Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Area businesswoman rallies her customers for charity

Projects include donation drives, cancer awareness

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Christopher Anderson⁄The Star
Michelle Wiggs (left) chats with customer Tracy Morgan at Wiggs’ More Than Coffee Lounge in Upper Marlboro on Friday. Wiggs raises money and collects items from her customers to benefit local charities. Last year she collected and donated enough school supplies for at least 100 needy public school students.
While Denise Ross was getting a cup of coffee at an Upper Marlboro café one day last summer, the owner, Michelle Wiggs, asked Ross what she did for a living.

Ross said she worked with homeless children in the county’s public school system, and Wiggs replied that she would like to do something to help.

About a month later in mid-August, Wiggs had managed to collect and donate enough school supplies for at least 100 homeless and needy children in the public school system, said Ross, who supervises the Prince George’s County Schools Homeless Education Office.

‘‘We’ve never gotten anything of that magnitude before,” Ross said.

Wiggs considers herself to be a giver, but it was not until she opened the More than Coffee Lounge in June 2006 that she was able to mobilize her customer base for charity drives.

‘‘Essentially what I did was rile up my customers,” Wiggs said.

Wiggs, a Clinton resident, said she sent e-mails to about 500 customers who had volunteered their contact information, urging them to deliver backpacks, pencils, calculators, notebooks, rulers and more. She also sent them photographs of the supplies as they began piling up in the lobby of her café to further inspire them, she said.

Wiggs, 45, has organized two other donation drives so far, one for winter clothing that she delivered to the Homeless Education Office and one that involved sending silk poinsettias to 80 senior citizens at Christmas.

She said she plans to repeat the drives every year.

‘‘I think it’s awesome that she has a vested interest in the community and is giving back to the community, especially things that can help students who are enrolled in Prince George’s County Schools,” Ross said.

The winter clothing drive – which Wiggs dubbed the ‘‘Be a Blessing Christmas Campaign” – netted more than 400 hats, gloves, scarves, socks and earmuffs for children in kindergarten through the 12th grade.

The flower drive was a partnership with the nonprofit Daughter for the Day, which gets young volunteers to provide personal assistance for the elderly in the area.

‘‘It was wonderful because my seniors don’t get anything at Christmas time,” said Tonja Lark, founder of Daughter for the Day. ‘‘And when they saw [the flowers], they were tickled to death.”

Lark said it was Wiggs’ idea to collect and deliver the silk flowers.

Wiggs said she is planning to recruit her customers again for a team she hopes to enter into this June’s Race for the Cure in Washington, D.C., a national fundraiser for the fight against breast cancer.

Wiggs also allows Daughter for the Day and another local nonprofit to use her coffee shop, which boasts a lounge with comfortable couches and chairs, as a meeting place, free of charge.

But Wiggs has not always been an entrepreneur in her business and charity work. She was an accountant for nearly 20 years for a variety of large nonprofits in the District.

But she made a career change a few years ago because accounting had become redundant and no longer was challenging, she said.

Also, even though she was sometimes managing millions of dollars devoted to good causes, she said, ‘‘I didn’t feel like I was making a direct impact.”

Now, with her coffee shop and her local customers, Wiggs said she is happy she can make a contribution in the county.

‘‘There are so many in Prince George’s County who could really use a little help,” Wiggs said.

E-mail Andy Zieminski at azieminski@gazette.net.