Women Empowered: Experts at your service
Nancy Gardella lists a few of her many accomplishments: speaking four languages, raising a Marine Corps son, taking care of her elderly parents, and running a successful housekeeping and property management firm. The Vineyard Haven resident also has a master's degree in education. She's a substitute teacher and a tutor. She also writes a town column for the Gazette.
Even so, Ms. Gardella once struggled to master one important life skill: She couldn't balance a checkbook. "A few years ago I was having financial issues... I'm powerless against numbers," she admits. "And I'm not embarrassed to ask for help."
Fortunately, Ms. Gardella met Kaye Flathers, founder and former executive director of Women Empowered, a Vineyard Haven-based organization that helps women like Ms. Gardella learn practical life skills - balancing a checkbook, getting control of their financial situation, creating a bill-paying system, planning a budget, coping with change, basic problem-solving and job-hunting. Best of all, the services are free.
Ms. Gardella credits Ms. Flathers and Women Empowered with helping her gain control of her finances. And while she occasionally avoids balancing her checkbook, she appreciates the fact that she can always return to the organization for more help.
Sheila Bracy, who became executive director of Women Empowered last year, had served the organization as a pro bono consultant.
"I was impressed with their mission," Ms. Bracy says. "I like the idea of women helping others in the community."
Under her leadership, the organization has added new volunteers and new board members. It depends on the expertise of volunteers from the community who become trained facilitators working with clients. Most of the volunteers are retired professionals - former business owners, nurses, social workers, professors, real estate experts, teachers and attorneys - who are willing to help others learn the skills they need to solve their routine problems.
Funding comes from private donors, Vineyard-based foundations, national foundations, and the United Way. Ms. Bracy points out that while the recession has encouraged more Islanders to contact Women Empowered for help, it has also dramatically decreased the amount of public funding available from the state.
"We're seeing more clients than ever before," Ms. Bracy says. "And more women from the middle class come for assistance. We used to see people who live on the margins, but the recession is affecting many more people and their ability to recover from debt." Since its inception as a nonprofit in 2001, the organization has provided assistance to more than 625 Island residents.
Christine Williams retired to the Vineyard seven years ago after working for the International Monetary Fund and the CIA as an economic analyst. She managed large staffs, solved complex problems and helped train FBI personnel in Quantico, Virginia. "My career made me an expert at analyzing and solving problems," she explains. "So when I settled on the Vineyard and heard about Women Empowered, I thought it would be a great way to help people face-to-face and to make a difference in their lives."
Ms. Williams became a facilitator in 2005 and has, over time, assumed a role as a trainer of other volunteers, teaching them a consistent style of coaching clients who come to the organization with a host of problems. "The most common issues we see are overspending, credit and debt problems, people living beyond their means," she says. "We also help people who are dealing with a lack of organization and discipline in their financial affairs or who have no budget."
Another common thread, according to both Ms. Bracy and Ms. Williams, is that many of the clients they help are going through major life transitions - divorce, the death of a loved one, career change, unemployment or retirement.
Women Empowered offers a range of life skills and financial management workshops and courses throughout the year, many at a minimal or no cost to participants. This month, Ms. Bracy is planning to announce an important new pilot program that will offer micro-loans - loans up to a maximum of $1,500 at a low rate of interest - to Island entrepreneurs or residents seeking professional development. The new program was made possible by a generous private donation.
Although the organization is called "Women Empowered," Ms. Bracy encourages anyone who needs help with daily life skills to call. All inquiries and consultations are confidential.
"I think it's wonderful," Ms. Gardella states emphatically. "Everyone I met there is inspiring and very approachable. I'm definitely going back to learn more."
Women Empowered, 95 State Road, Vineyard Haven. For more information, call 508-696-8880 or visit women-empowered.org.