PROVIDENCE — The e-mail arrived out of the blue, like a 21st-century version of a Dickensian twist. Suddenly Project Weber/RENEW, a nonprofit organization that works with some of society’s most vulnerable people — sex workers, homeless people, people who use drugs — had a lot of money by its frugal standards. And from an unlikely source.
A 29-year-old who used to volunteer to sit at the front desk of the drop-in center on Broad Street wanted to give the organization a gift: $200,000 over four years. It was the largest private donation Project Weber/RENEW had ever received, almost 10 times as large as their previous top donation. Colleen Daley Ndoye, the executive director of the organization and recipient of the e-mail, froze.
“You hear about these things happening to other organizations, and you just think it’s never going to happen to us,” Daley Ndoye said. “But then it did happen.”
The generous donor, Emily Sloan, told the Globe she was looking for a way to redistribute the generational wealth she’s had since she was born. A few generations ago, her family was involved in the textile industry in North Carolina, and had done well. That wealth had stayed in her family.
But should it have?
Sloan, who now lives in Pawtucket, grappled with the question of what to do with the money she personally had nothing to do with earning. In recent years she got involved in an organization called Resource Generation, which helps young wealthy people redistribute what they have.
“Most generational wealth or hoarded wealth — you can’t acquire that without, in essence, taking it from the labor of other people,” Sloan told the Globe in an interview. “It’s important to be realistic about where it comes from, and think of ways to return it.”
Daley Ndoye had no idea that Sloan, who did all sorts of unglamorous work at the organization, had this wealth. It did occur to them, later, that she had a lot of time to volunteer, which not everyone can do if they have to worry about money.
Sloan now works part-time at a preschool and sells vintage clothes. She says this generous donation is her first such gesture, but will not be her last.
After the donation, Project Weber/RENEW — a nonprofit with a $1.8 million budget and 27 employees — will also become more comfortable. Much of its funding comes from government grants, but sometimes those grants require a percentage match. Daley Ndoye cringes at the idea of having to turn away $100,000 just because they can’t come up with $10,000.
Sloan’s gift could also help fund retirement plans for Project Weber/RENEW employees, many of whom have dealt with substance use disorders or homelessness, leaving persistent gaps in their employment histories, and not a lot in terms of a nest egg.
“It would essentially be just going directly into people’s accounts, which is direct redistribution of wealth,” Daley Ndoye said. “Which I think is the ultimate, highest purpose of this money.”
Organizations around the state jockey for donor attention and support. But because of the nature of the work, it can be hard for an organization like Project Weber/RENEW to stand out. The work is specific, and it’s stigmatized. There’s a lot of judgment about the people they serve, Daley Ndoye said. It’s grounded in the idea of harm reduction, sort of the opposite of the War on Drugs: Help keep people safe, and alive, for long enough so that someday, when they’re ready, they can get into recovery. That can mean giving out clean needles, for example, or safe sex supplies, or even food, whether from outreach vans or their centers in Providence and Pawtucket. It’s also the idea that undergirds the supervised drug use sites that the state is preparing to open up, and that Project Weber/RENEW is planning to be involved in.
The work is especially vital now, with fatal overdoses in Rhode Island at an all-time high and the homelessness crisis escalating.
“We fill a niche that no one else is filling,” Daley Ndoye said.
Sloan got involved with Project Weber/RENEW after losing a friend to an overdose. She saw a Facebook post about training for how to administer Narcan, an overdose-reversal treatment, and decided to get involved. From there she started volunteering a few times a week.
Now she serves as its board secretary. And she is careful not to toot her own horn. Donating the money was “the only thing that made sense to me,” Sloan said.
The organization Sloan chose to help is more happy to sing her praises. The group’s overdose prevention program coordinator, Dennis Bailer, hopes more people follow in her footsteps on April 1 and beyond.
“I wish more people would be so thoughtful,” Bailer said.