Versiti - S2: Episode 4: Sports...Unites, Empowers, Ignites the Disadvantaged | Stand Out From the Inside Podcast Series | Versiti

Hope Street Paves the Way for Dreams

This podcast episode of “Stand Out from the Inside” features Ashley Thomas, executive director for Hope Street. She talks about basketball as her saving grace and how her passion led to helping the community. Hope Street provides a safe environment in communities by developing self-sufficiency with the love of Christ. She talks about their holistic approach and how it gives people the opportunity to explore the many layers of what it takes to grow and flourish.

Podcast Specific Hashtags:

#inclusion #wellbeing #selflove #blooddonations #bloodmatters #blooddonation #donateblood #savelife #blackexcellance #community #hope #sportssavedme #inequality #support #growth

Guest(s): Ashley Thomas

Social Media Handles:

Instagram: @__ashthomas
Facebook: Ashley Thomas
Twitter: @smASHley_Thomas

About Our Host:

Edgar Daggett born and raised in Ann Arbor, MI. He currently serves as the Specialty Programs Marketing Associate at Versiti Blood Centers, where he focuses on direct involvement and campaign management on specialty products and diverse groups. Past family experience inspired him to begin his journey at Versiti in 2020. He knew that the need for diverse units was growing year to year, and because of his personal history, he decided to make the change – and help make a change.

Through the Stand Out From the Inside podcast, he hopes to empower new and bright individuals in his community and beyond to spread the word on the need for diverse blood products through donation and blood drives.

“I hope you all enjoy the Stand Out from the Inside podcast presented by Versiti, where we talk about the needs of the community and ways we can become stronger!”

About - Podcast Show Series

STAND OUT FROM THE INSIDE presented by Versiti is a podcast where—we recognize community with light, uniqueness, and identity. Edgar Daggett will talk with individuals to celebrate ethnicity and blood type — it is part of our survival. Because within our communities, we have attributes that we give and serve in our community. This is a fresh podcast that will give voice to diversity and inspiration. We will promote strength, trust, caring, inclusivity, and positivity. And will go deep on the lifesaving impact of blood donation. How do you Stand Out from the Inside?

Download Transcript

EDGAR: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to another Stand Out from the Inside podcast presented by Versiti. I'm your host Edgar Daggett. We have a super exciting episode once again for you for this week. I wanna start off by giving some motivation and some words of knowledge for all of you listening, watching currently right now. It's kind of perseverance, never giving up, going out there for your dreams. As our environment is unraveling and you see different things impacting your community or communities around you, just know to keep going, give it your all and everything will come back to you in a rewarding fashion. But, this week's episode, we have a super exciting guest. We're gonna keep going, highlighting those individuals that are making a huge impact in your community or those communities around you. And this person has been achieving so much in so little time. She is currently an executive director for Hope Street. Hope Street, if you don't know, they are a greenhouse for people — men, women, children — who are helping provide a safe environment in communities that are coming up, developing self sufficiency and experience the love of Christ. To welcome to the podcast: Ashley Thomas.

ASHLEY: Thanks Edgar for having me. I'm super excited to be here.

EDGAR: No, thank you. Super exciting to have you on. You've done so much in so little time and, I wanted to show all of our viewers, all of our watchers, all of our subscribers, who is Ashley Thomas? Where do you come from and what made you be in the position that you are in today?

ASHLEY: That always feels like a really big question and a little daunting, but I joke often about having my background be in basketball. Both my parents played basketball in college. And so from a very young age, I just feel like I always had a ball in my hand. That was very much my saving grace. My family endured some hard times financially growing up. At the time it was pretty difficult for me to understand why or even understand what to do with that. So for me, basketball was my escape. I knew at a pretty young age that my goal was to play in college and if possible play after that, which, long story short, I did end up playing in college. So, I did go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which if you're here in Wisco, we're very proud of our badgers. And so had the opportunity to play there. And then really after college could have continued to pursue playing, but really felt a calling to do something else. And to really put my shoes on the shelf and leave that part of my life behind. From there, I had an opportunity to do an internship at a local church and was really involved in a lot of the stuff that was happening in the city of Milwaukee. And my eyes pretty quickly opened to this whole new world, this whole new community and the needs of that community. And so I started to volunteer and one of those places I landed at was Hope Street, which is obviously where I am now. Initially upon walking through Hope Street's doors, I thought I was coming to offer something — like I had something that people here needed and pretty quickly realized it was gonna be a place where I experienced quite a bit of healing; and had the opportunity to grow alongside the men, women, and children that live here. So that's me in a little bit of a nutshell.

