Detroit, Michigan — Veronika Scott simply wanted to get an "A'' on her product design project. And she did — with an idea that has changed her life and those of countless others. Now, the coat she created that can transform into a sleeping bag is providing warmth to homeless people and jobs for many who used to be so themselves.
Scott, 25, built a nonprofit, the Empowerment Plan, which employs and trains homeless single parents to manufacture the coats that were her project for a class at Detroit's College for Creative Studies four years ago. She believed the coat could help the city's sizable homeless population during the brutal winters.
"If I get stuck out in the cold, I can stay warm," said Timothy Harrington, 34, who recently received one at a shelter in the northern suburb of Pontiac. "(Now) I've got something to sleep in, something comfortable."
Scott employs 19 women as full-time seamstresses and one man, who works in shipping and inventory.
"Homelessness is not a defining characteristic. It is not a permanent state of being," said Scott, who's looking to hire additional seamstresses to manufacture even more coats as interest in the product grows.
Arnetta Smith, one of the longest-tenured seamstresses, had been homeless for more than a year and had lost her job and car when she met Scott at a Detroit shelter.
"I'm independent now. I pay my own bills. I have a vehicle. I don't rely on the state for help anymore," said Smith, 38, who said she also helps support her son, a college student.
It costs $100 to sponsor one of the water-resistant and self-heating coats, which are distributed locally and also shipped across North America. The Empowerment Plan hopes to produce 6,500 coats this year. It made 4,500 a year ago.
"We get thousands of requests every year from people that want to purchase it for themselves — everybody from hunting/camping/fishing to doomsday prepping," said Scott, who would like to start a retail arm as part of an effort to help the organization become sustainable. It currently relies on donations from corporations, civic groups and individuals.
"If we have a whole arm that's based on producing a retail product, that is even more jobs," Scott said.