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The Women’s Fund of Essex County is an organization consisting of local women committed to “creating social change for women and girls in need.” It is with this principal in mind that the group makes decisions about how best to distribute the funds it raises to local nonprofit organizations and programs.

What sets the group apart are the high standards it holds itself to, and it expects the organizations it helps fund to do the same. While it has several fields of funding, the health-related services and programs for women the group is involved with stand out for the real difference and positive impacts that they make on the lives of local women in need.

Lynn Bryant is the fund’s president and is at the helm of an organization that is made up of volunteers who appear to be anything but, given the amount of time and passion members donate to the cause.

The fund’s statistics demonstrate the serious need to support women’s health programs in the region, where 25 percent of families with children under 18 are headed by a single-mother and 32 percent of single mother families live in poverty. At the same time, 83 percent of single mothers work, and of the over 25,000 children in Essex County who live in poverty, 67 percent do so in a single-mother family.

It is because of statistics like these that the fund works toward its goal of “empowering all women and girls to meet their full potential” and that it is so committed to aiding programs that are “focused on economic self-sufficiency, health and well-being, and leadership and empowerment.” The group makes multiple-year commitments to the organizations it helps support, but does so with the caveat of scheduled monitoring and evaluation of each program’s progress. It is a system and structure that has served the fund well, and the “process is really something we hang our hats on,” says Grants Allocation Committee chair Susan Robie.

In 2016, the group awarded grants totaling more than $100,000 to its health and well-being programs, including the YWCA of Greater Lawrence and its Strong Voices, Safe Choices program. Here, domestic violence victims are given the opportunity to become involved with therapeutic programs specifically created to help women regain confidence and a strong sense of self. Mary O’Brien, executive director of the YWCA of Greater Lawrence describes Strong Voices, Safe Choices as “a self-defense and self-empowerment program based on the right of any girl or woman to protect the integrity of her body and her whole self. It aligns perfectly with the mission of the YWCA of Greater Lawrence to empower women.” Adds O’Brien, “This program is offered to all our YWCA residents who are survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault. Among the self-defense techniques they learn is how to use their voices as a defensive weapon.”

Many women taking part in programs at the YWCA of Greater Lawrence do so during “a point of extreme difficulty in their lives,” says Bryant, and the activities and peer-to-peer support they receive really have the power to alter the course of a life for the better.

At Healing Abuse Working for Change (HAWC), which has several locations including Salem, Beverly, and Gloucester, interim executive director Paula Herrington describes the programs, which provide services and support for victims of domestic violence, as “always being geared toward serving the underserved.” Services are tailored to “respond to the needs of the clientele at any given time,” Herrington says, and may include support groups in Spanish or Portuguese, depending upon the needs of those in the program.

Girls Inc. of Lynn is another beneficiary of grant funds that come from The Women’s Fund. The group’s executive director, Deb Ansourlian, is quick to point out that the organization’s relationship with The Women’s Fund “has been a great one for many years now.” Girls Inc. offers a teen health ambassador program that aids young women by providing information and an open ear to discussing a variety of life situations ranging from health choices to teen pregnancy prevention. The program offers peer-to-peer as well as peer-to-adult counseling and advice sessions.

The group is also involved with the On Point program for girls that is run out of the Plummer Goup Home and Apartments in Salem. Designed for those between the ages of 10 and 18, the On Point program is the result of a collaborative effort between the Plummer Home, the Salem Police Department, and Essex County Juvenile Probation, and is an alternative option to detention that is available to the court. When appropriate, programs are either gender-specific or co-ed. Offerings include things like photography and therapeutic art programs. Programs have flexibility and “are often adjusted based upon the needs of a given group,” says Nicole McLaughlin, who has been director of strategy and advancement at the Plummer Home since 2013. Sometimes the programs focus on music, song writing, yoga, or cooking, all depending on how they can best serve the needs at hand. In addition, program participants all work toward achieving a personal goal, such as improved attendance at school or getting a job. 

At the YMCA of the North Shore, executive director Judith Cronin described the Girl Power! program, which The Women’s Fund helps support, as “targeted to empowering teen girls and getting them involved in their community.” While in this program, participants, who live in Beverly, have an array of opportunities presented to them, including volunteer work, career exploration activities, group exercise, discussion sessions, journal writing, and the chance to listen to guest speakers. Teens, ever immersed in the world of social media, are also given space to reflect upon how women are portrayed in the media and examine the ways the social media they use influences their own lives.

The Women’s Fund prides itself on providing funding dollars to organizations where they can make a significant impact. The fund accepts grant proposals, and many of the organizations and agencies in Essex County know about the group and submit applications online. As Bryant explains, “The Women’s Fund was very grassroots to start with, and all of the money that we grant is money that we raise.” While fundraising is the ultimate goal in order to give to programs in need, the group places significant importance on the gift of time and welcomes volunteers and those willing to assist the fund in any way. The group has donated over $1.3 million to nonprofit programs in Essex County since its inception in 2003 and is as committed as ever to continuing to help improve the lives of so many young girls and women all around us.