Women & Girls Fund: vital then and now

The Women & Girls Fund begun in 1999 by the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut would have been an inspiring idea at any time. Put another way, a response to women's particular economic and equity issues was long overdue in society as a whole, and as such met immediate enthusiasm.

Proof of that reaction is the support the endeavor received when it was announced that year that "200 women and some caring men" were creating a fund to address the wellness, independence, safety and equity of local women and girls. The Southeast Women & Girls Fund now stands at $3.6 million and has distributed $1.4 million to such agencies as the Visiting Nurse Association, Safe Futures, schools and senior centers, and the small but mighty S.T.E.P.S. program that gives school-age girls models for making good choices in life.

Further proof is that the fund has multiplied times four, with the founding of the Women & Girls Funds of Windham, Norwich and the northeastern corner of Connecticut.

No question that over the past two decades the time has ripened for efforts to give women equity as wage-earners, safety from domestic violence and sexual harassment, opportunities for higher education and better-paying jobs, and access to health care. But the Southeast Women & Girls Fund seized the moment. It has led the way locally on how to open doors — and then do it again, better. The premise of the fund also taps into people's intuitive sense that opportunities for girls and women of all ages will benefit sons, brothers, future husbands and future children as well.

The Day congratulates the Southeast W&G Fund as it celebrates its 20th anniversary with an event Thursday evening that honors the founders and all supporters since. There are more leaders to come, however. The fund continues to develop new ways to reach women and girls who have not yet even heard that such a program exists to help them.

One thing they should hear are the stories of those who have received bundles of help for multiple problems. Funding from W&G helped Anna, a mother of two divorced after an abusive marriage, through Always Home, a homelessness prevention program serving 200 families a year. After Anna and her children were forced to flee from their home, an Always Home social worker helped her lease a furnished apartment operated by the program; enroll in a Certified Nursing Assistant training course; and get use of a car. A safe home, tenant support, a decent wage and the ability to get to work on time changed Anna's life and the lives of her children.

A grant that came from another fund administered by the foundation, also intended to help women in situations like Anna's, went to setting up a program that allows people who escape domestic abuse to take their beloved pets when they flee. Safe Futures, a leading provider of shelter for people at risk of domestic violence, heard loud and clear the reluctance to leave a dog to suffer the wrath of an abuser. Now it is possible for the pet to go with the person who leaves, and to be a source of comfort at a hard time.

People in need often know what would help but don't necessarily want to come to a public meeting in an unfamiliar place to talk about it. In the next phase of Women & Girls, the foundation will visit churches, community groups and other places where people are accustomed to gathering and talking about their problems. Nonprofit groups in each community will continue to be partners in finding and providing solutions.

Together they will seek out potential community leaders to participate in a new program on public policy advocacy that will include teaching women and young people how to advocate effectively for the changes they believe in. In the recent General Assembly session, organizers and first-time advocates lobbied for paid family and medical leave and an increase in the minimum wage, both of which passed and were signed into law by the governor, and both of which greatly affect women.

As women have begun to exercise more leadership in the workplace and civic life, earn better salaries, and find their voices to speak for themselves, many are remembering other women who don't yet have those assets. They are becoming interested in philanthropy that addresses issues that matter to them. We can expect that the Southeast Women & Girls Fund will seize this moment and that the result will be new leaders emerging to support the wellbeing of the next generation of girls and women. 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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