EDGAR: That's awesome. So did your parents play at the collegiate level? Did they get up there? Where'd they play?

ASHLEY: My mom went to North Dakota State and my dad played at Morehead State.

EDGAR: [00:05:00] And there was no pushing to go to an alumni school? Or was it just, go to the big school?

ASHLEY: There wasn't a lot of pressure. Maybe early on, but eventually it was kind of just go wherever you feel like you wanna go. I think I chose the right place.

EDGAR: Oh, Wisconsin, big 10 school. So it was a good choice. Question. How was that environment living? You said you had your escape space, which was basketball. How was that feeling? What were you escaping from? How did basketball make you feel?

ASHLEY: For me having something that was secure, like I knew I could count on. I have to show up at practice. My coach is gonna be there. I'm gonna get to work out. I'm gonna get to be with my friends. There was more stability in that. A lot of the stuff my family was experiencing at the time felt pretty unstable. So there was just more like I knew what I was gonna get when I stepped on the basketball court. And it was just this opportunity to more or less be a kid. I didn't have to worry about all the other things going on in life when I was on the court. I just got to be me and have fun with friends.

EDGAR: What position did you play?

ASHLEY: Small forward.

EDGAR: Small forward? Okay. That's awesome.


EDGAR: Did you have any players that you looked up to? Any other heroes that weren't maybe basketball players?

ASHLEY: I definitely had a lot of people in my life that were super instrumental in just. Shaping me. One would be one of my coaches. Coach G. was his name and he was someone that cared about me off the court, as well as on the court. So he cared about our academics. He cared about what we were doing, what we were getting into, the things we were passionate about. And so that for me was really awesome. My mom is also somebody that I've always looked up to, which I know always sounds kind of cliche. And I never would've said that when I was younger. But I always watched her and now realizing just how much she persevered and endured. And really the things that she instilled in each of my sisters and I, just as what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a leader; and to just really work hard in life. I would say those are the first two people that come to mind. I've had lots of mentors and people since filling this role as executive director — people that have poured into me and just called me out when I need to be called out, but also encouraged me when I've done some things well.

EDGAR: Now you said something that was super interesting: women in leadership. I hear it to this day that even some of my close friends that they don't say directly, but they say it indirectly. They say because I'm a woman, I can't be into that leadership position, or I can't get that far, but you're a leader. You're a mentor. Your mother has given you advice, like, this is what you can do, and you can do it no matter who you are. That's inspiring. It gives the younger generations something to look forward to because sometimes that outside force almost pushes you down. But what would you say to those younger children? The women that are coming up about leadership and about pushing against the status quo?

ASHLEY: I would always encourage people to chase after your dreams. I think that there's discipline, there's hard work, doing the right thing when no one's watching and continuing to just pull people around you that can support you. And I think oftentimes we look for people that are gonna kind of like puff us up and be like, "You're awesome. You're really good at this." But I think also inviting people around the table that can kind of poke and prod at some of the things that you could grow in. And sometimes that's painful and that's really hard, but I always encourage, especially young women, to just invite people to the table that don't agree with you and learn how to have those conversations, because when you are in positions of leadership and you will oftentimes find yourself the only woman in a room full of men. They're gonna expect on one level that you may be more emotional. So learning how to carry yourself and speak into what you're passionate about and having those things that back up what you're saying too.

EDGAR: No, completely agree. It's something that I feel like doesn't get said enough when it comes to women in leadership and having your voice and being clear and that you can do whatever you put your mind to. And that is something that's super important that I tell my sisters, my family members, any of my friends. And I have personally great leaders around me as well, around this organization that are women that are doing very well and are very inspiring to myself. Indeed. Now after college, decide pros or going to play basketball somewhere else. But you decided a different route. What made you go that way? Basketball was part of your life from an early age, what made you go a different route?

