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Women Bisnow
April 29, 2008


This issue of Washington Women is presented by
Reznick Group:
"Building Business Value"


By Karin Tanabe for Bisnow on Business


Pancakes. For some, the word conjures up a Norman Rockwell image. For Rebecca Wagner, Executive Director of Interfaith Works, pancakes bring back memories of labor strikes. “We were poor but we didn’t know it,” says Wagner, who grew up one of six children on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “There were no strike funds at that time, you just went without. My father was a union man at the railroad, and when they were on strike we ate pancakes. Our value was to share with the community. We shared those pancakes.” A few decades later, Wagner is sharing a lot more than that.


In 1982, Wagner started the first shelter for homeless women in Montgomery County. “I stayed home after my boys were born and started a Thursday morning bible study and sewing society.” The experience inspired the idea for the shelter, which Wagner ran as a volunteer through Rockville Presbyterian for eight years before she moved to local government. Approached by Senator Paul Sarbanes’s staff, Wagner was very hesitant going into her interview, as she had not yet completed her college degree. “I thought if anything, it’s an opportunity to sit down with the Senator and discuss housing issues. I talked to him about community needs and at the end of the conversation he hired me.” Wagner served as the Senator’s field representative, responsible for community relations for over four years.


Wagner with colleagues from Interfaith Works, which operates with an astonishingly low 4.8% overhead. She says most NGOs average 18-22%. “There are those who would say we are disinvesting in our infrastructure. But 95 cents of your dollar is going to the cause.”


After several years in the private sector, in 1999 Wagner committed herself to poverty issues and joined Interfaith Works, 140 congregations of all faiths working together for the poor in Montgomery County. “My father worked as hard as he could to support his family and he was able to. That’s not possible here and that’s what’s wrong with this county. 50,000 people in Montgomery County live in poverty.” Interfaith Works serves 33,000 people with emergency shelters, housing and mentors who become friends with a homeless family and spend a year with them. It also provides traditional emergency support, including cash loans. When the loans are paid back, the group serves as a credit reference.


“We have capacity for 14 languages with a staff of 77 people,” says Wagner with members of her polyglot staff. “Many who come to us trust the faith community more than the government. Not because they don’t have documentation but because their history with government in other countries is not a good one.”


“We just went through a name change after 35 years,” says Wagner. “We used to be the Community Ministry of Montgomery Country, but people confuse ministry with Christian. We’re Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Christian, you name it.” In September the group will be sponsoring a three-day community discussion about the new face of poverty (which includes more working people than ever before). “I would love for us to go out of business, for there to be no poverty here. If it can’t be done in Montgomery County, it can’t be done anywhere.”

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