Music can stir our emotions and push us to act. Just ask Deborah Koenigsberger. A huge Stevie Wonder fan, she attended all seven of his concerts at Radio City Music Hall in 1995. The lyrics of one song about homelessness, “Take the Time Out,” kept playing in her head:
Lying out on the street, there’s a man
That needs somewhere to sleep
And a bag-lady digs through the trash
Hoping to find something to eat.
At the time, Deborah was living on Madison Avenue and walking to work each day through Madison Square Park where she would see the homeless, including a woman and her little girl, living in cardboard boxes. “That song resonated with me because there were all these people on the streets,” she says. “I never thought I could do anything about it, but the song says every one of us can effect a change if we just do a little bit. So I thought I could do a little bit in my neighborhood.”
Years later, that “little bit” has turned into the non-profit Hearts of Gold with an annual budget approaching $500,000 whose mission is to help homeless women become self-sufficient. The charity holds fundraisers and also operates The Thrifty HoG, an upscale resale boutique that sells gently used clothing and vintage finds for children, women, and men, as well as home décor items. Besides helping to support Hearts of Gold, The Thrifty HoG provides on-the-job training for women in transition.
No one is more surprised at the turn her life has taken than Deborah herself. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, she came to New York with her family when she was ten. She graduated from Cardinal Spellman High School and New York University. Fluent in French, Italian, and German, her dream was to become a simultaneous translator at the United Nations. “I got the job at the U.N., worked for two weeks, and didn’t love it,” she says. What Deborah did love was fashion. In college and earlier on, she had done some modeling and also worked in a boutique. “So I left the U.N., went back to the boutique, and, as they say, the rest is history.”
Today, Deborah owns and operates Noir et Blanc…bis (photo, above) on West 23rd Street, going to France twice a year for the shows. But she also manages to devote considerable time to Hearts of Gold. On July 9, Hearts of Gold will sponsor its first walkathon beginning on Riverside Drive and 83rd Street and finishing in Riverside Park with a treasure hunt and other games for the children and their mothers who participate in the program. All monies raised will go into the charity’s coffers. Deborah hopes to make the walkathon an annual event.
Deborah’s efforts to tackle New York’s homeless problem began on a modest level. After being inspired by Stevie Wonder’s song, she began volunteering at a neighborhood drop in center run by The Partnership for The Homeless. She helped out a fair amount and eventually was named to the center’s board. Physicians from Beth Israel came in to see elderly patients, but Deborah was concerned that they were examined out in the open. She raised $100,000 to build a partition to afford the patients some privacy.
Bobbi Brown, who was just about to launch her own company, was also volunteering at the shelter, doing seminars giving the women makeup tips and supplying them with products. She asked Deborah to talk with the women about what to wear, including how to dress on job interviews. “And so I went and I did this seminar with her and it was fascinating,” she says.
Deborah began to realize that there were kids living in the shelter, too. With Christmas fast approaching, she came up with the idea of throwing a holiday party for the children. The organization which ran the shelter at the time provided Christmas gifts for the children but only had a budget of $1 per child. “For me, it was like, Christmas is Christmas!” says Deborah. She decided to “really blow up Christmas,” and buy all the kids in the shelter several really nice gifts.
“I was really Santa Claus,” Deborah says with a laugh. “The kids were so excited because each one got like four gifts.” But Deborah also remembers seeing a very painful situation. A little boy showed his mom his gifts and she responded: “So what? No one got anything for me.” Deborah had a wake-up call. “I knew how to appreciate because I had an amazing childhood,” she says, noting that on Christmas morning she had so many gifts she couldn’t even open them all. “These moms didn’t have that. So I quickly decided that things had to change.”
She set her sights on Easter. She contacted Ivana Trump and asked her to provide gifts for the moms. “When the kids got their Easter baskets, I wanted to have something for the moms,” she says. That strategy, according to Deborah, changed everything. “There was this happy exchange going on between the moms and the children. Everybody was happy! That was the recipe.”
Soon, however, Deborah was a victim of her own success. She was providing gifts for nearly 100 mothers and more than 200 children. “To buy for everybody got to be really expensive,” she says. So she widened her circle of donors, tapping her best friends from high school and college. “I would say, `Christmas is coming and is going to cost $15,000. Everybody’s throwing in $500.’ So that’s how the concept started.”
