West Virginia Woman Offers Jobs and Second Chances

Featured Article, Hometown Heroes, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on July 9, 2012
Mark S. Chevalier Once battered and homeless, Knowles now runs her own business and is inspired to help other struggling women. “It’s all about planting seeds,” she says.

In her secondhand clothing shop in Martinsburg, W.Va., Dana Knowles, 50, oversees a treasure trove of possibilities for reuse and rejuvenation—from gently used clothing to struggling women such as Kathy Clark.

With a history of drug abuse and a criminal record that includes a felony conviction for theft, Clark couldn’t get a job until Knowles hired her last year. “Cocaine was my downfall,” says Clark, 54, while steaming a pair of pants to hang on a rack.

Drug-free for three years, the grandmother of four began working last summer as a clerk at Knowles’ store. “I’m grateful Dana gave me a chance,” Clark says.

Since opening her Day’ Javu store in 2005 in downtown Martinsburg (pop. 17,227), Knowles has mentored dozens of downtrodden women who are seeking employment and a second chance at life. Most have limited education, and many are single moms, fleeing abusive relationships or are tainted by a criminal record.

“If you don’t give these women work and an income, they’re going to end right back where they started,” says Knowles, explaining that a job is the best way to end a cycle of poverty. “It’s not about changing the world; it’s about giving one person an opportunity to change their life.”

Knowles should know.

In 1997, while running a house-cleaning business in Scranton, Pa., she found herself penniless and homeless after fleeing her third abusive husband. Fearing physical harm, she quit her cleaning jobs and sought refuge in a local women’s shelter, where she stayed the maximum 30 days before returning to the street.

A benevolent stranger took Knowles in, providing her a place to live until she could get back on her feet. Soon after, one of Knowles’ former cleaning clients, a reputable businessman, rehired her and counseled her: “Don’t let your bad times dictate your future.”

His advice resonated.

“Somebody believed I was worth something,” recalls Knowles, who sought professional counseling and began to understand how abusive relationships had shaped her life. “That was powerful because I realized I could get healthy.”

In 2000, she married Kevin Knowles, whom she had met through mutual friends, and they moved to Martinsburg in 2003. She opened Day’ Javu with intentions of simply operating a successful business—but quickly discovered a secondary mission.

“I didn’t know I was going to be hiring struggling women,” she recalls, “but they began appearing.”

Cortney McDonald, a high school dropout from nearby Kearneysville, was among her first employees. She was 16 and told Knowles she didn’t want to end up like her parents, who struggled with drug addiction and had served time in prison. McDonald worked for Knowles for five years before moving on.

“It’s all about planting seeds,” Knowles says. “The girls I work with are generally a transient group, but when they’re with me, we talk about money and budgets and all kinds of things. I celebrate their small achievements—like when I see them bring their own lunch to work instead of going out and spending more money.”

At Day’ Javu, where a hand-me-down radio plays background music, Knowles runs a tight ship.

“Dana expects to give us a task and have us do it without double-checking,” says Robin Affemann, 37, a single mom from nearby Shepherdstown, who is rebuilding her life from homelessness, substance abuse and a felony conviction.

Secondhand clothing, which is donated by members of the community, must be tagged, steamed to remove wrinkles, and uniformly displayed. Knowles also teaches her employees basic life skills, such as how to properly answer the phone and how to make a doctor’s appointment. Nobody gets pity or handouts.

“If somebody needs gas money, I’ll say ‘give me an extra hour [on the job],’” Knowles says.

Knowles donates a percentage of Day’ Javu’s annual profits to local charities. She’s also created knitted wrist accessories called kuphs and donates a dollar of each online sale to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“I enjoy the fact that I’m making a little bit of difference,” she says.