Piper Kerman knows what it’s like to receive kindness from strangers.
She also knows what it can be like for women with nowhere to turn, the author of the prison memoir and Netflix mega-hit “Orange is the New Black” said in a speech Tuesday.
Kerman gave a glowing review of Rosie’s Place, the women’s shelter and outreach organization, to a sold-out crowd of 1,700 at the Hynes Convention Center for the shelter’s annual fundraiser.
A Boston native and Smith College grad, Kerman said Rosie’s reminded her of the support system she saw during her now well-known stint at a Connecticut correctional facility for money laundering and drug trafficking.
The women there, she said, welcomed her with small kindnesses: toothpaste, a warning about wearing slippers in the shower to avoid foot fungus.
“The women I met [in prison] schooled me, and some of them befriended me,” said Kerman, the keynote speaker for this year’s gala. “I am eternally grateful to them. They changed my life. I left that prison a very different person in many ways.”
From the Hynes stage, Kerman called attention to the way the country’s population of female prisoners ballooned over the past 40 years, many of them there after struggles with substance abuse, physical or sexual abuse and mental illness.
Groups like Rosie’s, she said, help keep women out of prison, and help support female former inmates.
“When we look at many of the women who are very much in need of Rosie’s place and its incredible range of services in the community that it provides, we see many of those things driving women into crisis,” Kerman said. “I can’t overstate what a transformative difference their work makes.”
Kerman toured a Rosie’s shelter Tuesday morning, and said she grew up in Boston hearing about its mission.
Rosie’s Place, a nonprofit which runs on donations and doesn’t take government funding — “because then they’ll try to tell us what to do,” said Sue Marsh, its executive director, in a speech — opened the country’s first women’s shelter in 1974.
It now offers emergency housing to 300 women a year and runs a food pantry, education center, legal support program and other services. It impacts 12,000 women a year, according to an organization fact sheet.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, one of several Massachusetts politicians in the crowd, gave a hat-tip to the nonprofit in a short speech, saying the city was “following their model” in shaping its chronic homelessness prevention agenda. The mayor also urged Bostonians to sign up as volunteers.
“If you haven’t been there, I’m telling you, you don’t have to go there Christmas and Thanksgiving. Go there any day of the week, sit down there, serve lunch and see the remarkable work that they do,” Walsh said.