Vancouver Women's Foundation helps women in dire straits

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

VANCOUVER WOMEN’S FOUNDATION

E-mail:vwfnd@comcast.net...

Website:Vancouver Women's Foundation.

• There is no direct telephone number.

One was a domestic violence survivor who needed to get out of town — immediately. The Vancouver Women's Foundation paid for her bus fare to safe relatives in another part of the country, where she could start life over again.

Another was the mother of a disabled child whose old car was falling apart. She couldn't get her child to important medical appointments. The Vancouver Women's Foundation paid for a new (used) car.

First of all was a former meth addict whose addiction had destroyed her teeth. The drugs were behind her, but the ruined mouth was making it impossible for her to get a job — or even eat well.

The need for one set of dentures, so that woman could feed and present herself in public, is what inspired a small group of well-heeled Vancouver women in 2000 to start pooling their funds and making emergency grants to women in dire straits. Thirteen years later, they've doled out well over $1 million in small increments — rarely more than $2,000, often much less — to well over 1,000 recipients.

"A big focus when we started out was educating women about philanthropy," said founding member Jan Oliva. "That sounds like no big deal now, in 2013, but it was in the year 2000. There was a big buzz going around the nation about getting women involved in philanthropy."

She said the founding group used that buzz to educate themselves about community needs. "It was an educational process for everyone," Oliva said.

"We are women helping women," Susan Courtney, treasurer for the group, said during its annual luncheon Jan. 17 at Royal Oaks Country Club. "We want to be there to help women who have tried everything else. We want people to know we're here."

That doesn't mean you can go directly to the foundation with your hand out. Group president Sally Palena emphasized that referrals need to come from local agencies, caseworkers or other professionals who stand behind the application.

That means the applicant has already been screened by people who are certain she's been clean and sober for a good long stretch; isn't attached to an able-bodied man (husband, relative or friend) who should be able to help; has tried hard to work through her problems and improve her situation; and has exhausted all options in the search for one bit of help that could make a permanent difference.

Helping themselves

"We don't do Band-Aids," Courtney said. "We want women to help themselves first."

The foundation's grants committee meets every Friday, she said, and a sadly frequent comment is: "If we give this grant, the woman is going to be back in the same situation in two months." Those applications are rejected, she said.

The ones that are funded are the ones that will make a critical difference for a woman who has a real plan for the future, she said. Like the woman in recovery who needed dentures to face the public and get a job.

"Your whole life can change with a set of teeth," Courtney said.

Or with a damage and rental deposit — as Tyauna Houston learned when she was climbing out of alcoholism and homelessness and looking to start a new life.

Houston's early years were rocky, she said, and her self-image was tough and independent. "I'm a survivor," she said, who always hated asking anyone else for help.

Nonetheless, she did everything she could to get help and start over — starting with a vow to get off the bottle. She left her four children with her ex-husband and checked herself into a 30-day detox program at Lifeline Connections; after that she lived at an Oxford House and applied for housing assistance through the Vancouver Housing Authority.

She qualified for a Section 8 housing voucher for use on the private rental market — but still didn't have the money for a standard damage deposit and first month's rent. The voucher didn't cover that.

No deposit, no apartment. No apartment, no stable life for Houston and her family. "I would like to have faith that something else would have come up," she said — but it certainly seemed like she was out of options.

Then Houston's case manager at the Vancouver Housing Authority recommended her for a Women's Foundation grant. The approximately $1,300 that came through secured her apartment — and the new life that followed from it.

"It was a huge, pivotal piece in getting my family back together and getting to go to school," Houston, 35, said during a quick break between classes at Clark College. "I'm celebrating 14 months of sobriety, and life is really good today."

She plans to transfer her credits to Washington State University Vancouver, she said, and pursue a degree in social work.

"Sometimes we just need somebody to give us a chance," Houston said.

Compassion, skepticism

Most of the members of the Vancouver Women's Foundation are successful women of a certain age who have already spent more than enough time volunteering at bake sales, school fundraisers and food drives, Palena said; now they're happy simply to write a $2,000 check once every five years. The money is parked with the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, which also hosts those Friday grants committee meetings at its offices on Officers Row.

Nine women comprise the grants committee, and they review all applications with both compassion and skepticism, Palena said. She's glad that the committee includes Valerie Norris, a director and caseworker at Second Step Housing. Norris works with homeless women who are often emerging from jail, and is well-connected and savvy, Palena said.

Norris "knows all the local resources and knows all the ways the system can be worked," Palena said.

Grants are once-in-a-lifetime. "The Foundation does not offer ongoing funding, nor do we help an individual more than once," says the Foundation's website. "There must be clear evidence that the individual will not be in the same situation next month." Checks are never written to the women themselves, but to the ultimate recipients of the money.

Right now there are just over 40 members of the Vancouver Women's Foundation, Courtney said, which is fewer than they'd like. And in 2012 the group spent a little less than it had in the bank; it carried a balance of something like $30,000 into 2013. The Vancouver Women's Foundation would much rather see that money spent on deserving recipients; Palena wants to make sure local service agencies and caseworkers are aware that the foundation is available — as "the last resort," she said.

Housing keynote

Keynote speaker at the Jan. 17 luncheon was Kevin Gillette, executive director of the Community Housing Resource Center. His agency, a nonprofit that offers financial counseling to people who are in debt, foreclosure or other money crises, is a good partner for the Vancouver Women's Foundation because it, too, tries to equip people to climb out of trouble and build themselves more solid financial footings.

"We help people heal financially and not make the same mistakes again," said Gillette, who added that he spent more than 35 years in mortgage banking before turning to the nonprofit world.

Teri Owen, a Second Step staff member, said she used to be chronically homeless; as she pulled her life back together, it was Gillette and the Community Housing Resource Center that helped her settle debts and establish a good credit rating.

"He saved my life," she said. "He's my guy."

The Community Housing Resource Center is at 103 E. 29th St. and can be reached at 360-690-4496. Visit http://www.homecen.org to learn more.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.