It started in a Rockville church during the winter. As people lost jobs and homes in the recession of 1982, Becky Wagner looked around the warm, empty church hall on her way to Bible study. An emergency shelter would help, and it would be “easier than a soup kitchen,” she suggested. Three weeks later, the nighttime shelter opened with 150 volunteers and a hot meal for all.
Wagner’s always been a can-do type. These days, as head of the Rockville-based Interfaith Works, Wagner can do more than create one shelter. The nonprofit coordinates the social services of 140 member congregations of all faiths plus some 7,000 volunteers. Since taking her job in 1999, Wagner has expanded its staff from 14 to 70 and its budget from $800,000 to $4 million. Part of that came from absorbing four small nonprofits and exercising economies of scale—but part is because the needs are growing.
“In Montgomery County, 50,000 people live in poverty; 138,000 are not self-sufficient, including 37,000 children,” she says. “When school is closed, that’s not just an inconvenience. Those kids go hungry.”
Good thing Wagner can also say, “I love solving problems.” She does it by keeping both staff turnover and overhead low—the overhead is 5 percent—and combining efficiency, energy, and enthusiasm with donations of clothing, meals, and cash.
Interfaith Works—formerly Community Ministry of Montgomery County—chose its leader wisely. “Becky is a warm, gracious person with a deep commitment to our community and to bettering its conditions,” says Joan Greenbaum of Mobile Medical Care, which oversees 23 clinics.
Wagner finds inspiration in unexpected places. Dropping in on a house for disabled, homeless elderly, Wagner asked a client with cancer and emphysema how she was doing. “Every day I look at this kitchen,” the woman replied, “and say, ‘Hallelujah!’ ”
To Wagner, this was a reminder of how much a little help can lift the human spirit. “I think of her,” Wagner says, “and ask myself, did you wake up and say hallelujah?”
See all of the 2008 Washingtonians of the Year.This article first appeared in the January 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.