Despite pandemic woes, Wings for Success board president Rehana Wolfe is aiming high.
At first, it’s not clear why Rehana Wolfe is so invested in Wings for Success. A corporate executive with an international consulting firm, she’s traveled the world working in the life science sector, distributing infant vaccines to families in desperate need of them.
By that measure, Wings for Success’ scope seems much smaller. At its locations in Frazer and Kennett Square, the nonprofit provides career wardrobes and life skills training to low-income women. In 2020, Wings distributed outfits to 800 recipients and enrolled more than 300 in workshops focused on financial independence, job interviews and other topics. Many of its clients are Spanish-speaking and newly immigrated to the U.S. There are also victims of domestic violence and working moms living below the poverty line.
All of which seems a bit grassroots for someone as worldly as Wolfe—and she’s no longer just a volunteer. This past August, she became president of Wings’ board of directors. Taking on the role mid-pandemic, she crafted ambitious plans for the organization. “I’m looking to double Wings’ size,” says Wolfe. “We’re going to serve more women, reignite the volunteer base and grow our funding while we grow our board of directors.”
Wolfe’s proactive stance was well received, especially in light of recent events. “Because of COVID-19, we needed to pivot and rethink our goals and strategies and how to accomplish our mission in a changed environment,” says Jill Laufenberg, Wings’ executive director. “The executive board knew we needed Rehana to step in because she is a strategic thinker.”
They also need someone with a connection to the women Wings serves. Wolfe—the great, great granddaughter of indentured servants—has that. Four generations ago, her ancestors traded their difficult lives in Bangladesh, India, for the opportunities in Guyana, a small South American country that was then a British colony. They worked on sugar plantations—grueling manual labor in tropical climates—becoming part of Guyana’s developing culture. “It even has its own a dialect,” says Wolfe. “Indentured Indians, post-slavery Africans and Europeans came together to form a mix of all the languages.”
In 1966, three years after Wolfe was born, the country gained its independence. By then, her parents were working as tailors, later opening their own grocery store. Wolfe describes her upbringing as middle class. And while some British influence remained, she was raised to be proud of her Indian identity. “Curry was everything,” says Wolfe with a laugh. “We watched a lot of Indian movies, as well as Hollywood and Bollywood.”
Wolfe was educated under the former colony’s British education system, ending up at the University of Guyana. “My parents had one mission for my siblings and me: education, education, education,” she says. “My dad firmly believed that if you had an education, you could be the master of your destiny.”
Wolfe studied communications, finding a job at the Venezuelan Embassy in Guyana. A change in government policies required college students to serve the country for four years after they graduated. Wolfe’s parents balked at the idea. “My dad said there was no place for me in Guyana,” she recalls. “He said I had to leave the country because he didn’t want me to be bound to it.”
Wolfe immigrated to Venezuela in the late 1980s, during the country’s oil-producing heyday. “The country was booming, and it was great to be there,” she says.
Making use of her fluency in Spanish, Wolfe taught English to executives and children, then segued into the pharmaceutical sector, working for Wyeth as a bilingual manager. In 1996, she married Darren Wolfe, an American expat living in Caracas. Six year later, they left Venezuela. “Hugo Chavez won the election, and we knew it would be detrimental to the economy—and everything else,” Wolfe says.
The couple landed in Devon, near Wyeth’s former headquarters in Radnor. When Pfizer bought Wyeth, Wolfe worked for that company. While rewarding, her work was emotionally and physically taxing. Two year ago, she decided to recalibrate. “I took a sabbatical to figure out what I wanted to do professionally and find a way to give back to my community,” she says.
A year later, Wolfe found Wings for Success, joining its board of directors. Now, Wolfe finds herself leading the board. She was scheduled to assume the role in January, but the existing president stepped aside early. By then, Laufenberg and program managers Kelly Quant and Martina Bersak had reopened the Frazer and Kennett Square locations with COVID-19 safety protocols firmly in place. Dressing appointments were made, workshops migrated online to virtual programs, and (through a contactless system) emergency bags of clothes were distributed to frontline workers, healthcare professionals and domestic violence victims staying in local shelters.
Some of those adjustments were to be temporary, but given their success, Laufenberg says they’ll stay in place after the pandemic.
Like Wolfe, Laufenberg keeps her eye firmly on the women Wings serves—94 percent of who don’t earn enough money to gain financial independence without government assistance. But while the pandemic is responsible for more economic hardship, new jobs have emerged in healthcare and other sectors. “The pandemic has created obstacles and opportunity,” says Laufenberg. “Rightfully, the butterfly is in Wings’ logo because we’re in the midst of a metamorphosis. Any changes we have to make going forward will help us be stronger.”