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Changemakers, Feature, Topanga Life

The Gift of Dignity 

Cars packed with gently-used homegoods and toys, ready for the next home setup with TWC volunteers in front of the newly painted donation bin at Pine Tree Circle. All photos courtesy of Topanga Women’s Circle

One sunny, fall morning several years ago, my kids and I woke early and headed down Fernwood to Pine Tree Circle. We grabbed some treats from the Waterlily, and then we met Lin Ilsley and Karen Sherwood who had filled their cars with housewares from the TWC’s storage bin in the parking lot. Our little caravan drove down to Westwood Transitional Village to set up an apartment for a family that had just qualified to receive temporary housing after experiencing homelessness. This was our first “set-up” with the Topanga Women’s Circle (TWC).

Their website explains their mission beautifully: “Topanga Women’s Circle is an organization of volunteer women who help the neediest of families by furnishing their new temporary apartment with the little necessities that we all take for granted. By providing new and like-new items, they help create an environment of comfort, warmth, and dignity. They work with two community housing organizations: Westwood Transitional Village and Venice Community Housing. The need in Los Angeles is great as there are many thousand families experiencing homelessness, and many more on the brink.”

My kids and I had the pleasure of setting up a bedroom for two young boys who were 4 and 7. We didn’t know the boys, but had fun imagining which one would like the dinosaur sheets and where to set up art supplies and books. We arranged backpacks and basic school supplies, a reading lamp and a rug. As we topped the beds with stuffed animals, Lin and Karen were filling cupboards with food and dishes and making sure the bathrooms had toiletries, a bathroom mat, and towels. They also set up a bedroom for the mom and baby girl, complete with a bathrobe and journal, diapers, blankets, and onesies. There was a delicate necklace on the nightstand. Fresh flowers on the kitchen table and throw pillows on the couch made this once bare apartment feel like a home.

None of us ever met the family, but we left with full hearts knowing that they might get a chance to catch their breath after a lot of struggle. They might move in and be able to rest and get organized, relax and recover. We hoped that the stability they would feel would allow them to live lives with opportunity and safety, with a sense of dignity and self-worth.

I reached out to long-time volunteer and TWC board member, Wendy Skolfield, to ask her a few questions about how things are going for the non-profit organization.

How have things changed for the TWC because of the pandemic?

“We used to set up an apartment with about 3 volunteers in about an hour or two, but while we are still very much servicing those in need, we aren’t going into the apartments to set things up any more. We gather all of the items that we can for the family and drive them down to the housing complex and the apartment managers bring the items to the apartments. There is a higher turnover in these apartments than there used to be; this year we have set up over 60. That is in part due to more affordable housing being available than before, but we are also told that families are able to get a foothold because of what Topanga Women’s Circle provides them with. They are able to take their toaster oven, towels, and bedding with them and these artifacts of dignity support their transition to more permanent housing.”

What can the community do to support the TWC throughout the year? Is the bin at Pine Tree Circle accepting donations?

“Because of Covid 19 our bin isn’t open on Saturday mornings as it used to be. We are still accepting donations though! Any donations of new and gently used household items and books for children can be dropped off or picked up by Lin Ilsley. Email her at: We can’t accept clothing, furniture, or used bedding, but are always looking for other very gently used household items, toys, and books. We also have our greeting card sales that are a gift in themselves as they are made with beautiful photographs, hand-mounted on vellum paper. They are soon to be available on our website: We also sell beautiful Mother’s Day cards every year. What we are most in need of right now, however, is donations to our 2020 Challenge Grant: You can choose the donation amount to provide a family with the things to outfit a bathroom or kitchen essentials, clean new sheets, or a fridge full of food.”

Are there things that the TWC does for the families for the holidays?

“Topanga Women’s Circle is dedicated specifically to families with children, so every year we have a toy drive. We get help from the apartment managers to gather wish lists from the kids. Then our volunteers and others in the community go out and buy the items for each child. We will wrap all the gifts and one of us will drive a big bag of wrapped gifts down to each of the two centers and drop them off. Check our website soon if you’d like to fulfill a holiday wish for a child in one of these housing complexes.”

A bare room at Westwood Transitional Village before TWC works its magic.
Putting yourself in others shoes, or…the women of TWC think of everything.

I haven’t volunteered with the TWC in many years, but I know I will again. It was rewarding and actually fun. It seems that everyone contributes what they can, when they can, and with a list of about 100 volunteers, many hands make light work. I receive regular emails keeping me in the loop and I’ve watched such care and attention to detail only grow over the years. Lin recently shared some letters from some families that moved into the apartments and nothing shows the essence of the work of Topanga Women’s Circle quite like this:

“Just wanted to let you guys know that being a single mom of two kids, struggling, losing everything I owned, and eventually becoming homeless, I felt like my life had become a disaster and was hopeless. But my spirits were lifted the moment I received a call to come pick up my keys. My kids and I were getting placed in a home. The moment we walked into our place, all of us were overjoyed and immediately cried!!! The unit had been decorated so beautifully. It was filled with anything you can imagine you needed for a place to call home. I personally felt like I wasn’t alone anymore and got even more emotional knowing complete strangers supported and took time out to care about my family, the kids loved how their room was set up. You guys definitely made my transition very welcoming and turned my life around for the better. I couldn’t be more grateful and feel so blessed. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

Much love, The J Family

Please consider supporting this wonderful organization this holiday season:

A place at the table can mean so much after being without a place to call home.
Essential bathroom items are included in each set-up.

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