Phoemale rises to offer grass-roots help for women

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
Members of Phoemale, from left, Sarah Peruski, Missy Kinyon, Lanna Young, Jill Richter, Jenelle Lefief, Ally Hathaway, Jamie Baker, Lisa Kvintus, Lynn Walsh, Christina Buchanan and Nancy Derringer, help women who may have suffered abuse, homelessness or other situations.

The woman and the request stood out as unusual even in a tavern on the more unpredictable side of Mack Avenue. She was clearly desperate, and she was asking the bartender for … plastic grocery bags?

The bartender gave her what he had, and somebody asked the obvious question: What was that about?

The answer has changed women's lives. Not hundreds of them, and not in a splashy, lottery-ticket sort of way, but in simple or even modest ways that make differences.

The answer led to the birth of a group called Phoemale, a deliberately small, decidedly hands-on band of women from the Grosse Pointes whose mission is to raise money, much of it from themselves, and use it to solve what might seem like minor problems if you're not the people who have them.

The answer was "Diapers." The woman had an infant and insufficient income, and when she ran out of diapers, she used plastic bags.

This was late 2016, and the encounter wound up in a post online. Grosse Pointer Adrienne Nutter saw it, shuddered, and shared it with a moms' group on Facebook: "Who's going to chip in?"

Her friends rallied with diapers and gift cards, and in mid-December, she and nine other women met for lunch. Three weeks later, they had a tax I.D. number and a name for their nonprofit, connoting the mythological phoenix and women rising from the ashes.

"It literally sickened me," says Phoemale president Jenelle Lefief — not the makeshift diaper, but the desperation behind it. 

Painters Allyson Hathaway, left, from Phoemale, and volunteer Samantha Diss of Johnson & Johnson.

Lefief, 40, is a pharmaceuticals saleswoman married to a software company vice president. They live comfortably in Grosse Pointe Park, not far from Lake St. Clair.

"We're so lucky," she says, and she isn't just referring to income. "We have a family safety net. We have a friends safety net. If I lost my job, there would be 20 people at the door to help."

The object of Phoemale is to provide that same sort of buffer for women who've dealt with one or more of four specific plagues: domestic abuse, sexual assault, homelessness and human trafficking.

The model can easily be copied. Overhead is low; the only recurring cost is a $40-per-month mailbox at a pack-and-ship store. Meetings are informal, usually in Lefief's kitchen and often accompanied by wine.

"We didn't want to be a stuffy old lady group," she says, no offense to stuffy old ladies. Likewise, they don't want to throw stuffy fundraisers. The annual gala, Phire & Ice, will have a bootlegger theme Friday night at Bayview Yacht Club, and the $50 ticket includes late-night Coneys.

The yacht club donated the space. The band and deejay donated their services. The bar is cash. The catering is $1,100, divided evenly among what's now 11 members.

The members all have a vote in deciding who to help. The idea is to find women, up to half a dozen per year, who have a plan and a trajectory to escape their situation. Most have been referred by one of three social service agencies, and the votes have all been unanimous.

The 5-year-old son of a Phoemale beneficiary was sleeping on a mattress on the floor before the group rehabbed his mother's inherited house near Chandler Park in Detroit.

Phoemale has paid rental deposits for victims escaping abusive partners. Paid off traffic tickets, in one case, because fines compound and mobility is vital. Bought cars, because bus passes for a family are darned near a payment anyway, and you can't keep a job you can't get to on time.

The first was for a woman who'd been sexually assaulted. Lefief figured they'd prepay a lease, but even then a lease requires a decent credit score.

Instead, she approached Dwayne Mullins, who sometimes refurbishes and sells cars at Grosse Pointe Auto Repair. He examined a few potential vehicles for Phoemale, "and what they were bringing in was not in very good shape," he says diplomatically.

Lefief "can be persuasive," and doing harm to women? "I do take that personally," Mullins says, so he put enough time and parts into a red Saturn SUV that he probably lost money selling it for $4,000.

Last year's big project was rehabbing a house near Chandler Park that a 34-year-old mother had inherited after three years with no fixed address.

The porch was crumbling, the only light was one lamp tethered to an extension cord, and the heater was the gas stove.

Again, someone went above and beyond, members say. Contractor Todd Wire, brought on to make the bungalow habitable, showed up with a van, an earthmover on a trailer, and a dump truck.

Because virtue is not always rewarded, the trailer was rear-ended by a drunk. But with all hands and even some neighbors helping on the job site, the worst house on the block — as the homeowner puts it — became the nicest.

The homeowner, promised anonymity like all the women Phoemale helps, marvels at what the crew accomplished. When workers scraped away the rocks and rubble in her yard and laid out a fresh lawn, she admits she was befuddled; she had never heard of sod.

If you've always been poor, Lefief says, you might not recognize your own gaps, and "you don't even know where to begin" to improve your life.

The homeowner says she never lost faith, but she never found a path. Then the path found her.

Someone with impassioned friends visited a bar on the night a panicked woman ran out of diapers. Phoemale arose. Good things began to happen.

Sometimes, it's just phate.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn