In the midst of one of the nastiest nor’easters NYC has had so far this year, Stephanie McGraw, founder of W.A.R.M., accompanies two clients to two different facilities in downtown Manhattan. W.A.R.M. is short for We All Really Matter, which is a nonprofit that aids survivors of domestic violence. It’s the kind of day on which most people would choose to stay inside their apartments if they could. Not McGraw, though. Despite the wintry mix, hail and strong winds, she’s determined to show up for these women who need her help.
McGraw starts out at Surrogate’s Court. She’s there to follow up on a case that’s been ongoing for the last several years in which Margie*, an elderly woman who was abused by her nephew, fights to keep her apartment. Next, she heads to the District Attorney’s office to help Kawana* with a sexual harassment and wrongful termination complaint. All this after a morning of classes. McGraw is enrolled at Borough of Manhattan Community College getting her undergraduate degree. She’s in college for the first time, and after only getting her GED a few years ago, at age 50.
“I gave birth to this because going through my own experience, I saw the horrors. And I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t ever want to see another woman go through what I went through.’” — Stephanie McGraw
“That was my gift to myself,” McGraw explained, “because life, the abusive relationships, my lifestyle, my environment, the home that I grew up in, didn’t support education, so I didn’t get one.” She started out going to school for human services, but soon changed her major to theater. Eventually, she would like to create a “healing through the arts” type of program.
Stephanie McGraw is one of those rare individuals who is always working tirelessly to impact people’s lives and futures, no matter the uphill battle. That’s why we partnered with TIAA to share her inspiring story, and to celebrate the TIAA Difference Maker 100 — a program celebrating individuals like McGraw who are making a difference in the nonprofit community.
W.A.R.M. is an organization that helps survivors of domestic violence transition out of abusive relationships and reclaim their lives, both emotionally and physically. This is done through regular support meetings, intake sessions, direct client support and more.
McGraw started the program in 2010, and, as is the case with so many nonprofits, W.A.R.M. grew out of her own experience. She struggled through a series of abusive relationships, and while mourning the last one, the word warm suddenly came to her one day, as if by magic. She describes the process that followed as akin to bringing a child into the world. “I gave birth to this because going through my own experience, I saw the horrors. And I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t ever want to see another woman go through what I went through.’”
It quickly became apparent to her that W.A.R.M. wasn’t only about women, however. It was about the whole universe, hence the A in W.A.R.M. for “all.” Early on, she started getting calls from men who’d heard about W.A.R.M. and needed help, so she opened up the space to include them, as well.
Once the groundwork was laid, a determined McGraw took to the streets with her mission. She went to storefronts and to politicians inquiring about space. She asked friends to help with fliers.
McGraw speaks openly about wanting to be the one to bring this type of organization to her community. “Because there was not anyone that looked like me…a black woman, verbally speaking about or against domestic violence. There was no one openly talking about it,” she said. Many of the women involved in the organization are survivors of domestic violence themselves, creating an atmosphere of empathy and trust, and a network of “I’ve been there, too, sisters,” as McGraw refers to them.
W.A.R.M. is small, just a handful of volunteers, including McGraw who has never been paid for her work. The nonprofit is based in an incubator space at Goddard Riverside Community Center in Harlem, which was donated by former Assemblyman Keith Wright. Though she’s grateful, she’s ready for a new space, one in which W.A.R.M. can grow. “This is the year!” she exclaimed.
In addition to being W.A.R.M.’s founder, McGraw is a “navigator,” one of the organization’s three. What that means is she helps women (and men) quite literally navigate through difficult situations in which they need assistance. Dealing with bureaucracy is often complicated and can be difficult to figure out without help. And in situations in which former abusers are present, clients may not want to be alone. For reasons like these, navigators accompany clients to court, to the hospital, to doctor’s appointments. Sometimes they’re there for support, walking with clients side by side, and other times literally to be a voice for someone who can’t advocate for him or herself.
