Written by Patty Rasmussen Tuesday, November 22 2011
Snapshot: Morgan Coffey, founder, Stronghold Atlanta
At a time in her life when many young women are focusing inward, 19-year-old Morgan Coffey of Atlanta turned her focus outward, co-founding Stronghold Atlanta, a nonprofit organization connecting victims of domestic violence with resources to help them break free from the cycle of abuse. The organization was an outgrowth of her Girl Scout Gold Award project in high school. She currently serves as Stronghold’s director of development, marketing, and communications.
A junior at Oglethorpe University studying business, communications, and public policy, Coffey was named a National Young Woman of Distinction for Girl Scouts USA in 2010, one of 10 selected. She passionately pursues solutions to the issues of domestic violence and abuse and teen dating violence.
Womenetics: Sticking with Girl Scouting seems to be somewhat rare these days. What was it about Girl Scouts that kept you interested and engaged?
Morgan Coffey: I had that moment in middle school where I thought, “There are so many other things going on, I don’t think I want to do this anymore.” But my mom said, “This is really important, and it can help you achieve your goals. There are all sorts of leadership experiences, but also fun you can have with your friends. You need to stay in and stick with it.” It was a lot of my mom’s influence, but it was some of the best advice I ever got. Once I got to high school, I realized how much I could gain from being in scouting, and I went after it with everything.
Womenetics: You earned the Girl Scout Gold Award, the equivalent of the Eagle Scout earned in Boy Scouts. What are the components of the award?
Coffey: You have to complete certain prerequisites, though the program has changed in the last two years since I finished my Gold Award. You earned a certain number of interest project patches, which are like badges, and you complete 60 hours of leadership and volunteering. Then you work on your actual project based on a topic you care about. It includes another 100 or so hours of work. You develop a project, and then you have to implement it. You figure out the timeline; the project has to be approved by your local Girl Scout council.
Womenetics: Why did you choose to tackle domestic violence in your Gold Award project?
Coffey: There were a few reasons. One is that people often think domestic violence doesn’t affect them, but the statistics show that one in every three women will be affected by domestic violence at some point in her life. I have a sister, a mom, and a best friend – that’s three women right there. According to the statistics, one of us will be affected. So domestic violence really does affect the people around us; they can be very close to us.
I’ve had a few personal experiences related to domestic violence. I remember a friend and I were changing for a play at school; she had bruises all over her stomach. We were 12 or 13 years old at the time. I asked her what they were from, and she quickly covered up and said, “My dad gets really mad sometimes.”
I recognized that violence was happening in her home; it was something she had no say in, and it was just something that happened. It triggered the thought in me that people can’t think that’s acceptable. Another one of my very best friends went through a terrible situation and being able to work with her and help her escape that situation, help her find the resources she needed, really made the issue hit home for me. It became personal to me.
Womenetics: How did you develop your project, the Victims Support Initiative?
Coffey: Part of the planning process included identifying people who can help you with the project. Officers from the (Dekalb County) Special Victims Unit for crimes against women and children as well as the rape unit met with me and explained one of their big needs was having literature that listed all the domestic violence resources on it. They had a manual with 500 pages, but they couldn’t hand that over to someone in a critical situation. I developed a brochure for the police department to give to victims, called “Ready, Set, GO!” It lists crisis hot lines, attorneys, and counseling resources. That was the first part.
Womenetics: The second part was “Change in a Bag,” offering a clean, gently used set of clothes to a woman coming to a shelter. Did you get that idea from the police as well?
Coffey: No, I actually visited shelters to talk with them and get information. While I was there they showed me their clothes closet. These are clothes given to women when they get there, usually with just the clothes on their back. Maybe they’ve been raped and their clothes are taken for evidence. But the clothing in the shelter closet was heaped in a pile on the floor, moldy. For someone who has nothing, being offered clothing with mold just reinforces the idea, “That’s what I’m worth.” That’s not what someone is worth. I recognized that need, and it became the second part of my project.
Womenetics: Where did you get the clothes?
Coffey: I put together the program idea on a flyer and took it to my local Girl Scout service unit in Dunwoody. I let them know I would be collecting the bags and they could bring them to the next meeting. I set a goal of 100 bags. At the next meeting there were probably 250 bags waiting for me. Several of the leaders said they did “Change in a Bag” as a service project in their troop so all the girls had participated.
I got calls from people in the community who had seen the flyer, either from friends or just in passing, and they wanted to help. I made my front porch a drop-off spot, gave them a deadline, and day after day people brought bags. I ended up with 575 bags. It was amazing to see and experience the community coming together to provide such a simple, basic need.
Now we do it a little differently. After I completed the project and started Stronghold Atlanta, I made both pieces of my project part of Stronghold service areas. One way we collect the bags is that our Youth Advisory Board (YAB) has taken the program into their high schools. We have youth from 16 different high schools and colleges across metro Atlanta. They’ve gotten kids and teachers in their schools on board to create the bags. Different groups in the community will do the bags for us as service projects. Everything is donated.
Womenetics: You completed your project and got your Gold Award. You were 17 years old. What made you decide to “complete” the project by actually forming a nonprofit to address the problem of domestic violence?
