funding, the HopeMarket can also offer more time each week for participation. The expansion of hours would take the form of offering dedicated time to specific projects, in addition to the 12 hours they are currently open for general participation, she added.
People participate in three general ways at HopeMarket:
· People come for a specific reason – to get household items or to venture out into a social setting after a personal setback – and they participate for a few weeks or months, and then move on as they get new opportunities. Sometimes they come back and visit or rejoin for a while if they have another setback, but they don’t commit to long projects.
· People come for specific projects – gardening, scrap metaling, etc., and keep coming for that specific project. During down time for those projects (non-garden season, for example) they may still come for some social time, but their participation steps up when the project is happening.
· People come on an ongoing basis, as a part of their weekly life, and participate in a variety of projects or sometimes just relax, as HopeMarket provides them a place to socialize in a safe space.
According to long time staff member Bryan Stoffregen, it’s all about the welcome.
“When someone new comes in, we show them around the Market, the fun activities that they can join in, so they know what they’re doing” Stoffregen said. “It’s all about the volunteer. No pressure!”
Currently, there are a half dozen opportunities for people to join at the HopeMarket, Shannon said.
Social opportunities include a variety of games, musical instruments – including a baby grand piano - and a television available at the HopeMarket, so that people can relax and get to know each other in a fun, low pressure environment.
There are opportunities for securing household items use the bartering system. Many people who come to HopeMarket are setting up households, so the organization takes donations of furniture and other household goods. People who volunteer at the HopeMarket, organizing those donations or helping in other activities, can select items they need. At times, there are more donations than volunteers who need household items. Hopeworx has an agreement with Carson Valley Children’s Aid to issue vouchers to some of their clients they provide housing for through Montgomery County’s Your Way Home program, to select items without the volunteer requirement, Shannon said.
Volunteers can also help at the Norristown Community Garden on the Norristown State Hospital grounds across the street from the HopeMarket. The HopeMarket takes responsibility for several plots at the community garden and people at the HopeMarket prepare the beds, plant seeds, water and weed, and ultimately harvest the vegetables and share them.
Shannon said scrap metaling is another way for volunteers to earn money. The HopeMarket often gets donations of items that are inappropriate for reuse, but which have significant metal content. People who are interested can prepare the items by disassembling them and separating different types of metal. Periodically, the metal is taken to the scrap yard and then the profits (typically $75-$100) are shared with the people who worked on the project.
Creating works of art in various mediums is another popular activity at the HopeMarket. There are currently two resident volunteer artists – Anya Eltsgroth, who specializes in mosaic art and also has skills in a variety of mediums, and Maria Maneos, whose nonprofit Brush with the Law specializes in public art such as murals. Maneos has also developed a paper making project using recycled material that has been very popular. The HopeMarket has a dedicated art space with a variety of art supplies and found objects that can be used in any art projects that people want to create. People have made jewelry, scrapbooks and mosaics, Shannon said.
Food – cooking and eating it – is another way HopeMarket supports the community by providing food for hungry individuals and also teaching food preparation and cooking for those who are interested. There is an endless supply of Wawa breakfast sandwiches, hash browns, chicken nuggets, hot dogs and pretzels for people who are hungry, and people can stop by any time HopeWorx is open to get emergency food.
Shannon said HopeMarket also receives sporadic donations of food from Trader Joe’s, and prepared food from Devon Prep School. All of this food, along with vegetables from the community garden and other sources, also offer opportunities for cooking. Using a hot plate, a slow cooker and a microwave, people have the opportunity to make soups, stir fries, smoothies and a variety of other dishes to share with everyone who comes to the market.
And, that’s not all.
Potential opportunities are also brewing at the HopeMarket. Shannon said ideas include online sales, partnering with organizations for music learning and performing opportunities, yoga, meditation and expanded computer access for participants.
The possibilities seem endless now that a full time coordinator is in place. Since Malcolm has described herself as an energetic person who tends to mope when just sitting around, it seems like a perfect match.
“I’m pretty excited,” Malcolm said. “We’re trying to elevate and improve on the values that existed. A sense of community. Everybody brings something to the table. Using people’s strengths and seeing where they fit. Helping each other live our best life.”