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Please note, as of September 1, 2020, the fee for engaging each speaker is $150.
The “Faces of Homelessness” Speakers' Bureau is comprised of extraordinary people who are committed to sharing their personal and powerful experiences of homelessness with others. From homeless activists to riveting poets, all have found a unique way for their voices to be heard.
Members of the NCH Speakers' Bureau
Karen Ennis | Rachelle Ellison | Penny Callan | Pamela Reese | Candi Darley
Donald Whitehead | James Davis | John Harrison, Jr | Dana Woolfolk | Chuma Coughman | Abdul Ayub | Kelvin Lassiter | David Pirtle | Alexander "Alex" Branch | Robert Warren | Don L. Gardner | Chon Gotti Smith
Karen Ennis: Karen is a Native Washingtonian, the mother of 3 and a grandmother. She started in Catholic schools, graduated from DC Public and Interior Design school. In 2012 she graduated from Howard University with a BA degree in Interior Design, and is a member of the International Golden Key Honour Society. Karen is an Advocate for Sacred Authority, a group of women who have overcome drug addiction. Karen has been a member of NCH Speakers Bureau since 2013. "I have been through more struggles that most people can't deal with, but with God I have been able to overcome them”. Karen’s next goal for herself is to get her Masters in Interior Design. “A STORM CAME THROUGH MY LIFE, AND I HAVE SURVIVED”....
Donald Whitehead: Donald Hugh Whitehead Jr. is recognized as a leading expert on homelessness, currently serving as the President of the Board of Directors of the National Coalition for the Homeless, and having served as the Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, Executive Director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, Assistant Director at St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore, Program Director at Ohio Valley Goodwill, Grant Manager at Goodwill of Greater Washington and Director of Communications at Greenpeace Ohio. Donald served two terms as President of the board and currently serves as a member of the Board of Directors for the National Coalition for the Homeless, two terms on the Board of Directors for Faces and Voices of Recovery and two terms on the Georgetown Center for Cultural Competency.
James Davis: Born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. James began working with the National Coalition for the Homeless in 2003. James earned an Associate’s degree from DeVry Institute in Electronics and Computer Technology. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Greenbelt, Maryland to take a job working on the space shuttle program. A self described workaholic, James later worked for BAE Systems, a job that would take him around the world. Despite his success, the passing of both his parents in a short period of time brought depression and stress upon James. This led to the eventual separation from his wife and his experience with homelessness. He couch surfed with relatives for a while before living outdoors. Hearing the horror stories of shelter life, James was reluctant to seek help. He eventually sought shelter at the Central Union Mission giving him a sense of consistency before finding stable housing in 2007.
John Harrison, Jr.: John began working with the National Coalition for the Homeless in 2003.Born in Detroit, John moved with his family to the D.C. area when he was ten. Upon graduating from high school, he began working and did quite well for himself. Around age forty, he experienced a series of misfortunes. John lost his job when his company was bought out, and soon after, his home burned down. He stayed in his car for a period of time before he began living on the streets. For John, homelessness was an exhausting experience. “It was hard to look beyond whatever day it was.” John graduated from Anne Arundel Community College in May 2017 with a Transfer Studies Degree and a Certificate in Electronics. He is currently working as a program coordinator for Nick's Place, a transitional home for young men in recovery from substance use disorder
Dana Woolfolk: A native Washingtonian, Dana was raised in a loving home, but he fell victim to a lifestyle consumed with drugs and alcohol. Dana began working with the National Coalition for the Homeless in 2003. “I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s and in my social circle, recreational drug use was acceptable. Had I known that I would become a full blown addict I would never have tried that first one.” For many years, Dana owned and operated a successful plumbing, heating and electrical contracting company. “After a while, I couldn’t work. I needed to devote all my time and attention to getting and using drugs.” Finally, Dana lost everything including the close ties he had with his family and friends. He ended up living on the streets of D.C. and Northern Virginia for over three years. Dana found help through a rehabilitation program and was eventually placed in transitional housing before buying his own home. After working as a therapist, Dana is currently the Homeless Services/PATH Coordinator for the City of Alexandria.
