Paws for a Cause is a series where we chat with our friends, clients, and peers in our local Colorado community. It’s a chance to check in and see how everyone’s doing in business and life.
Today we’re talking to Julia Stewart, President and CEO of The Gathering Place. YellowDog has worked closely with The Gathering Place over the years on print work ranging from business cards and other essentials to holiday giving campaigns. We also ran a winter clothing drive to benefit their participants.
YellowDog: Hello Julia! Give us the short version of your nonprofit’s mission. What population or cause do you serve?
Julia Stewart: The Gathering Place (TGP) offers services to combat poverty and address the impacts of marginalization and oppression that often contribute to poverty or homelessness. By providing low-barrier access to a broad range of basic necessities and wrap-around care options, TGP guides women, transgender folx, and children living in poverty from a place of crisis and instability to one of stability and security.
YD: How and when did your nonprofit start?
JS: TGP was founded 35 years ago by two University of Denver School of Social Work students. During their internships at some of the overnight shelters, they noticed that women and children had nowhere safe to go when the shelters closed in the morning. The Gathering Place was started as a one-room operation serving about 25 individuals a day and rapidly expanded!
YD: What was your journey into your role as the director? How did you get here?
JS: I have always been passionate about fighting inequality and injustice. Before coming to The Gathering Place, I worked for labor unions helping low-wage workers come together to improve their working conditions. After doing that for about 15 years, I felt ready for a change and went back to school to get a degree in accounting. But, I still wanted to work for an organization focused on improving the lives of others and fighting injustice.
So, I was thrilled to be hired as the VP of Internal Resources at TGP in 2014, leading the organization’s HR, finance, and operations functions. When Leslie Foster, who had been my boss and the CEO of The Gathering Place for nearly 30 years, announced her retirement in 2019, I knew my skills and deep love for this organization would make me a good fit to fill her shoes. Fortunately, our Board of Directors agreed and hired me for the role.
YD: COVID-19 has been a part of our lives throughout the past year. What have you learned about your organization, and/or how did you adapt in 2021?
JS: It’s hard to overstate the impacts of COVID-19. Job and income loss, loss of childcare, loss of access to other service providers, including government-run programs, children falling behind in school without access to the internet are the ones we think of first. Additionally, Denver’s shelter system underwent significant changes, and TGP was required to meet different needs.
TGP members—our term for our program participants—were understandably scared of staying in congregate shelters but did not have the luxury of working from home or sheltering in place. Safety measures such as regular hand washing and mask-wearing were huge obstacles for those without access to running water or ways to clean masks and belongings.
Unemployment skyrocketed and affected women and people of color disproportionately. For those that kept their jobs, they found themselves risking their lives on the frontlines of a pandemic. TGP narrowed its focus to emergency services in the spring of 2020 and has since resumed our full scope of services with an increased focus on supporting longer-term needs through wellness and recovery.
TGP also provided more food bags and emergency food than ever before. Lastly, we partnered with the city and other local organizations to open up a 24/7 shelter, which houses up to 100 individuals and does not limit the length of stay.
As we expanded programming, individuals reported better mental health and could move to a place of stability. Having reliable shelter enabled them to get proper rest and obtain employment. Others were able to secure long-term affordable housing. We knew our community was resilient, and we learned how to better provide the support they needed to thrive.
YD: What are the top three items on a “wishlist” for your organization?
JS: 1) A separate center where we can more fully meet the needs of families who are experiencing homelessness or poverty. 2) More staff, so our team can work more closely with our members. 3) We have a long history of advocating for livable wages that respects and honors the dignity and value of workers. We value all of our employees and are dedicated to offering a competitive and livable wage. Our goal is to continue to advance in this area as cost of living and inflation continue to rise.
YD: Describe your organization in three words.
JS: Hope, Resilience, Power
YD: Love it! Thanks for sharing your story!
Now for some friendly rapid-fire questions:
Are you a dog person or a cat person?
Early bird or night owl?
Favorite local beer?
Mojave Phone Booth IPA from Our Mutual Friend
What’s your best party trick?
This isn’t really a trick, but I make excellent cocktails, which is always a hit at a party.
What show are you currently binging?
Colin in Black & White on Netflix
Any book you’re currently reading?
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
What are you looking forward to most in 2022?
Spending time in Montana with friends this summer.
YD: Thanks, Julia! It has been wonderful to hear your story and learn about how The Gathering Place provides safety, support, and community for people in need.
Would YOU like to be featured in the Paws for a Cause Interview Series?