ASHLEY: [00:10:40] For me, the biggest thing was my faith. I really felt like for a huge chunk of my life, I wrestled with my identity being completely wrapped up in Ashley the Athlete — like, I couldn't separate the two. And so I was really feeling this kind of tension of who am I apart from this sport? And I've looked at this sport as being this escape for so long. There has to be, one) more to life, and two) there has to be other healthy coping mechanisms that I can experience just as I move forward and get older. I felt this tug that I had no idea at all what it was. I just knew it was very clear that I needed to be done playing basketball.

EDGAR: All right. And did that lead you to Hope Street or were you doing things before that?

ASHLEY: So I was an intern at Elmbrook church in Brookfield, and I was responsible for overseeing a college and career center at a high school in Milwaukee. So I just got to hang out with kids and help fill out college applications and work on homework or just literally kind of sit and just chat with them. While I was doing that, I was also volunteering once a week at Hope Street, just doing some admin things. I've always loved being where people are.

EDGAR: [00:12:00] That's awesome. Hope Street, you said you did that once a week. And how did that transition go after the internship or how did that go into a full time? Like where did you start out? Like, what was the position that got you started?

ASHLEY: So eventually I knew my internship was coming to an end and I didn't have a job lined up yet. And at the time the executive director of Hope Street had just given me a call and he was like, Hey, we have this opening coming up. I have no idea if you're interested at all. But do you mind if I send it to you? He did, and it was exactly what I was hoping for. I'm kind of a admin nerd. So I love doing all the behind the scenes stuff, but then I wanted to do that inside of a space where I could be with people too. And so it was just very much in line with what I was hoping for. And so I started out as the operations director in November of 2013 and I did that for a year and then some positions opened up and people moved around and I actually had the opportunity to become the assistant executive director. I did that for about six months at which point the director came into my office and said I think it's time for me to start preparing you to eventually take over my role as the executive director. I was 25 at the time. And I remember looking at him being like, I don't know, I can't do what you're doing. I don't even, I don't know everything yet. But fast forward, he was true to his word. And a year later the board voted me in to become the executive director at 26. And I learned a lot from there.

EDGAR: That's awesome. So, how was that transition? It's a scary feeling. You were being prepared, you were getting taught by the mentor and you're like, okay, Can I do it? What does it take at such a young age, am I experienced enough to know what to do? What was that mindset? Or were you just like, I'm gonna get it? I'mma, no matter what it is, I'm gonna do it, give my all, and we'll see where it goes. What was the mindset going on?

ASHLEY: Well, there was always a little bit of that in me. That's still left from being an athlete where I'm like, I'll do whatever it takes. I'll learn. I'll work hard. But honestly for me, it was just being vulnerable and open and honest with people. We're gonna give it a try for six months and it may not work and we'll adjust as we go. I'm never gonna pretend to have all the answers. I know that I need to work on getting the supportive team around me. So that was really important to me early on was just finding the right people. That we can all be heading in the same direction and working together. And I asked a lot of questions. I was always like, I'm never gonna be ashamed of asking a question. So that was really kind of my philosophy early on. I'm more or less a visionary. I like to look out into the future and I'm like, I'm gonna allow myself to dream because who knows what could happen? But I don't wanna just maintain what has been, I wanna be able to look ahead into the future and see what could be.

EDGAR: [00:15:17] Six months into the job as a director, what were things that you accomplished? What were things that you were working on that made you succeed in the role? What were some of the things that you accomplished that you could share?