Deborah decided she wanted to raise funds on a higher level and consulted with the Red Cross. When the organization could not promise to earmark those funds for the specific programs she was interested in, Deborah decided she would create a nonprofit vehicle to raise and manage the funds. Hearts of Gold was born.
The group’s first fundraiser brought in $3,000. Helmsley Spear, at the time owned the building where Noir et Blanc..bis is located, and the real estate company generously donated its lobby space for the event. “We got celebrities involved and it was wonderful,” she says. Hearts of Gold began a Lunch and Learn program at the shelter where moms could come in, have lunch, and listen to a speaker. When the non-profit’s budget permitted, it added another shelter on the Lower East Side that was run by a Catholic nun. Deborah also adopted another shelter on the West Side that was under the guidance of Women in Need. “So now we were running these programs,” she says. “It was so cool.”
Deborah was a constant juggler, managing Noir et Blanc, raising her two sons, and growing Hearts of Gold. “I was always trying to figure out how to be in 20,000 places,” she says. The organization needed structure and a staff and Deborah alone could no longer afford to keep everything running with a few fundraisers and the kindness of friends. Fortunately, the cause attracted wonderful board members and benefactors. But, there was a constant need for more funds.
“I decided to go to the public and do what I know how to do which is retail,” she says. “I have access to goods because of my clients and my friends. My kids were in private schools in the city and I had all these venues where I could get free, amazing things.” Deborah’s idea was to open a thrift store so she would no longer be counting on one person to write her a check. “Anyone who comes into the store may spend $20,” with the money going right to Hearts of Gold. So The Thrifty HoG was born.
Where did the name Thrifty HoG come from? She laughs. “I dreamt up the name. I needed a name that people would know it was a thrift store and I didn’t want to call it The Golden Heart’s Thrift Store.” That Christmas, Deborah went to Germany and in a market found a statue of a golden hog with wings. She knew she had found the store’s identity. “She is my mascot,” Deborah says. She is now looking for a company to make golden hog piggy banks that she can sell in the store.
Deborah says the goal is to have two moms working full time in the store (photo, above), giving them work experience that they can use on a resume to find jobs, while also paying them a fair salary. “The store is making enough money so that we can start to do that,” she says. The idea is for proceeds from the store to eventually cover Hearts of Gold’s overhead—paying for an accountant, support staff, and other expenses—so that whatever comes in from fundraising can go to support the actual programs. Hearts of Gold’s major gala in the fall nets around $300,000, while a smaller event in the spring brings in $30,000. She hopes that the walkathon will bring in another $50,000. In between, there are gifts from friends and benefactors.
Deborah, of course, is never satisfied, hoping to double the charity’s budget to more than $1 million. “I want to be able to pay the moms who work in our store a competitive salary,” she says. “I also want to be able to offer more scholarships for moms and kids to go to school.” Once families move out of the shelters, they often are mostly forced to move to high-risk neighborhoods with substandard schools. “It’s such a tragedy because, as a result, you can’t break this cycle,” she says. “I want to have them at least go to parochial school where there is an element of respect.”
Deborah and her “amazing, fabulous” husband, Thilo, a comptroller for Lufthansa Airlines, have been married for 20 years. Their son, Florian, has just completed his freshman year at Yale, and their younger son, Stephan, a student at the Summit School in Queens, is a swimmer and being heavily recruited by top tier colleges for next year. From the time they were young, both boys understood the need to give back. “A lot of my friends are trying to instill in their kids this sense of philanthropy, sharing and giving, not just ‘me, me, me,’” Deborah says. “When a parent tells a child, ‘I’m giving your doll to Sally in the shelter,’ it doesn’t mean a lot. But when that child actually meets Sally, the act of giving has more impact,” she says.
Deborah still indulges her love of travel, either for business or pleasure. “I do a lot of traveling, as much as I can,” she says. “Whenever I can get on a plane, I’m there.”
For more information, go to the Hearts of Gold website.
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Shop: Noir et Blanc…bis, The Thrifty HoG, and Paris!
Favorite Place to Eat: PUNCH on Broadway and Gramercy Tavern
Favorite New York Sight: Flatiron Building
Favorite New York Moment: Meeting Stevie Wonder at The Grand Hyatt in October, 2001
What You Love About New York: The energy and multi-cultural ambience
What You Hate About New York: The dead summer heat