Minneapolis Star Tribune tells our story.

'Ordinary Women' offer a shot of hope for people in need

A nameless group delivers thoughtful gifts to people facing tough times.

They asked for only one thing and left much more in return.

“Are you Melissa?” they wondered.

Melissa Wickstrom-Sirek didn’t recognize the two women who approached her as she was presiding over outgrown toys, out-of-style clothes and used furniture for the yard sale at her Eden Prairie home.

Unassuming, dressed in shorts and T-shirts, one wearing a baseball cap, the women looked like they were out for an afternoon stroll. Wickstrom-Sirek gave the response they were looking for — “yes” — and one of them handed her a gift basket.

Then they turned and walked away.

It was last August, and the kids’ school year loomed ahead. Most of her yard sale customers were neighbors who knew her story: a single mother of four children, three of whom are on the Autism spectrum.

Wickstrom-Sirek had organized the sale with a neighbor to help to cover what her one full-time and three part-time jobs couldn’t: tuition for a school offering specialized training needed by one of her kids. One shopper paid with a $50 check — insisting she wanted no change — for boys’ toys valued at a few dollars.

Confused by the arrival of the gift basket, Wiskstrom-Sirek took it into the house before looking inside.

“I just started crying,” she recalled.

Inside the basket was a wallet filled with gift cards for gasoline, groceries and Starbucks, other knickknacks like notebooks and soaps, a children’s Bible and a book of encouragement.

The senders went by a name she didn’t recognize: “12 ordinary women,” was all the card said.

The group 12 Ordinary Women was conceived seven years ago.

One ordinary woman was lying beside her husband in their home in Franklin, Tenn. They had food, clothing and warmth, but the country was caught in the recession, and some of their neighbors were scrimping to afford rent, bills and groceries.

“I can’t do enough to help someone,” she told him.

“Then why don’t you?” he responded.

It turns out this woman wasn’t alone. She approached 11 friends of different backgrounds, education levels and ages. They were onboard. And thus began their monthly anonymous giving under the collective pseudonym “12 ordinary women.”

The flagship group has inspired others, from Florida to Texas, as well as two groups in Minnesota.

One ordinary woman from a Twin Cities western suburb started her group in March 2014 after meeting the founder in Tennessee. The group meets once a month to nominate recipients for a surprise token of optimism purchased with their “ordinary woman tax.”

Nominees are people the group recognizes as being in need. Although the recipients often are people that someone in the group knows, they go to great lengths to keep the beneficiary from figuring out the connection.

“We make sure there’d be no way they can connect the dots right back to our group … I cannot lie to save my life and so it’s always fun to come up with ways to help people without them knowing anything about it,” the Minnesota founder said.

The gifts vary by need. There have been provisions of comfort and rest for a cancer victim, a new computer for a high school graduate and a photo shoot for a dying mother who wouldn’t see her children into adulthood.

Other times, a dozen handwritten letters have fit the bill.

“We have found that it’s not so much the gift — whether it’s a financial gift or a care basket or whatever it may be — that’s not really what it’s all about,” the founder said.

It’s about hope. “It’s letting someone know that they’re seen, they are heard. Someone understands their situation and cares about them deeply,” she added.

There have been offshoots like “12 Average Joes,” founded by the original ordinary woman’s husband, and “12 Ordinary Families,” which functions the same way. The only way to contact the groups is through a blog to which recipients from across the country sometimes submit thank-you notes.

“We want them to know that we understand their pain and struggle,” the Tennessee founder said, citing the proverb “blest be the gift and the giver alike.”

“I think there’s more blessing for all of us who give than there will ever be for a recipient,” she said.

Late-night visitors

Jennifer Stepan and her family were getting ready for bed one April night when the doorbell rang. Standing on her doorstep in Victoria were two unfamiliar women toting a large gift basket.

They handed her the basket and turned away, leaving Jennifer and her husband, Jamie, exchanging confused looks.

Jamie had lost his job in January, and the family of four became dependent on a single income. They were getting by, but just barely. Even such a simple outing as taking their kids, 6 and 8 years old, out for custard at Culver’s was beyond their means.

“It’s the most humbling experience to know that you can’t do what your status quo has always been,” Jennifer said.

Inside the basket were gift cards for groceries and gasoline. There also were cards so they could take their kids to an ice cream shop and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

The Stepans scoured the Internet hoping to discover whom they could thank, but the search uncovered only the anonymous organization’s website.

Jennifer vowed that they’d repeat the gesture once they had the means.

A public thank you

After two women showed up at Liz Sosin’s doorstep, she spent the next couple of weeks trying to track down their origin. “Twelve ordinary women?” she’d ask to random people, to their confusion.

“I didn’t bust anybody, and if I did, they covered it really well,” she said.

Sosin was out one day when her husband, Phillip, answered the door of their Minnetonka home to find two strangers holding a package. It was a rarity that he was at home that day in April. He had spent much of the previous few months in the hospital because of a series of colon surgeries.

Inside the package were Twins tickets for the Sosins and their two children, as well as gift cards to Potbelly and Caribou Coffee.

“It happened on a day when you try to keep your chin up and march one foot in front of the other,” Liz Sosin recalled. “But some days it’s just bad. You’re tired. You’re losing faith a little bit.”

The gift brought a bit of fun back into their lives that had become bogged down by hardship.

“I have no idea who they are,” she said of the donors. “You must be talking to them, so would you please say ‘Thank you’?”

Natalie Daher • reporter