Courtesy of The Detroit Free Press
In a weed-strewn corner of Corktown in Detroit, inside a long-abandoned stamping plant, six women are sewing their dreams into a new kind of coat.
The women, homeless just months ago, know that they also are stitching the dreams of a tall young woman in their midst — the one they call Miss Scott.
“I’m still surprised how far this has gone,” Veronika Scott said, mirroring the women’s smiles, as visitors toured her new mini-factory.
Two years ago, the Free Press reported that Scott had invented an amazing coat to protect homeless people.
Since then, Scott, now 23, has drawn growing news media coverage and a stream of admirers for her radical idea: to give away to the downtrodden of Detroit — and perhaps even the world — her patent-pending coat, which converts in seconds into a sleeping bag.
For those among the homeless population who cannot find shelter, or refuse to accept it, her EMPWR coat — as in “empower” — could be a lifesaver. So far, Scott has made and handed out about 200 coats.
But this fall, Scott is gaining the support and recognition that could boost her fledgling nonprofit enterprise into Detroit-style mass production.
General Motors recently gave her 2,000 yards of scrap sound-deadening material, used inside the doors and dashboards of the Chevrolet Malibu and Buick Verano. That’s enough to make 400 coats. It turns out that the scrap insulation, once requilted into fabric, is perfect for repurposing in Scott’s coat, making it warmer than her original design, she said.
“We’re excited to be doing it,” said John Bradburn, GM’s global manager of waste reduction.
“We love working with small companies like this, to promote sustainability and protect the environment,” he said from his office at the GM Tech Center in Warren. He frequently visits Scott’s tiny factory.
And on Nov. 19 in Boston, Scott will become the youngest person to receive the New Frontier Award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.
“Detroit gave us the automobile and now Detroit’s giving us this outstanding young person who is using technology to address a humanitarian need,” said Tom McNaught, executive director of the foundation.
Caroline Kennedy, president of the foundation that bears her father’s name, saw a CNN documentary about Scott last year, which led to the committee choosing her for the award, McNaught said.
Scott’s hope is that this is a turning point — that the GM link, together with the award, will help her land a breakthrough donation to double or triple production of the coats. With that, Scott said she could protect Detroit’s most vulnerable residents, and then could start to satisfy her dream of helping the homeless
Scott was still in college two years ago when she started selling her radical ideas, first to her dean — now Provost Imre Molnar — at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.
Molnar said he planned to fly with Scott to Boston when she receives her award and speaks to the foundation’s board.
“It’s just phenomenal recognition. It’s really all about her, but it’s great to have CCS a part of it,” he said.
It was Molnar — a former design director for Patagonia, the outdoor clothing firm in Ventura, Calif. — who found himself promising to listen to Scott for five minutes that turned into an hour. That was when she came to him in 2009 about this odd project that she had conceived in her industrial-design class.
The EMPWR is a long storm coat with a roomy hood and a secret. Folded up into the coat’s back, and held there by Velcro closures, is an envelope of insulated, quilted fabric that matches the coat. With one yank, that envelope folds down to enclose the user’s feet. With the coat’s front and hood buckled in place, the result is a single sleeve of warmth and protection.
And they’re being made in the heart of Detroit.
“Sewing was forced on her,” recalls her mother, Maureen Scott, 49, of Clarkston.
Maureen Scott, an experienced seamstress and visual artist, said she was surprised that her college-student daughter suddenly came to her, asking how to sew.
Once the student had a prototype done, her dean racked his brain for just the right contact. Then Molnar called Mark Valade, the CEO of Carhartt.
After seeing her prototype, Valade and Carhartt were in.
Soon, the apparel giant famed for outdoors work clothes, provided the first of six industrial-use sewing machines, along with a trainer for Veronika Scott’s machine operators — each a formerly homeless person.
Also in were the first donors of seed money, beginning with Scott’s grandparents in Huntington Woods, their neighbors and friends. One, a lawyer, set up Scott’s enterprise as a nonprofit so that contributions would be tax-deductible.
Those were the days when Scott’s grandfather Marshall Charlip, 70, a retired social worker, stood by her side on sidewalks in the Cass Corridor, as Scott field-tested her earliest models with homeless people near the shelter of the Neighborhood Service Organization.
“He told me, ‘If you want to earn their trust, do not make promises you cannot deliver.’ ”
Today, the graduate of the College for Creative Studies lives a few blocks from NSO’s shelter, in a Cass Corridor apartment.
The early models of the coat were white, made of a popular building insulation material called Tyvek.
Soon, word came back from the street — the coats got dirty too quickly and they needed other tweaks, said Deacon Don Leach, pastoral associate for outreach at St. Aloysius Parish, a Catholic center that aids homeless people in downtown Detroit.
“Most of our ministry is on the street. I think we put close to 60 of her coats out on the streets last year,” said Leach, 57, of Canton.
“One guy sleeps at Shelby and Lafayette, on the steam grate. He said the asphalt got on the coat. … So she changed the color” from white to black, Leach said. “A couple guys said the way the buckles were on the front, when they moved around, they felt trapped in it, so she redesigned that.
“These people we’re dealing with, for whatever reason, they can’t or won’t go to the shelters,” Leach said. “You’re going to have some of them high on drugs or drunk, and some will sell them for whatever, but most of these folks, they keep these coats and we know they’re protected from the elements.”
The potential market is large. Estimates for Detroit’s homeless population range from 10,000 to 32,000.
St. Aloysius is looking forward to its next shipment of coats, he said. And 300 are to be delivered in December at NSO’s shelter, Scott said. All of the coats are free.
Training the staff
Scott spent the summer training her staff of six — freshly recruited from homeless shelters; some of them recovering from drug addiction.
On a whiteboard, Scott lists their assignments for the day: “Demetra — cut webbing; Arnetta — pockets; Toya — hoods or buckles; Annis — hoods or buckles; Tanisha — buckle backs; Jen — check in parts.”
Scott starts each worker at $8 an hour in training, pays $10 per hour to start producing, and $12 “when you’re performing at a certain rate and we’re proud of you,” she said.
For these six, working on Scott’s assembly line has been a godsend, they tell visitors.
“God gave me another chance,” said Toya James, 32, who has moved from a shelter to transitional housing, and hopes to be in her own apartment this month.
Each person has a story — of life in shelters and on the streets. Of substance abuse and children taken away by Protective Services. Of fear and hopelessness. And now, of hope and opportunity.
And each person tells of the surprise to find Scott visiting the shelters, offering work, and the flash of their dreams coming true. The plan is for the six women to cut, sew and ship 800 coats this year and 2,000 in 2013.
“To do that, we’re hoping to raise $250,000″ for 2013, Scott said.
Leaning on a cabinet in her cluttered work room is a framed note from billionaire investor Warren Buffet: “Veronika, I admire you and what you are doing,” it reads.
He hasn’t sent any money, Scott said.
She, too, can dream.
Contact Bill Laitner: 313-223-4485 or firstname.lastname@example.org
To support Veronika Scott’s dream of giving coats and jobs to homeless people or to learn more about the project, go to www.theempowermentplan.org. Or send tax-deductible donations to the Empowerment Plan, 1401 Vermont St., Detroit 48216.