ASHLEY: I'm always really bad at acknowledging things like that. 'Cause I always think things could be better. But if I had to say anything, I would say our community of supporters has grown significantly since stepping into the role. And for me, that's just bringing people in and allowing them to see that, yes, we have 40- to 50-some people that live here, but we have hundreds of people that donate here, volunteer here, pray for people here; and letting all those people know that they're part of this community too. And so there's ownership in that. One of the greatest compliments I think we as an organization can get — and have since I've been involved — has been "they've been transformed too in being involved here." So we're really impacting this greater community, not just the people that live here and understanding that takes away kind of that us and them dynamic where it's like, "those people need this." And it's like, no, we all need this. And some of us are experiencing those different things in different ways, but we need each other. Humanity needs each other to thrive. So I would say that would be one way. And I think the other biggest thing, which we're kind of seeing come to fruition here and maybe we'll talk about it: Shechem at Hope Street, which is the community center that we're building. That really started right as I became the director. I think that early on foundation of finding the right people to help get it started, even though we're just now building it, was kind of the other thing that if I had to say it was success. It took a lot longer than I thought it was gonna take, but I think we went through all the necessary steps to make sure that we could succeed now, as we actually opened the building.

EDGAR: So what is the center? What's the point? What's the objective? Let's talk. I like that.

ASHLEY: So I will say that initially the goal or the dream with it was just providing a basketball court because I see kids coming out of schools and they'd be in our alleys and they're dribbling a ball, and I'd be like, how do we just meet our kids right where they're at doing something that they love? But eventually we realized that the community had other needs and other things that they'd like to see and have access to right here. And so we did a poll and asked the greater community as well as our internal community. And out of that came what Shechem is. So we'll have a gym. We'll have classroom and event spaces. We'll have a cafe and a resource center. And what Shechem is is just an extension of what Hope Street is minus the living side of things. So where people live here for a period of time, there's not additional housing next door. It will just be a space where the community can come together and learn from each other. For us that came out of this need of like a lot of people come here and they don't wanna leave here cuz they've experienced community and they've experienced safety and healing and all of those good things. And for us, it's like, Hey, you've received and experienced some of that. Now, how do you give back to the community in which you've come from and walk alongside other people. So other people can experience that. And so that's really what will take place inside of that building.

EDGAR: So is it for the younger generation? You said children. Is it for adults? So is children the main priority?

ASHLEY: I would say all the above. So our demographic here in this area is a majority, I know it's over 50% are under the age of 25. And so I would say, yes, there's more of an emphasis on youth. We will have after school programming Monday through Friday from three to five, but we also will offer life skills classes and different exercise classes and resources in the resource center during the day for adults as well. On everybody, but really trying to pour into that next generation and giving kiddos opportunities that maybe they haven't recently been given so that they can see there's a new way and an alternative way to go about living life.

EDGAR: [00:19:50] That's amazing. And the adult side, you said up to 25, I believe it was. So whether they didn't get a chance to go to college, or maybe aren't going to college, is that open for them as well?

ASHLEY: Yep! So we'll be working with a couple of local organizations that help with even people completing their GED if they didn't get an opportunity to do that, or if they'd like to go back; we're working with MATC on some college courses.

EDGAR: That sounds like it's gonna be a huge impact on that community. As we were talking in one of the previous podcast episodes, trying to provide opportunities for our community members, our youth, because our youth is our future. Some individuals do have the opportunity to grow and to succeed. But others, don't. And when you cut 'em out, sometimes their journey takes 'em on a path that most people don't see acceptable. Whether that's crime, anything like that, because they weren't given the same opportunities. So they basically have to fight for everything that they want. And sometimes it does lead to poor actions. With items like these and great mentorship and great opportunities, we can remove some of those barriers and get them to cross into a different path and help our youth and help our future. What exact city or area is this happening at?

ASHLEY: [00:21:30] Yep. So we're on the north side of Milwaukee, we're in the Garden Homes neighborhood. And we're right on the corner of 26th and Capital.

EDGAR: That's awesome. That's super exciting. Do you have a five year plan where maybe this isn't your only location? Are you planning on reaching out like outside of Milwaukee?

