One of my former colleagues introduced me to the Moth – a storytelling nonprofit that I have been obsessed with since that day. I was listening to the Moth recently on my daily commute when I heard Natasha Guynes’ story. Listening to her speak, I found myself really inspired and eager to hear more.
In typical Smile Project fashion, I resorted to my cold email and reached out to learn more. A couple hours later, we were chatting. As a side note, it’s really beautiful to see how connected our world can be.
Without further ado, allow me to introduce Natasha Guynes and HER Resiliency Center.
Liz: Let's start in traditional Smile Project fashion - give me a "Happiness is.."
Natasha: Happiness, for me, is seeing the joy in someone else’s eyes and seeing them light up when they realize that change can occur or when they see something exciting happening in their world. I’m able to often see Happiness in the people around me before I see it in my own life. When I see it in other people, it impacts my life and gives me the feeling of Happiness and elation.
I can often see it in the people around me before I notice it happening in my life. That doesn’t mean I live in negativity, it just means the people around me are the reflection of my life and that’s how I see it. When I see a young woman’s eyes light up because she got into school or has housing and she knows she’s on the right path – to see that smile on her face and to know she has a chance, that is happiness to me.
Liz: Tell me a little bit about the organization.
Natasha: I formed the HER Resiliency Center (HER) out of my own life experiences. My mother had me at age 17 and my father was a physically abusive drug addict. I ended up in Washington D.C. at the age of 20 and quickly became involved in sex work, drugs, and alcohol. Before long, I was homeless and living in a shelter.
The 12-step program helped me get sober. The women I worked with didn’t tell me to figure it out. They showed me how my life could be different. They helped me do things like file taxes and apply for school. They went above and beyond in every aspect.
I founded HER in 2015 with the mission of supporting and guiding vulnerable young women ages 18-25 to becoming self-sufficient, independent adults. We only ask that the women both want and need our support.
In 2016 when we opened, I wanted to serve 25 women, we served 52. In 2017, we served 150 women. So far in 2018, we are on track serve 400 women.
We operate on a peer level. The women make the decisions. We are just peers who are helping them along the way. We recognize that trauma impacts the brains ability to mature and process decision making. Sometimes that means we have to give them 75% when they’re only giving 25% at the beginning. We have to show them that we’re showing up every day for them and eventually that begins to balance out.
Liz: What does the programming look like?
Natasha: The Road Map to Success program is what we’ve been based on since we’ve been open. We go to their neighborhoods and meet them one-on-one at coffee shops, community centers, libraries, etc. We identify their top three biggest needs and long-term and short-term goals. Then they make a plan for how they’re going to achieve these goals. Sometimes this looks like going with them to the food stamp office or Medicaid office so we can advocate on their behalf. Over time, though, we get them to do these things on their own. We show them how to do it. We want to build independence in them.
We do skill development workshops at high schools and churches that focus on staying safe in community, safe sex, getting and keeping a job, and our Trauma Recovery Empowerment Model (TREM) which we host in jail, and more. We also have our mentorship program. This is still in its pilot phase, but the concept involves strategically pairing the women we serve with mentors in the community. For example, we have a woman who wants to be in the Air Force with a woman who works for the Air Force.
We also have our transitional home where five young women can live for up to 18 months as they get on their feet and start making plans for their future. This opened in January 2018.
Lastly, we have our Street Outreach Program. This involves going out at night and really engaging with people we have never seen or met before. We talk to everybody (male, female, homeless, not homeless, at the bus stop, in the Starbucks…) You never know who the gatekeepers are. You don’t want to target one subset or group. We talk to everybody. Sometimes – especially in winter – we provide camping products, warm blankets, gloves, etc. We also share information and resource guides. We also have one reserved bed each night to let someone in so if we meet a woman on the street that says she needs out right now, she won’t have to wait until the shelters open the next morning. We will take her.
Liz: What is the driving force behind what you do?
Natasha: Knowing that it works. Not everything works for everybody. That’s why we have great community partners and we emphasize working with our community partners. What works for one person isn’t going to work for the next person. I’ve seen this unconditional love and I’ve seen this support work in my life. I’ve seen it work in the lives of the women we serve.
Liz: What does "service" mean to you?
Natasha: We use the term “being of service” a lot. In my 12-step program, I was taught that if you are called upon, you should be of service. Unless you have a good reason, you should say “yes.” Someone did it for me so I need to do it for someone else. It’s about giving back without expectations of receiving anything. You hope it is impactful in their life. You hope you may plant a seed. But you also give without expecting anything in return.
Liz: How can people get involved?
Natasha: We are growing very quickly and there are a few things that we need items off our Amazon wish list for our transitional home and street outreach programs. We need volunteers. Another way to support HER is through monetary donations.
We also have an event coming up on May 15th in Washington D.C. I will be doing a live retelling of my Moth story. Come to HEMPHILL at 1515 14th St NW, Washington, DC from 6 – 8 pm for a special telling of the story. Tickets are a $25 suggested donation with all proceeds going back to HER Resiliency Center.
Liz: Do you have a favorite piece of advice?
Natasha: I have a story about this. I was four years sober and working at Starbucks and going to college and I thought about going back to sex work. I figured I might as well go somewhere where I can make some fast cash. I called someone from the 12-step program and she told me that you can’t move forward and backward at the same time. It was one of the most impactful comments that was ever made to me. I can’t expect things to change if I’m always doing the same old thing.
Liz: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Natasha: People often ask me what the “HER” stands for – it is always written as HER Resiliency Center. It doesn’t stand for anything – it’s what it represents. It represents it being for HER by HER. It’s anyone who is part of the community and it encompasses HER.
And one last note - Without my team and the board and the community – we would not exist. Without the women trusting us – we would not exist. I’d like to thank all of them.
If you are reading from the greater D.C. area, I highly encourage you to attend Natasha’s event on May 15th. Between listening to her on the Moth podcast and chatting with her for the purposes of this interview, I can assure you that you are in for a great evening full of wonderful insight and inspiring narrative.
Don’t forget to follow HER Resiliency Center on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and to visit the website to learn more. To stay informed with Natasha’s work, follow her personal pages on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.