Coffey: I was filling out the Girl Scout paperwork on the project and had to write a paper explaining how the project had changed or impacted your community. One question asked, “How is your project sustainable?” At first I thought, “My project is sustainable because now the police have this brochure and they have the file on the computer where they can update it,” and “We can do another ‘Change in a Bag’ drive,” but honestly, looking at the statistics, that wasn’t going to cut it.
Every year in Georgia 3,000 women and children are turned away from shelters because there’s no space. The majority of them go back into their abuse situation. I talked to my mom and said, “There’s so much more we could do.” She was on board instantly. It took off from there. We decided to create Stronghold, get it incorporated. Now, rather than handing the project over, we update the brochures and keep a stock on hand for all the counties in the greater Atlanta area. We do Change in a Bag, we have our YAB. It really came down to asking the question, if not me, then who? It was huge having my mom to support me. She’s always been my biggest cheerleader, and through this process we’re each other’s cheerleader.
Womenetics: How did you get your funding?
Coffey: First it was my mom and me. I spoke to my Girl Scout leader and told her what I was going to do and asked if she was on board, and she was definitely with us. She was one of our first board members. We contacted other people in the community who cared about the cause, put together our board, put together our corporation, got our 501(c) (3) status, and began hosting all sorts of fundraisers. One of our first larger fundraisers was “Donuts at the Polls.” Our YAB handled it and sold donuts at election sites. It didn’t make that much money, but it was our first big fundraiser. The YAB also began hosting a concert that’s held every other year, and lots of other fundraisers.
Most of our money came from fundraising because I had no idea how to write a grant, how to find places that gave grants; I didn’t even know what grants meant at that point. I realized we’d need more sustainable funding so we started working on getting private funding from donors and grants. One of the first grants we got was a $5,000 grant from Sprint, after I was nominated by the CEO of the Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta for the Sprint Community Champions Grant. It doesn’t sound like a lot but it’s huge when you’re a small organization.
Womenetics: Describe the financial literacy program Stronghold offers and why that’s an important element in helping women affected by domestic violence.
Coffey: We were sitting in a meeting with our board of directors talking about what caused domestic violence and what specific things we could do to address each cause. We identified the issue of money/finances, and it was backed up by a study done by the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence; that if a woman trying to escape an abuse situation doesn’t understand her finances, it’s going to be very difficult.
We put together a financial literacy class called “It All Adds Up: A Woman’s Guide to Financial Self-Defense.” The program explains not just the financial side but also paperwork, what types of documents you need to have like Social Security cards, birth certificates, any adoption records, or things like that. It also explains how to budget, how to set aside money, and save. We worked with banks in the community and other financial advisers to make sure we were giving accurate information. Then we made it available to the community by publicizing it in different venues.
The second aspect our board identified is teen dating violence awareness, getting teens to understand that dating violence isn’t appropriate, what is involved in healthy relationships so that they know the difference and they understand that it’s not OK to be hit, punched, or slapped. We’re still developing the program and policy and hopefully will be able to implement it through schools, similar to the new reporting policies on bullying.
Womenetics: What do you plan to do when you graduate? Will you go full time at Stronghold?
Coffey: I’m planning to go to law school. It’s been tricky juggling Stronghold and school. While I’m in law school I’m planning to keep working with Stronghold as the director of marketing and communications, doing the grant writing. Once I’m an attorney, I’d like to be able to do Stronghold’s legal work. Eventually I feel like I won’t be doing the day-to-day operations of Stronghold, but I’d be on the board. I want to be the person that helps us expand to new areas. I’d love for us to expand to New Orleans, New York, somewhere on the West Coast, and maybe India or Africa in the long run. I think my specific role will change over time.
Womenetics: Who was/is the person that inspired you most?
Coffey: Definitely my mom. She is absolutely amazing. She’s a single mom, she supported our family, and every time we ever need something, she’s there for us. Beyond that, seeing her interaction with people on a day-to-day basis whether for Stronghold or for clients we’re helping or a donor, her ability to talk with them and fulfill their needs is amazing. She has so much compassion and love to give and extends that to so many people every day.
Womenetics: Are you still involved with Girl Scouting?
Coffey: I’m a lifetime member of Girl Scouts, and, in fact, I’m the troop leader of my sister’s troop. She’s 16 years old, and all the girls in the troop are sophomores. Before I was a troop leader, I was the senior assistant leader. I’ve known all these girls since they were itty-bitty. It’s cool to see how they’ve grown in the past few years and remembering when I was there in their place, learning how to lead and how to interact with adults. I feel blessed and honored to be their leader now.
Womenetics: You were named a National Young Woman of Distinction by the Girl Scouts USA, something awarded to only 10 women. What was the most important aspect of getting that recognition to you?
Coffey: It brought a spotlight to domestic violence. It brought awareness and the realization that no matter my age or where I live, where I come from, I am able to take a stand for something I’m passionate about every day. One of the best things was for me to stand up in front of different groups of people, speaking on behalf of Girl Scouts and Stronghold. I’ve been able to alert people to the fact that domestic violence isn’t something you hear about or see, but it’s happening every day.
Patty Rasmussen is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. She spent 12 years covering the Atlanta Braves for ChopTalk Magazine and has written for Major League Baseball publications, Georgia Trend magazine, WebMD, and Blue Ridge Country.