ASHLEY: Yeah. We're always dreaming and always looking ahead. Sometimes I gotta slow down and focus on right now, but I think one of the biggest goals that we've had over time is... I mean, Hope Street's been around for almost 25 years and we obviously believe in the model and our approach of how we've done things. There's transitional living facilities across the country. And I think more than anything, we see wanting to be like a resource and wanting to come alongside some of those transitional living facilities and equipping them to take some more of what our approach has looked like. We're actually the only place in Milwaukee that allows single men, single women, families, or single mom/single dad to live in the same building. So we actually got onto that because we broke a rule and then asked for forgiveness and begged and said, this is why we think this is important. And the big reason that oftentimes it's not done this way is cuz it is messy. It is hard. And there's some drama, you know, it's like anything that's worth doing. Sometimes there's some obstacles, but we really have seen the impact that it's made through generations and on families by allowing the whole family unit to be here together and work through some of those things. So I definitely would love to come alongside other places and just help with their philosophy in terms of how they're walking alongside people.

EDGAR: How does faith and Christ play a role into all this? Cause I can't sit here and say everybody is religious or everybody pertains to the same group. How does that play a role in the system and in Hope Street?

ASHLEY: We don't shy away from what we believe. We're pretty open about that when people come in, like, Hey, you know, we have Bible study classes here. We have staff that may ask to pray with you. You're welcome to say no. But just like being upfront about who we are and that being the motivation behind what we do. But people can come here with any affiliation or no affiliation whatsoever. Our goal and our hope is to just love people and provide an opportunity for people to experience something new. So there's no pressure on that, but we don't shy away from it.

EDGAR: It sounds super exciting to hear what Hope Street is doing. Maybe you don't hear it on the national news or maybe sometimes you do, but they're making this massive impact. And that is what we're all about here at Versiti. We're trying to make an impact within our communities. Some people do know us, some people don't, but we're there. And slowly but surely we're closing gaps, whether it's donation gaps — being on the registry to be a donor. We're closing those gaps and we're trying to reach out to our communities, our diverse communities, and reaching out and being like, okay, how can we change this? How can we change the journey that you're already on and make an impact that's greater than yourself? And also your community? And also partnering with people like yourself, Hope Street, organizations that are also making that same impact just in a different style; that and sharing how we're all working together. So it's super awesome to hear about all this. So, do you still have the competitiveness from your athlete days. They say once an athlete, always an athlete. Have you tried to make a connection between those two? Those two loves?

ASHLEY: [00:25:30] On a personal side, away from Hope Street, I've been able to do some coaching on the side and I've loved that. I'll always love the game and I love being able to develop kids both on and off the court. Like, especially now with my perspective of being like, there is actually more to life than basketball. My mom told me that. I didn't wanna hear it, but it turns out she was right. So really just kind of walking alongside kids and all the stuff that they endure these days, but also, obviously helping them become better basketball players. Best believe the basketball court is open at Shechem. I will be out there shooting around and playing with the kids. I can't wait. That's something that I've dreamt of and I'm just super excited to just get to play and watch them play and be present.

EDGAR: Will you be a coach there as well? Coaching all the young kids?

ASHLEY: So I don't know what that part's necessarily gonna look. Maybe eventually, but at the front, we'll just have some open gym slots. We'll try to do some camps and some skills training things. We don't have a set team or anything that we're gonna create there to begin with, but maybe someday. But I'll definitely just be there to have fun. And if somebody wants to work on something, by all means.

ASHLEY: My family was super competitive. My parents' rule was we never really played against each other because when we did something ended up badly. There was usually a fight or an argument or something like that. So anytime we wanted to do something competitive, it had to be non basketball related.

EDGAR: I can just see cuz I hear tons of stories and even in our family, we never got to the collegiate level; but it was, "let's go play a couple rounds of baseball or let's do something who can get the farthest hit?" It was always that competition level. And I can hear sometimes when, the way you were answering some of the questions that competition fire is still there. Always wanted to succeed, never satisfied on what you've done. That competition. But I like it. I love it. So, with Hope Street: what's the future for Ashley Thomas. So, is Hope Street where you wanna continue the career, or maybe you still continue this and maybe you are moving on to something else. Maybe something similar in the same industry. Or maybe something completely different that just where it takes you? What's that future looking like?