Rachelle Ellison: Rachelle grew up in West Virginia, where she experienced both physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her parents. She was originally diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder at the age of 7 and started stealing prescription drugs by the time she was 12. Rachelle moved through mental institutions and foster homes throughout West Virginia before being emancipated from her parents. Rachelle became addicted to cocaine and engaged in prostitution, eventually being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She continued to struggle with addiction, falling in and out of homelessness as a result of drugs and domestic violence issues. She entered a detox program in 2014 and received her high school diploma at the age of 46. Today she is a Certified Peer Specialist and a qualified medical office administrative assistant. Rachelle joined the Speakers’ Bureau in 2017. “Never underestimate a recovering addict. We fight for our lives everyday in ways most people will never understand”.
Chuma Coughman: Chuma, a born and raised DC native attended DC Public Schools throughout. He became homeless at a young age due to abuse and an unstable relationship at home. He found himself couch surfing from place to place for many years. Finally finding stability from an opportunity in 2016 which helped him find a home, among many other great things. Now, this young man his found comfort, a new start of positivity in helping others through the National Coalition for the Homeless, which he joined in 2016. Chuma is currently working on music and writing projects.Writing and supporting stories based off of Homelessness, Mental Illness and the general help of finding ones-self. His Motto of “NEVER GIVE UP” is always a reminder of pushing forward to better yourself.
Abdul Ayub: Abdul was born and raised in New York and attended public school until dropping out at the age of 15. He still couldn’t read. He learned to read at the Street Academy in New York and at 19 he moved to DC. Homeless and having no job experience he became a street vendor. He was good at that and sales were good and rewarding. So rewarding that he started using drugs and had no time to vend.Drugs came first. After years of homelessness and abusing himself using drugs he sought help and turned his life around. First was finding a good place to live. He received his GED in 2014 and joined the National Coalition for the Homeless in 2017. He’s so happy to have joined NCH as he’s afforded the opportunity to give back and to always remember where he came from. Having become very interested in the Chinese people and their culture, Abdul has made and continues to travel to China. Now, not only does Abdul speak Chinese, he teaches English to Chinese immigrants and also teaches Tai’Chi.
David Pirtle: David was born in Colorado, raised in Illinois, and spent most of his life prior to becoming homeless in Phoenix, Az, where he worked as a restaurant manager. In his late twenties, David developed schizoaffective disorder and became homeless as a result of his illness when he was 29. While experiencing homelessness, he spent the majority of his time in New York City and then Washington, DC, where he eventually found assistance through the city's pilot Housing First project. Since 2006 he has worked with NCH in various capacities, and continues to speak on the issues of homelessness, poverty, and mental health.
Penny Callan: Penny was born in Washington DC and raised in Springfield VA. She suffered many traumatic events throughout our life that led her to lose 4 children to foster care. Abused, molested at 9, raped at 13. Twice married into abusive relationships and later homeless for 10 years. Becoming homeless ended up being a blessing in disguise, because she got the help that she needed for PTSD. She earned her GED in 1994 and graduated from Potomac College in 2007. In 2008 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and spiraled into deep depression. Having beat cancer, Penny now takes part in Project Peer Women Knowledge Work Group and has been a Speaker/Advocate with the National Coalition for the Homeless since 2009
Pamela Reese: Pamela was born and raised in Washington DC. Both of her parents were addicted to drugs. There was a lot of abuse in the household. Pam started using drugs at 13 yrs. old. By the age of 15, she was homeless, moving from house to house, being neglected and abused. She started sleeping in abandoned buildings and/or on rooftops. Although addicted to drugs and homeless, she had two kids and moved to North Carolina. Things were good for a while, but again, she became homeless. Sleeping with her kids in a crack house and weighing 98 lbs. In seeking help for her addiction, she found out that she had been suffering from a mental illness for years and was able to get help. Today, she has 26 yrs. clean and continues to get help for her mental illness. She has been able to adopt two children with disabilities and have a beautiful relationship with her birth children.
