Prior to founding the Abundant Children and Family Services Agency, Michelle Watkins herself was homeless from 2015 to 2016. Instead of letting her circumstances get the best of her, she rose up, kept the faith, and let her concern for others supersede her own needs. Watkins is able to keenly see needs that others may miss because she has experienced needs herself.
“People wouldn’t expect a homeless person to be thinking about starting up a business, but that was my strength. I knew I was going through [hardships] for a reason,” she explains. “God kept business as my focus. I wanted to open up a place where homeless people could go in the daytime.” She envisioned a space that would offer educational classes as well as a place where people could simply exhale.
Watkins began by researching homeless shelters and day sites at the People’s Resource Center and the library. Once PADS helped Watkins find a home for herself, she utilized the startup services at NaperLaunch to solidify a business plan and obtain 501(c)3 status. But a couple of weeks after the nonprofit opened, the pandemic hit and her clientele’s needs abruptly changed.
“Here I am preparing for this homeless day site, but people just were asking for food. So I thought: If they want food, we are going to make food happen. That’s what launched the food pantry,” she explains. Her husband, Harold, took another job to pay for the Wheaton lease and they started purchasing food. “Because we weren’t familiar with grants, we bought the food ourselves. Everything was completely out of pocket.” As more families kept coming and the weather changed, they also began distributing hats, gloves, backpacks, and school supplies.
ACFSA’s pantry is now serving over 200 individuals per month. Ninety-five percent of them, who travel from all over Chicagoland to receive assistance, are living below the federal poverty line.
No matter who she is serving, Watkins’s heart always goes out to the children. With degrees in early childhood and special education, Watkins admits she’s a big kid at heart. She hosts an ongoing toy drive to make sure each homeless child has holiday and birthday gifts.
Currently, ACFSA is without a permanent location. When the agency’s landlord died of COVID-19, the Wheaton building was sold and the nonprofit had to vacate. Watkins is searching for a new location equipped with showers, washers, dryers, and space for educational classes. Eventually she hopes to be able to work with the construction industry to put homeless people into houses.
“Nobody desires to be homeless and nobody deserves to be homeless. I refuse to give up on these families,” she says. To donate or learn more, visit abundantcfsa.org.
Photo courtesy Michelle Watkins