COLUMN: She believed in giving back even when she had little to give

'To me, it's not what I can afford to do'

CINCINNATI -- Gail Yisrael was unemployed, going through a divorce and desperate for income to support her five children when she decided to turn her baking hobby into a full-fledged business.

That was six years ago. And in that time, she has gone from getting food stamps to feed her family to becoming completely self-supporting thanks to the success of A "Mother's Touch" Cakes.

As if that's not impressive enough, from the very start of Yisrael's entrepreneurial journey, she has been giving back to those less fortunate. Even when she wasn't feeling particularly fortunate herself.

Here's how it started.

Yisrael had just moved with her kids to a small apartment in the West End. She was laid off in 2009. And despite her 15 years of management experience at different retail companies, she couldn't find another job. She was earning too much through unemployment to qualify for subsidized housing, and a West End landlord was the only one she could find who would rent to her with unemployment as her only steady income.

Gail Yisrael's daughter, Zipporah, pictured helping with the family's outreach efforts a couple years ago.

By the time her unemployment ran out, Yisrael had started building her baking business. But she got help through a Freestore Foodbank program to pay her rent so she wouldn't become homeless.

That's when her daughter, who was 4 at the time, saw homeless people sleeping outside a church on Liberty Street in Over-the-Rhine and asked if the family was going to help their new neighbors.

"I'm thinking, 'We're almost in their position,'" Yisrael told me. "But I didn't want to tell the kids that."

So Yisrael decided that -- despite how difficult her own situation was -- she would do what she could. She started out small.

"At the end of my bake, I would donate to City Gospel Mission or Freestore Foodbank," she said. "Or I would set up a table and pass out muffins. I called it Muffins with Meaning."

She held her first organized event in 2011. She's been holding an outreach event four times each year ever since.

Her next event is Saturday, Aug. 27. She, her children and other volunteers will distribute sacks lunches and care packages that include socks and toiletries from a location known as Laurel Homes Park. It's at the intersection of John and Liberty streets in Over-the-Rhine.

'More than one way to be successful'

I was inspired when I heard Yisrael's story. She's a mom who was struggling to feed her own kids. But she managed to find a way to help others even during her bleakest hour. I wanted to learn more.

We talked by phone while she hustled to prepare for her weekly appearance at Madeira Farmers' Market. When I asked her if it was a bad time to talk, she joked, "I've got five kids. I'm pretty good a multi-tasking."

Yisrael is pretty good at a lot of things.

She managed to create a business from scratch through selling at farmers' markets six days a week and special events at other times -- venues where customers and sales are by no means guaranteed.

"As a fellow vendor, I understand, and I share her pain," said Jerome Johnson, who helps his mother sell her wares through a business called Artistic Creations by Pj. "We've done events together where we've been in the heat all day long, and it hasn't been a good day. And you have to keep going forward whether it's a good day or a bad day."

At the same time she has built her business, Yisrael also has built a reputation for giving back and supporting the community in a variety of ways.

Gail Yisrael counts on family and volunteers to help with outreach efforts each quarter.

She organizes her outreach events through a Facebook page. People who volunteer Saturday will get a free ticket to her Sixth Anniversary tasting event, which will run from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday at Sweet Sister Splash, a storefront on Sycamore Street. (Tickets also are available for purchase at the door for $6.)

She also hosts events each year called "Gail's Favorite Things" that help promote other black-owned businesses, Johnson said. And she has established a Facebook group where people can barter for goods and services, Johnson said.

"It's a way of letting people know there is more than one way to be successful," he said. "There is more than one way to get what you need. It's not always about the money."

Paying bills with cupcakes

Yisrael's focus on giving back and supporting the community were key factors in the Madeira Farmers' Market approving her application to sell her baked goods there, said Leah Berger, the market manager.

"It set her apart from other bakers who might apply," Berger said. "We want people who are really invested in their community -- whether it's sourcing from local ingredients or giving back."

Yisrael, as it turns out, does both.

And she does it all while somehow managing to be everywhere on social media and raise her children and keep planning for a time when she will have her own storefront and commercial kitchen.

"She's a very gentle person by nature," Berger said of Yisrael. "And at the same time, her heart really stays true to her values."

Three of Gail Yisrael's daughters pictured at an outreach event.

Johnson said it all boils down to this:

"She understands that life is a blessing and that you have to think along those lines."

Yisrael used the word blessing, too.

"It's not a million-dollar thing," she said of her business. "But it's definitely a blessing to be able to provide for your family. I tell the kids, 'Hey, seriously. We are paying bills off of cupcakes!'"

Her family doesn't live large. They don't have cable. They don't go to fancy hair salons. The kids wear school uniforms. And Yisrael dresses simply for work in her own version of a uniform, too.

But somehow, this single mom has managed to build a business and give back. And she's even saving enough to take her youngest kids on a cruise in December.

It's another one of those blessings that makes it feel all the more natural that she should help others.

"To me, it's not what I can afford to do," she said. "It's like, I have a roof over my head. Why wouldn't I be thankful and give back? I was so close to being on the other side."

It's a valuable lesson -- one that Yisrael's kids are learning every day. And one that the rest of us could learn from, too.

To learn more about A "Mother's Touch" Cakes, click here.

To learn more about Yisrael's sixth anniversary tasting event, click here.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. She has been writing about women- and minority-owned businesses in Greater Cincinnati for more than 18 years. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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