October is SAP’s dedicated Month of Service when employees like me are encouraged to give back to the community in some small way. I spend part of yesterday with a group of extraordinary people doing just that. Over 1,500 people gathered at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston for the Funny Women…Serious Business: 40th Anniversary Celebration event. Its purpose was to raise awareness for the good work of what’s become a Boston institution, Rosie’s Place.

This year is a special one for the Rosie’s Place community. It opened its doors 40 years ago when founder Kip Tiernan saw poor women disguising themselves as men to get a meal at men-only shelters in Boston. Today, Rosie’s Place provides 12,000 to 14,000 poor and homeless women with services that enable them to live dignified, fuller, and happier lives. Support includes meals (100,000 served each year), a bustling food pantry, and overnight shelter. Advocacy services are central to help women navigate an increasingly complex labyrinth of support including legal, educational, job and credit counseling, and mental health assistance.

When I talked with Sue Marsh, Executive Director of Rosie’s Place, shortly before the fund-raising event, she told me why she thinks Rosie’s Place is unique.

“We do things because they are the right thing to do rather than because someone tells us what to do. It’s a community that’s based on the principals of justice and unconditional love. We not only talk about those values, but we work hard to live by them.”

The agency combines direct support for individuals backed by policy-driven efforts. For example, one current initiative is focused on simplifying Massachusetts state benefits processes. By eliminating redundancies agencies can deliver faster assistance to people in need while saving money for the state. At the same time, Rosie’s Place provides training, workshops, and other resources to help women build the skills they need to advocate for themselves in an increasingly self-service world.

To say that the afternoon event was inspirational is an understatement. We listened as a series of women, on video or through speakers on stage, told stories of heartbreaking loss followed by triumphal reclamation – each narrative was at once individual and universal. But this is much more than just overcoming great odds. Novelist Alice Hoffman, who introduced the featured speaker, Cheryl Strayed, characterized Rosie’s as a place where a woman can walk through a door into a new life. In her keynote, Strayed drew many parallels between her personal story and what happens at Rosie’s Place.

Strayed’s Number One bestselling memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, details her 1,100-mile hike from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border and the personal struggles that compelled her to take the journey. Following the untimely death of her beloved mother at age 44, Strayed descended into a self-destructive lifestyle that included drugs and promiscuity. Here’s how she described her life-changing moment.

“When my mom died I didn’t think I could take another step. But what I learned is that she had given me all the tools to save myself. It occurred to me three years later that I had completely done the wrong thing. I had actually dishonored my mother by ruining my life. The only way to honor her would be by becoming the person she raised me to be. It was a simple realization, and that’s when I decided to take the journey into the wild.”

Strayed’s book is being made into a movie slated for release this December starring Reese Witherspoon. But what she wanted to talk about yesterday was the epiphany she had when her hike ended at a place called “The Bridge of the Gods,” (no kidding). It was on this spot that she connected her past, present, and future, all drawn from the legacy of her mother’s love.

“Rosie’s Place is that kind of bridge. When you’ve had your life ruptured by loss, you have to find a sense of safety and home in the world. That’s the most powerful thing that Rosie’s Place can give its guests. There are real resources too, but it’s the presence of an organization that says to people, you’re welcome and you matter here and we treat you with kindness and respect that really matters.”

Sitting in the audience, I thought that Strayed’s characterization of her hike as “tremendously fun and horribly hard” could be a metaphor for life. “The only way we can do it is one step at a time. Every step hurt, and every step took me in the direction I wanted to go. Change is made by the very simple act of the micro rather than the macro.”

During times when hype and scale turn heads, it’s good to remember that meaningful transformation is often propelled by that first, simple step forward.

Follow me @smgaler

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