When Bernice Bishop started the Women Empowering Women Ministries, she was fueled by a desire to feed as many hungry women and their families throughout Baltimore as she could.
After all, she knew what hungry felt like.
“We grew up in poverty, a single-parent home in the city,” says Bishop, who is the seventh of eight children. “As a child, I watched my mom go door-to-door to gather up enough money so we could have Aunt Jemima pancakes and King syrup for dinner. It was really hard.”
After a tough childhood, a catapult into adulthood at 14 when she gave birth to her own daughter, and a long struggle with drug use and alcohol abuse, Bishop got clean, turned her life around for her daughter and determined that her purpose in life was to help others.
She started by bringing hot meals to the homeless camped out in a park in downtown Baltimore. She’d come every Saturday, without fail, with tables full of chicken and rice and Little Debbie oatmeal creme pies. On Sundays, she’d come back and invite people to church.
In 2005, her mobile soup kitchen became “official.” Bishop became incorporated and partnered with the Maryland Food Bank and ever since, the Women Empowering Women Ministries has been providing women in need with enough food to temporarily feed their own families as well as essentials such as laundry detergent, toothpaste, shampoo and deodorant.
Bishop will use her Community Fellowship to expand her food-and-necessities pantry into the Women Empowering Women Education and Outreach Center. The expansion will take the center to the next level—not just handing out essential items but now also teaching women essential life skills.
“People always say that they want to teach people things so they won’t need assistance from others. But if I’m hungry and my child needs Pampers and we don’t have toothpaste, then it’s going to be hard to get my full attention,” Bishop says. “You have to holistically help people.”
Once immediate needs are met, Bishop says, she and her volunteers can start addressing the roots of women’s problems: poverty, unemployment, homelessness, destructive behavior and addiction, among other things. The center will provide education, support and training opportunities for women who either come to the food pantry for help or are referred from other agencies or groups.
Bishop will add topics that include financial and budget management, credit repair, GED preparation, parenting and family restoration, and small business planning to the complement of services she currently provides women.
During the eight-week program, the women will first help operate the Women Empowering Women food pantry and, afterwards, Bishop will entrust them to run the nonprofit’s secondhand store. Both experiences will teach valuable customer service and business operation skills, which should translate into jobs for program graduates.
“We’re looking to take all the excuses away from the women who come into the program,” Bishop says. “We want to teach them to help themselves.”
Bishop knows this kind of support and education can work. She is living proof. Once she made the decision to focus seriously on her own treatment and recovery process—and to shield her daughter from the life she once lived—the trajectory of her life changed.
Today, Bishop’s own daughter has two post-secondary degrees; her granddaughter started college a year early.
“If I can just get these women to believe that the sky is the limit,” Bishop says, “that they can reach their ultimate goals—and we are here to walk them through it—I believe we can change a lot of lives.”