“Being in this program, it helped me to have some hope,” Margie told HuffPost, “instead of being hopeless.” She added, “She was able to help me, because the other programs, they couldn’t…Stephanie was the only one who could [actually] come in and help.”
Whereas other organizations might let these women fall through the cracks, W.A.R.M. goes above and beyond. “We walk with these women, we don’t just leave them dry like some of these other organizations…Some of the other organizations will tell you to go [somewhere for help], but we don’t tell them to go, we go with them because we’re navigators,” McGraw said with fervor. “We follow up with these women, we do aftercare,” she continued. “This is a lifetime connection…so they know they’re never alone.”
“To see the transformations of some of these women when they spread their wings and start taking care of themselves and living their lives and taking their lives back, it’s joy beyond anything I can ever imagine.” — Stephanie McGraw
McGraw goes on visits like these often because women are in great need, as she explained. Intake takes place twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays, and it’s there that clients’ needs are assessed, and safety and housing plans are put into place. Each month, members and newcomers gather in W.A.R.M.’s space for meetings, which they attend for emotional support, to listen and share stories and, of course, to learn. There’s a different topic each time — this month’s is “Recognizing the Signs of Abuse.” There are annual events, too, like the Body, Mind and Spirit Conference in April, and Spa Night in May in honor of Mother’s Day. In the backyard, there’s a Healing Garden from April through October where clients are encouraged to “get to the root” of their troubles by digging out roots and planting new seeds, a lovely metaphor for new beginnings.
Despite the organization’s unique successes, W.A.R.M. still struggles. Not having enough resources and working on a shoestring budget are among W.A.R.M.’s biggest obstacles. McGraw believes W.A.R.M. could reach a wider base if given the opportunity to get the word out to more people, which she would like to do. Still, through her extreme resilience, resourcefulness and sheer will, McGraw finds ways to make things work. She relies on donations and her connections to get things done.
Beth*, a survivor and volunteer, told HuffPost that what makes McGraw different is how welcoming she is. She “has managed to do so much with so little just by force of her will. It’s so impressive that you kind of want to help.”
While McGraw is always on the go, tending to clients’ immediate needs, she also has her eye on the future. Down the line, she dreams of W.A.R.M. becoming a franchise with chapters all across the country. This would include transitional housing for battered women, replete with training programs to help them successfully re-enter the world.
To boot, McGraw would like to see domestic violence discussed in the workplace, the same way sexual harassment videos are used now. She’d like to see domestic violence go from a shame-based epidemic to “what it really is, a crime.” And ultimately, though it may sound controversial, McGraw would like to see domestic violence spoken about in elementary schools. She’s still trying to figure out what that looks like exactly, though when the idea of writing a children’s book came up, she yelped with excitement.
“When I was in elementary school, if I would have heard someone come…and discuss that, it wouldn’t have taken me 30 years to hear it in an emergency room with a social worker saying, ‘This is domestic violence.’” she said. “There were no names for what I’d seen and what I experienced as a child. That’s what I would really like to see,” she added, visibly a bit shaken.
With W.A.R.M., McGraw feels like she has found her sole purpose. “I do it because it is my duty…I found what I have been brought to this universe to do.” In the lobby of Surrogate’s Court, with Margie close by, McGraw elaborated, “To see the transformations of some of these women when they spread their wings and start taking care of themselves and living their lives and taking their lives back, it’s joy beyond anything I can ever imagine.”
“Sometimes,” she added, “I just don’t have the words.”
*Only first names, or fictitious names, have been used to protect anonymity.
All over the United States, people like Stephanie McGraw are working to make positive and lasting change in the lives of others. We’ve partnered with TIAA to celebrate its centennial — 100 years of helping people doing good do well — and to put the spotlight on visionaries whose inspirational work is shaping the next century. To learn more about recommending someone, go here: www.tiaadifferencemaker100.org.
Words by Jesse Sposato; Photos by Kenya Bravo