ASHLEY: [00:28:10] Good question. Hard question. I feel like right now I'm where I'm supposed to be. I kind of take each day as it comes and I'm like, Hey. Like for me with my faith, God has made it really clear. I'm supposed to be here in this season. And so I'm gonna be here as long as he asks me to be. And I love this place. I don't see myself being anywhere else, but at the same time, I think it's really important to equip that next generation and give somebody else an opportunity to lead and take it from here. I feel like in many ways I've done my part or what I was supposed to do to get us to this season. And I would hate to take away from the organization somebody else being able to come in to take us to that next level in this next season. And so there's some incredible leaders on my team. That I've been pouring into and trust and are super talented. And so I know that they would be able to do more amazing things than I've been able to do. And so I'm kind of just holding it like very loosely. I'm like, okay, if I'm supposed to be here, I'll keep being here. If I'm not, then what's next. And I really don't have an answer for what's next, other than I know I always wanna be in a field where I get to just be with people, help people. Just do the things that I love, which is seeing people come from one place and transitioning to the next place.

EDGAR: For people that wanna get involved, we have viewers and listeners from all over. For those residing in Milwaukee or in the Milwaukee region, how can people get involved or volunteer?

ASHLEY: If you're a people person, this is your place. We're always looking for people that just wanna come down and like have coffee and sit across the table from somebody and get to know someone. We're always looking for tutors for our kiddos or mentors. Obviously with Shechem opening up, there'll be a lot more opportunities to teach a different class. So if there's something that you're passionate about and you like teaching other people, come on down. We'll also have obviously the gym, so there'll be exercise classes or even just coming down and hanging out in the cafe. So I would say, start on our website, cuz that has a long list of some of the common ways that people volunteer. And if you have an idea, we love to hear those because we're always open to whatever it is that you think you wanna bring to the table.

EDGAR: There you have it. Feel free to visit their site. Link will be at the bottom. When is the grand opening of the big space happening?

ASHLEY: So our grand opening is August 27th and that will be from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM. That will be right next door to Hope Street at Shechem, the new facility. And we're super excited. There'll be food trucks and different activities. We got people coming and it's a day for the community to celebrate.

EDGAR: [00:03:00] Go there. Show your support August 27th, but Ashley, this has been super exciting. I love hearing what you've done. Getting pushed right into the role of executive taking it on and succeeding and we're super excited to hear more about whole street and what you all there continue to do.

ASHLEY: Yeah, thank you very much. And thanks for having me on again and for the questions. I always appreciate good questions.

EDGAR: No, thank you. And I always wanna ask, how can other members join you in standing from the outside? What is something motivating that you would like to tell all the viewers?

ASHLEY: I think the biggest thing I've learned in the last few years is that we all are influencing and impacting somebody. I think sometimes we think of things on a big scale or like, oh, you run this organization, or you're giving this much money to this thing or whatever. But you as a single person can impact someone, whether that's a child, a sibling a parent or a friend. And so just really being intentional with the people that you have in your life, right in your surrounding community and just kind of seeing like, okay, who can I be a good friend to? I think we don't realize how much of an impact that makes. We sometimes downplay the impact of one and we try to impact hundreds and that one person's life that gets turned around; you never know whose life that person's gonna impact and so forth.

EDGAR: Love it. And to jump on that, not knowing anybody can be impacted by your actions. Could be the person next to you. Maybe someone you will never meet. And because of you're doing, you're impacting somebody somewhere overseas here or just around you. So super motivating, Ashley. I wanna say once again; thank you for joining the Stand Out from the Inside podcast. You've been amazing and we're super excited to hear more about your journey and Hope Street in the near future.

ASHLEY: Thank you.

EDGAR: Well guys, that wraps up another podcast from the Stand Out from the Inside podcast presented by Versiti. I wanna say, thank you so much to Ashley Thomas for joining the podcast. She's been super helpful, super motivational, and we're super excited to see what she does in the future. Now I want to remind all of our viewers, all of our listeners to ask yourself one thing: How do you stand out from the inside? Like, comment, subscribe, make sure to follow Ashley on all of her, socials — Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. And we will see you all on the next podcast.

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