Women Empowered finds more in need
It's tough just now to be a non-profit organization on Martha's Vineyard, depending on the donations of others. And it certainly is ironic to be a non-profit offering its services for free to Vineyarders struggling with their own financial issues. But that is where Women Empowered (WE) finds itself these days.
Fortunately, the Vineyard Haven-based organization also finds itself transforming from a one-woman operation, launched in 2000 by Kaye Flathers (and her husband Art, who died earlier this year). During this summer, Women Empowered, using a gift from the founders, hired its first executive director, Sheila Bracy, an organizational change consultant with professional fundraising and development experience.
"The board knew that Women Empowered needed to find someone with experience as a fundraiser, and fortunately Kaye met Sheila and agreed that she would be the perfect person to move the organization forward," commented board member Ellie Beth of Oak Bluffs. Ms. Flathers plans to retire from her WE day-to-day responsibilities in 2009.
"We always struggled to find the money to run this free service. We had to find a way to raise money or cease to exist," Ms. Beth said. The organization's 2008 budget is $30,000.
In 2009, Women Empowered aims to raise $80,000 in order to expand its facilitation and coaching services, offered to Islanders struggling with financial problems and the emotional challenges that come as a result of money worries. WE also hopes to secure a grant in order to hire a part-time case manager to handle the client-intake process.
The fundraising efforts come at a time when WE sees an increasing need for its services. "We are seeing people coming in - women, couples and men - because foreclosure is looming," says Ms. Bracy. "That hadn't happened in the past."
Facilitator/coach Christine Williams of Chilmark has been a volunteer coach since 2003. "If Women Empowered did not exist, there would be a lot of people who would not have free, confidential help solving practical problems. Other community service and professional counselors do not provide what we provide - they do not get real practical," she said.
"We offer life skills and coaching programs so clients learn how to take personal responsibility and are able to build secure and rewarding lives," Mrs. Williams explained.
Since becoming a coach, Mrs. Williams estimates that she has worked with 40-50 clients.
According to Mrs. Williams, the coaching model used at WE is based on asking questions and listening. "We try to get people to analyze why they got into the situation they are in, how did they get there, and what are the issues they need to fix. Then we focus on what are their options for the future."
According to WE data, nearly 90 percent of the organization's clients are women, three quarters are Caucasian and, while most of the clients are 30-50 years old, 15 percent are over 60. Half of the clients are high school graduates (a quarter are college graduates), and more than 80 percent are employed.
"Mary" (not her real name) of Oak Bluffs has been a WE client since 2001. A high school graduate, now 60, Mary found herself more than $11,000 in debt to credit card companies and earning less than $30,000 a year. Mary saw an advertisement for WE in The Martha's Vineyard Times (35 percent of WE clients heard about the organization from the newspaper advertising) and, she admits, "after seeing that ad for six months I finally called....it was one of the most important things in my life I have done."
"I am with money like some people are with drugs. I am obsessed or addicted, it is an obsession," Mary said. In her 40s Mary received five credit cards in the mail and went on a spree.
Since working with WE, Mary has reduced her debt to less than $4,000 and expects to have the debt paid off in the next year. Mary had been working full time in health care. However, her hours have been reduced and now she is working part-time. She proudly tells of utilizing Island resources (including the food pantry and resale shops for clothing) to keep her expenses to a minimum.
"The help is more than financial. I have developed a life strategy for myself. Now that I have my money in order, other things in my life are in order," Mary explained. "It feels good not to be so in debt."
WE teaches problem solving, decision making and organizational skills The program helps clients improve their understanding of themselves and their self-esteem, to get control of themselves and how to advocate for themselves, according to Ms. Williams.
Women Empowered will in 2009, under Ms. Bracy's direction, also begin looking to state agencies for contracts for services. Currently these state agencies are referring clients to WE, although WE does not receive any funding for providing those services.
Ms. Bracy has also recruited new members to the board with a broader range of knowledge in management, finance, and non-profit governance. "The board is more diverse now in gender, age, and race. Now I want to see us broaden our base of clients. There are a small percentage of men, and I would like to see that increase. There is a small percentage of couples, and I would like to see that increase as well." Mrs. Bracy says that she would also like to recruit additional volunteer facilitator/coaches.
According to WE data, more than half of the WE clients are single, 20 percent have children at home, and nearly 30 percent are separated or divorced.
Vineyard Haven resident "Elizabeth" (not her real name), 66 and a college graduate, discovered after divorcing her second husband that she had little knowledge of finances. Elizabeth made her first real financial decision and purchased an annuity which ties up her limited post-divorce cash and she said to herself, "What have I done?"
After selling off her belongings and moving to Martha's Vineyard from Connecticut in 2007, Elizabeth was living alone in one rental cottage after another and becoming increasingly depressed. Elizabeth saw the WE newspaper advertisement and called for help seven months ago.
Although she works several part-time jobs and has an annual income of approximately $50,000 (from her divorce settlement as well as the renting of her home in Connecticut), Elizabeth thinks of herself as financially struggling. "Divorced women in their sixties are among the poorest people in America," Elizabeth said.
Mrs. Williams is Elizabeth's coach. "She is my anchor and sounding board," Elizabeth explains. The one-on-one dialogue with her coach has helped Elizabeth create a transitional life agenda and move forward. "I have some things I cannot move forward on, and Christine helps me make progress."
Elizabeth explains that working with her facilitator/coach is "better than talking to a friend, because she is objective." WE offers expert advice and informed coaching. "I had gone as far as I could go to solve my own problems, and the fact that WE is 'no cost' was very appealing," Elizabeth says.
Ms. Bracy's vision for WE anticipates the creation of a life skills resource center providing coaching, workshops, and seminars. "I am looking for ways that our program will help our clients to give back to others and the Martha's Vineyard community so that they become part of the fabric of the community and are seen as productive, contributing members of the community."
For more information contact Women Empowered at 508-696-8880 or women-empowered.org.