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Women & Girls’ Empowerment

Honoring International Women’s Day

By March 8, 2020June 10th, 2020No Comments

Article by MARCIA BARINAGA with photos by GINNY FELCH.

We want to share with you the achievements of women and girls in West Marin who, with our grant funding, created personal and professional growth for many. We are delighted to highlight their stories and to thank everyone who helped make these grants such a success.

Photo by Ginny Felch.

When West Marin Fund received a gift from an anonymous male donor to fund female leadership, the result was a women and girls’ empowerment program that challenged West Marin nonprofits to stretch in new ways. The grants—a total of $111,500 to 12 West Marin nonprofits–have funded innovative projects aimed at professional and personal growth for women, girls and non-binary youth that the nonprofits would not have been able to undertake otherwise. The results in many cases have proven transformative for the whole organization.

Safe Space

“It was a game-changer,” says Nicole Ramirez, Director of Human Services and Programs at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center (SGVCC), which received a $9,500 grant.

SGVCC was inspired to respond to a need expressed by parents for an empowerment group for middle-school girls. Their concept was to create a safe place for girls to interact, with a focus on body-awareness and other topics that would “help them navigate this new life they are going through,” says Ramirez.  The project, led by female staff member Cory Van Gelder, took on a life of its own from the very first meeting, when one youth spoke up saying that they identified as non-binary, and asking “why is this only for girls?” Non-binary students were included, and the group drew up agreements about confidentiality, to create a safe place for frank discussions. It was inspiring, Ramirez says, to watch the students find their voices and “broach subjects that are difficult to talk about.” The chemistry of the group helped create bonds that crossed the usual social divisions in middle school. Ramirez recalls an eighth-grader saying, “Honestly, I would never normally hang out with these people, but here, they are my friends. We are all safe here.” Group-members who might otherwise have been marginalized found themselves valued by their peers. “They have these mama hens watching out for them, which is so amazing to see,” says Ramirez. “This will have a lifelong effect on these young people.”

Self-defense class in action.

The impact did not end with the students in the program, says Ramirez. “It gave me an opportunity to look at emerging female leaders on our staff, and put them in positions where they can grow.” Staffer Amber Smith-Dulin, who has a double black belt in martial arts, was tapped to teach self-defense skills. “This role transformed her in so many ways,” says Ramirez. Smith-Dulin, who had not been in a leadership position before, expanded the self-defense component, teaching the students how to tune into and trust their instincts about uncomfortable or dangerous situations, and how to navigate out of those situations. “She took it up a whole notch,” says Ramirez. “For her, in her professional life, it was a real leap.”

Leaps and Bounds

Leaps in leadership and career development for female staff were a common theme among grant recipients. Several organizations applied their funding directly to enhance the skills of female staff, benefitting not only those women but the whole organization. The Bolinas Community Land Trust is on a steep growth curve, and some of its $8,000 grant went to improve staff skills to meet the demands of that growth. A QuickBooks course for office manager Leilani Fraser gave her the skills to work together with the organization’s bookkeeper and take the nonprofit through its first audit. “She was our office manager, but she is so much more than that now,” says Executive Director Arianne Dar.

“Our organization has changed so much in the past year, it is hard to know how much is the result of the grant and how much is our growth, but it feels like they are hand-in-hand to me.”

Two other female staff members were able to accompany Dar to a housing conference in Atlanta, expanding their professional horizons through interacting with colleagues tackling housing issues in urban environments, and also connecting with other rural organizations, such as one in Puget Sound, Washington, a community similar in many ways to ours in West Marin. She and her staff returned from the conference “inspired and renewed,” says Dar. “Our organization has changed so much in the past year, it is hard to know how much is the result of the grant, and how much is our growth, but it feels like they are hand in hand to me.”

Qualitative Difference

West Marin Senior Services (WMSS) used its $8,000 grant to support career training for several female staff members, including Maria Medina, who had just begun working as a caregiver at Stockstill House when WMSS applied for the grant. A single mother of two, Medina had lived in Point Reyes Station since she graduated from high school. When her kids were young, she worked at Papermill Creek Children’s Corner, and later as a cashier at the West Marin Pharmacy. After a few months of working at WMSS, thanks to the grant she was offered the chance to take a course to become an RCFE (Residential Care Facility for the Elderly) administrator. The course work—60 hours of classroom work over three weekends, and 20 hours of on-line work before the exam—was difficult and unlike anything she had done before, she says, but she applied herself and passed the exam on her first try.

“I saw her really blossom, being given an opportunity with the expectation that she would succeed,” says Amena Hajjar, Communications Coordinator at WMSS.

Being appointed as an administrator at Stockstill House changed Medina’s life and that of her 14 year old daughter Viri, and her 9 year old son Geo. “Before, I was living paycheck to paycheck to pay for bills, rent, and food,” she says. With her new position and salary, “I can afford to take my kids places, shopping, or to a movie.” Seeing her mother go back to school inspired Viri to improve her grades, and Viri was named Student of the Month for January at West Marin School.

Maria Medina and her daughter Viri.

Medina was not the only WMSS staff member to receive a boost from an educational opportunity. WMSS used grant funds to support English as a Second Language programs for two Spanish-speaking caregivers, while administrator Natalia Meyerson completed a three-day course in Senior Living Activity Training. “We have always sponsored staff education,” says WMSS Executive Director Skip Schwartz. “But you are working very close to the bone in a nonprofit. It is difficult to make the space for people to actually take advantage of the education.” The grant provided the support needed to make that space, he added, such as childcare to free the women to do the coursework.

Creative Expression

The remainder of the WMSS grant went to realize another female staff-member’s dream: Communications Coordinator Hajjar envisioned an art gallery for seniors in the WMSS office space. The grant enabled Hajjar to fund a track system for hanging art exhibits, the labor needed to hang and publicize the shows, and to hold openings. For the first show, in January 2019, Hajjar chose a client of WMSS, 91-year-old local artist Helen Webber. “Her art deals with generations of women in her life and in the world,” says Hajjar. Seventy-five people attended the opening, and Webber’s daughter spoke “about her mother’s unconditional love, and about mentorship from mother to daughter,” says Hajjar.

A recent show, entitled “Aging: Everyone’s Doing It,” featured artwork of many seniors who have never exhibited before.

“It dovetailed beautifully with the grant.” Hajjar has hung a new show every 6 to 8 weeks, and the gallery is fully booked for 2020.

Working Together

West Marin Fund also convened workshops for all the grantees to meet and discuss their experiences. Hajjar said the workshops were inspiring, demonstrating “the power that women have when they come together. I saw my coworkers, some of whom are timid, really gain a sense of empowerment, a sense that here we are together, and together we are doing this.” In addition to the three nonprofits highlighted here, the Women and Girls Empowerment program awarded $8000 to $10,000 grants to West Marin Community Services, Point Reyes National Seashore Association, Papermill Creek Children’s Corner, Gallery Route One, Community Land Trust Association of West Marin, Parent Services Project, Bolinas Museum, 10,000 Degrees, and Mesa Refuge. The opportunity created by the grants program inspired these organizations to identify many hidden needs of women and girls and to address them in creative and transformative ways.

Learn more about our Women & Girls’ Empowerment program here.