Kelvin Lassiter: Kelvin was raised in a middle class family in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Life challenged him early, lack of communication within the family, and home foreclosure. The death of his mother sent Kelvin into a very dark space fueling and uncovering drug addiction. After nearly three years of homelessness, it along with legal trouble had taken it's toll. Just when Kelvin considered giving up, a minister entered his life that believed in him and decided to help him. There is no shortage of praise when Kelvin speaks about Reverend J.C. Melvin. He worked with Kelvin and shaped his focus to becoming a productive man in society. Now being rightfully restored, Kelvin embraced several meaningful relationships that shaped the direction of his recovery. In 2009, Kelvin began his homeless advocacy with the National Coalition for the Homeless. Also in 2009, he wrote and self-published two self help books. Today, Kelvin owns and operates a black car service company. Kelvin and his wife of 15 years currently reside in Washington, DC.
Candi Darley: Candi was born in Colon’ Panama and raised in Washington DC. Graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts before moving on to graduate from George Washington University. Married into an abusive relationship at 26 to a military man. Acquired fibromyalgia and became ill. After her divorce while dealing with her illness, Candi became homeless. Candi now and has been is a Speaker/Advocate with the National Coalition for the Homeless since 2010.
Alexander "Alex" Branch: Alex was placed into foster care shortly after being born in 1994 and then adopted at the age of 2. However, due to lingering resentment about his family situation, he left and became homeless. Alex spent time in shelters, couch surfing, and on the street, but always remained determined to overcome his homelessness. Eventually Alex found help through the internet, connecting online with a program that placed him into transitional housing. After a couple of years of waiting, Alex qualified for a voucher to assist him with permanent housing. Alex has been a speaker since May of 2019.
Don Gardner: A Washington DC native, Don Gardner experienced homelessness after leaving incarceration in 2006. He ended up in the Franklin School Shelter, a now closed facility, but he was driven out by unsanitary conditions and poor treatment. Afterward he spent his nights sleeping in the park. "State troopers used to run us out," Gardner recalls. It was especially hard holding down a job while trying to bathe and get enough sleep. Since getting back off the street, Gardner has organized events for people experiencing homelessness in the park where he used to sleep. Don has been speaking with NCH for the Homeless for over 12 years.
As of March 2020, presentations have been moved to virtual platforms. All presentations will remain virtual until it is safe to gather in large groups and travel.
Speakers are able to provide:
- An introduction to homeless statistics and policy
- Moderation of discussions around homelessness
- Relate their personal experience losing their home, and if relevant, regaining housing
- Answer audience questions, and/or provide informal conversation with audience members
Please plan to give each speaker 10-20 minutes to relate their story, adding time if you would like for them to give an overview of homeless stats or policy.
The Speakers' Bureau has worked with a variety of faith groups, student organizations and social action service-oriented groups with presentations ranging from full high school assemblies to smaller panel presentations. We can be flexible and can adjust our presentation format to fit your group's schedule.
Since 1999, the DC-based Speakers' Bureau has given over over 5,000 presentations, speaking to over 75,000 people.
The lack of interaction between different groups of our society, combined with impersonal or inaccurate descriptions of homelessness posed by the media and public officials, contributes to a distancing of those who have housing from those who do not. As a result, homelessness is perceived as an abstract social problem. We believe the Speakers’ Bureau is an important part of the fight to end homelessness in America as it links the many different levels of our society together and challenges commonly held misconceptions. Our “Faces of Homelessness” Speakers’ Bureau accomplishes this by:
- Putting a human face on homelessness.
- Creating better understanding on a very difficult and complex problem one person at a time.
- Challenging the myths of homelessness with the actual realities of homelessness.
- Promoting, supporting, and facilitating dialogue between housed and homeless Americans to effectively address this growing problem.
- Building public awareness of homelessness on a local and national level.
This unique and necessary approach to addressing homelessness establishes a significant platform for those whom homelessness affects directly to talk personally about their experiences while advocating for themselves and others. Ultimately, The Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau seeks to build bridges with the rest of society so that we may work cooperatively to end this disgrace called homelessness.
The National Coalition for the Homeless’ Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau conducts presentations at schools, places of worship, conferences, for-profit businesses, non-profit organizations, and special events both in and out of the Greater Washington DC metropolitan area.
If you are interested in engaging with one of our talented Speakers' Bureau leaders, please fill out a request form. Once NCH receives your event form, a staff member will follow up with you to confirm that we are available at the date and time you have requested.
- Lesson Plan - Beyond Stigma and Stereotypes: Understanding Homelessness (ADL)
Faces of Homelessness II
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