"You're never too old to do the next thing," says Margaret Ann Jessup. "You can't be afraid. Trust your heart. It's never perfect."
Jessup, who lives with her family in Divernon, is executive director of Wooden It Be Lovely (WIBL), a nonprofit organization that employs women suffering from poverty, drug addiction and abuse and helps them heal, recover and have stable lives. Jessup and her church founded Wooden It Be Lovely as a ministry of Douglas Avenue United Methodist Church where she was associate pastor. Douglas Avenue provided needed space for furniture and work areas, plus financial and spiritual support, while Jessup provided ideas, energy and administration for the program.
Before becoming an ordained minister, Jessup was a nurse for 25 years. She grew up in Salem, Illinois, a middle child living a middle-class life with no major struggles. From a young age she knew she wanted to be a nurse. She studied pre-nursing at Eastern Illinois University, then earned a diploma from St. John's College of Nursing. She received a bachelor's degree in nursing from University of Illinois Springfield and a master's degree in nursing from SIU-Edwardsville. For 25 years she had a rewarding nursing career, working primarily at St. John's Hospital in oncology and hospice. She took comfort in helping others at the end of their lives. And when pain and suffering was over, as a woman of faith she celebrated their transition to eternal life.
At the age of 48, Jessup decided to go to seminary. She never felt called to be a preacher, but felt called to the work of the church. She simply believed she could not...not do it. With four teenagers at home, she commuted to St. Louis for three years to attend Eden Theological Seminary full time, beginning in 2011. She credits her supportive husband, Fred, for making it possible for her to pursue her dream. Although she says the situation wasn't perfect, her experience was also a life-lesson for her children. She demonstrated to her children that hard work pays off and it is possible to do two things at the same time. Her three girls are now all nurses, and her son is in college. She believes her girls, especially, will never be afraid to follow their dreams.
While in seminary, Jessup had an internship at Thistle Farms in Nashville, Tennessee, which was a life-changing experience. There she learned about "social enterprise" organizations, which use business strategies to generate profits primarily used to fund social programs. Thistle Farms is a nonprofit social enterprise dedicated to helping women survivors recover and heal from prostitution, trafficking and addiction. They do this by providing a safe place to live, a meaningful job and a lifelong sisterhood of support. Their mantra is that love is the most powerful force for change in the world.
After seminary and receiving her United Methodist ordination, Jessup was appointed to Douglas Avenue United Methodist Church. As associate pastor, Jessup received all of the calls from people asking the church for help. She saw firsthand the needs of people in the neighborhood. The church played an important role in assisting people but, based on her experience at Thistle Farms, Jessup also promoted a new way of thinking and a determination to help change the circumstances of people's lives. Through seminary and Thistle Farms, she fell in love with caring for and journeying alongside of women whom society has pushed aside. After years of helping people near the end of their lives, Jessup embarked on a second career, helping empower women in the midst of life.
Her initial challenge was to determine what social business enterprise to pursue. Secondhand stores near Douglas Avenue church became the inspiration. Staring at some old chairs outside one of the shops, Jessup came up with the idea of painting and refurbishing old furniture to sell. This is how WIBL was born. Community members donate old furniture in good condition. Women who are healing and trying to get their lives back together paint and refurbish the furniture. Women learn skills and develop relationships by working side-by-side with community volunteers.
Wooden It Be Lovely is a wonderful metaphor, as explained on their website. "Women healing from lives of poverty and addiction often feel like society does not want to deal with them. The WIBL women relate to the metaphor of old furniture – often discarded, cracked, wobbly, unloved and stained. With love, time and attention, these wonderful women, like old furniture, can be refurbished into something lovely."
WIBL launched in 2016 as a mission of Douglas Avenue church. Now the organization's three furniture sales a year are highly anticipated, with customers standing outside well before the church doors open. The next furniture sale is scheduled for July 30. Products include refurbished furniture of all types, as well as pillows and other furnishings the women sew. WIBL gives women creative and empowering jobs while also providing mentoring, tools for recovery, education, networking and a safe community. Women also receive classes on life skills and child care, recovery support and job and interview skills. Sixty women have participated in the program.
WIBL was incorporated as a 501(c)3 organization in January 2021. All of the women are in recovery from drugs and/or alcohol and 82.5% have remained free of illegal substances. Women are successfully completing their GEDs, and three associates are taking college classes. Sixteen women were hired as WIBL associates in 2021, and currently 12 women are employed as WIBL associates, plus a Lead Designer who is a graduate of the program.
A new initiative is the WIBL Home, providing housing and a safe sanctuary for women without children. There are services in Springfield for women with children, but housing is not readily available for women with no children or those in recovery who have lost custody of their children. Four women will live in the house for free, while saving the majority of their earned income with the goal of living independently in the future. The women painted and decorated the home, which is readily recognized by its bright pink door with a large heart. WIBL hosted a community open house in early June. There is a community room available for groups to rent. "Those with means and privilege can be under the same roof with those who are recovering," says Jessup. There are numerous benefits of women from all circumstances working together. Jessup says we think we are there to teach and help them, but it is often the other way around.
Jessup describes Douglas Avenue United Methodist as a very mission-minded church. The congregation has been incredibly supportive of this ministry. As full-time executive director, she intends to live the mission of the church by going out into the world. Her reward is to see the strong women who come out on the other side after overcoming adversity.
Diane Rutledge, who serves on the WIBL board, says Jessup saw the need in the neighborhood and the necessity of going beyond providing resources, in order to "teach them how to fish." "We can all dream," says Rutledge. "What sets Margaret Ann apart is having a vision and then the perseverance to make that a reality. She sees the barriers, but is not to be deterred. She finds ways, by creating relationships with others, to make things happen."
Most of all, Margaret Ann Jessup is committed to giving women hope. Wooden It Be Lovely if all women had hope?
Karen Ackerman Witter is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about inspiring people. She met Margaret Ann Jessup through the Women for Women giving circle at the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln, which has provided grants to Wooden It Be Lovely.