Empowering Women – The Women’s Fund of Essex County

Michelle Xiarhos Curran on February 11th, 2016

Imagine being a single mother of three children. Now imagine having no place to call home. 

For most people, the situation is inconceivable. But, according to the national nonprofit Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, of the reported 4,500 homeless families living in Massachusetts, the vast majority of them are single mothers and their children. And there are other facts that are equally grim: 31 percent of single-parent families live in poverty; one in seven women and girls live in poverty, and one out of four of them will suffer violence or physical abuse in their lifetime, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Then there are the teen pregnancy, self-esteem and body image issues that are faced by so many women and girls.

Still, less than 8 cents of every dollar invested by organized philanthropy benefits women and girls, according to the Women’s Fund of Essex County’s website.

“Women and children have the greatest need and the shortest amount of funding,” says Becky Hallowell, president of The Women’s Fund of Essex County, an organization that raises money and provides grants to targeted nonprofit programs that are working to strengthen the lives of women and girls. “We need to step in and support that need.”

Since 2003, The Women’s Fund — a field of interest fund of the Essex County Community Foundation — has granted more than $1 million to more than 80 nonprofit programs throughout Essex County, according to Hallowell. The fund concentrates its support on programs that focus on women’s self-sufficiency, security, health and well-being, and on leadership and empowerment initiatives. More than half of the organization’s total funding has been awarded to programs that serve the Merrimack Valley, Hallowell says. And because of high need, 90 percent of those funds have gone to programs in the gateway cities of Methuen, Haverhill and Lawrence, where, Hallowell says, the challenges facing many are magnified.

Though there has been much progress in Lawrence — a city with a close-knit nonprofit community and effective agencies, according to Hallowell — domestic violence, teen pregnancy and school dropout rates still plague the city.

“Grants from The Women’s Fund have enabled us to offer services that transform lives of women and their children,” says Mary O’Brien, executive director of the YWCA of Greater Lawrence.

The Women’s Fund supports the organization’s partnership with Budget Buddies in a six-month program that is part of the YWCA’s Economic Empowerment Program for women. Budget Buddies uses volunteer coaches to help teach, guide and counsel participants on money management and fiscal responsibility.

“Our goal is to come in at this life-skills level,” Hallowell says.

Women’s Fund board members and volunteers help to build a Habitat home for a single mother with two girls. The Women’s Fund has been a sponsor of Habitat of Lawrence for several years.

Women’s Fund board members and volunteers help to build a Habitat home for a single mother with two girls. The Women’s Fund has been a sponsor of Habitat of Lawrence for several years.

The YWCA also offers a variety of housing and support services for formerly homeless women and victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, programs that transform and save lives, O’Brien says.

In 2015, The Women’s Fund also supported programs at organizations including the Boys & Girls Clubs of Haverhill and the Lower Merrimack Valley, the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center, Family Services of the Merrimack Valley and Community Action Inc. The fund has supported science and leadership programs for girls, doula programs for expectant mothers, and Court Appointed Special Advocates, a national program locally administrated by Family Services, that uses volunteers to advocate for abused and neglected children in court.

The goal of The Women’s Fund is to build on its successes and to help increase the impact of the programs it supports.

“There are so many issues that a young woman comes up against that will influence the course of her life,” Hallowell says. “Women need to go out and make their way independently in life.”

For a complete list of The Women’s Fund of Essex County’s recent and past grant recipients, visit TheWomensFundEC.org

Editor’s Note: Writer Michelle Xiarhos Curran works as the communications manager for the Essex County Community Foundation.

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