Harolyn Benjamin grew up in Los Angeles, and every year her mother would take the family shopping for school in downtown L.A.
“We would always go to the clothing district,” she said. “You had to pass Skid Row in order to do that.”
Skid Row has one of the largest populations of homeless people in the United States. She remembers thinking, "Why is it you have people in this country living in that kind of situation?"
“I knew early on that I would do something that would help people,” she said. “I didn’t quite know what that would look like.”
In 1998, Benjamin founded Women Who Care, an organization now based in Enterprise that provides counseling, financial planning, parenting help, and other assistance.
Benjamin’s journey to helping others didn’t take a direct or easy path.
“I grew up in a very chaotic household with a very abusive stepfather and not a whole of people who had great expectations for my life,” she said.
Her stepfather was a loan shark, and she watched as he got into drugs.
“We literally were held hostage when I was about 15 years old because he owed some people some money,” she said.
Things got better after she married, but Benjamin continued to take notice of people around her who struggled.
For years she and her husband saw young men who appeared to be lost in the system, not knowing which direction they needed to go.
They observed it in New Orleans after her family moved there from California.
“I would often say to my husband I cannot believe that people are living like this,” she recalled. “I cannot believe that people would do more for animals than it seemed like they wanted to do for human beings.”
The lack of compassion made her cry. Her husband told her not to cry. Do something about it.
“What can you do to make it better for people?” he asked.
She took up the challenge, adding her thought process has always been “dream big or go home.”
She bought construction paper in different colors and cut it into cards.
“None of them looked the same, and I wrote ‘Women Who Care’ and the phone number,” she said.
“I would go around and I would tell people about what I wanted to do and give these cards out.”
Benjamin had no experience in counseling or motivational speaking.
“I had never done anything like that,” she said. “I would often say all I had ever been was a mother. I had not graduated college and did not know what I would have to offer.”
They decided to put together a self-esteem class. She had been in touch with Les Brown, a motivational speaker. He had sent her his books and tapes and had given her permission to use them.
The program was going to be for youth, and somebody from the Times-Picayune newspaper “got ahold of it and decided they were going to run with it,” she said.
Benjamin went on the local CBS affiliate WWL-TV and talked about a workshop that technically did not exist.
“By the time I got home there were over 100 phone calls from women who were saying (they) needed to be in this workshop,” she said. “Again, I had no workshop, I had no material. I just kinda said if this was something I was going to do to build my self-esteem, what would I want that to look like?”
She went to the local technical college and they gave her the space. She went to Circuit City and bought one of their floor model typewriters for $35 and created material for the workshop.
“It was a six-week workshop and it was very successful, and then I started getting people to ask me about speaking and training,” she said.
Benjamin still wasn’t sure about herself.
“I allowed myself to stay in a place of 'I don’t really have a whole lot to offer' because I don’t have these tangible things that society says you must have in order to be successful,” she said. “But I knew that I had a desire, I knew that I had a husband and mother who believed in me.”
Soon Benjamin had an opportunity to speak at an empowerment session.
“I remember there were probably about four or five women there, and I looked up and one of the ladies was crying,” she said. “And my first thought was ‘Oh my gosh, I was so horrible that she just is in tears.’”
After the event the woman came to her and said “I just need you to know I wasn’t supposed to be here but I came anyway and you blessed me by telling your story.”
At that point Benjamin began to be offered opportunities like speaking at the National Conference of Black Mayors.
“My saying was if you fed me I would come,” she said.
She became a regular on TV and radio in New Orleans.
“I would have people say to me, ‘I heard you speak at a graduation,’ ‘I saw you at a church,’ ‘you told my story,’ ‘it was as if you had given voice to what I had been going through,’” Benjamin said.
It was a transformative experience.
“And so I thought, here I am, this person who has come out of this horrific childhood after my mother married my stepfather, who had always been told you’ll never be anything, never accomplish anything, and I had women and men telling me how much I had changed their lives,” she said.
More workshops were done, and they became popular.
“We had done things within the school system, both Orleans and Jefferson Parish, we worked with the Labor Department, I had been recognized as woman of the year in New Orleans,” Benjamin said.
She was nominated for President Bill Clinton’s Service Award and had written for two New Orleans newspapers.
“All of these great things were happening but I felt like there was more that I was supposed to be doing,” she said.
About that time Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Benjamin and her three children evacuated to Geneva where relatives lived. Her husband stayed in New Orleans to oversee the family home.
They planned to move back, but at one point Benjamin had an opportunity to find a home in Enterprise. She decided to stay in Alabama after much prayer “because everything that I do is based on prayer and keeping myself out of it.”
Her favorite saying every morning is “God help me to remember that this is not about me.”
She began to establish roots in the Wiregrass. She started a monthly lunch with a motivational element and began doing workshops.
“When you’re doing something for free, that’s not the norm,” she said. “People didn’t really know how to receive it, but I felt like this was what we were supposed to do.”
For four and a half years she worked for Christian Mission Centers “but I still continued to do all of those things I had been doing in Women Who Care.”
One was a workshop she created called “Why Won’t You Hire Me?” because that was what she was hearing from people who were having a difficult time finding a job.
“They would say ‘I put in so many applications, I’ve gone on interviews, why won’t they hire me?’ So we created this workshop, and the difference was we had the actual people who were in a position to make the decisions to do the workshops.”
Benjamin started seeing people getting hired on the spot at those sessions.
In 2016, Benjamin thought it was time to reopen Women Who Care.
“That first year we helped 418 people,” she said. For some organizations that may not seem like a lot, but Women Who Care has limited resources.
“This is an agency that doesn’t get any kind of regular funding or government assistance or grants,” Benjamin said. “To be able to change a person’s life in the midst of trying to figure out my own life has been very rewarding.”
She’s thankful for organizations that feed and clothe people “but the one thing that I know is that at some point people have to be able to have a self-worth, that they believe that they can do that for themselves. That’s what we do. We give them that sense of hope.”
From listening to the stories of people who are successful, Benjamin said the one common current is that there was somebody who believed that it was possible for them to do whatever it is that they were doing.
“I knew that there would be times that I would have to be a cheerleader for that person until they could stand on their own two feet,” she said. “I knew that there were times that I would have to listen to the stories of childhood and childhood abuse over and over again until that person was able to purge and get to a place of true forgiveness.”
Benjamin said she was honored to be nominated twice for Woman of the Year in Enterprise. She got it the second time, which gave Women Who Care more visibility.
“That second year we helped over 500 people,” she said. “Last year we helped 1,068 individuals through the program.”
As an advocate for the poor and underserved in the Enterprise area, Benjamin is following her heart.
“For me there is a level of faith that says that even in the midst of some of the most trying times, even in the midst of the some of the most compelling moments, moments that feel as if they’re going to smother you, I still believe that I’m serving and doing exactly what I was created to do,” she said. “I also tell people that I believe God saved me from my childhood so that I can then help somebody else.”
Benjamin said she tells people that “we’ve got to have hope. We’ve got to hope that our circumstances are not always going to be what they are. They change every day.”
The desire that she has to make a difference in her community has not wavered.
“I was that person that should not have made it,” she said. “To be in a position where I’m helping people to change their lives is pretty good to wake up to every day.”