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Women's Fund of East Tennessee awards first grants

Amanda J. Vicars • May 20, 2013 at 2:02 PM

“We thought we could and we did.”

The Women's Fund of East Tennessee, which began two years ago as “a small group of women asking other women” for their financial support, has already raised a $2 million dollar endowment in support of their mission “to transform the lives of low income women and girls of East Tennessee.”

The Women's Fund awarded its first two grants from the endowment, totaling $75,000, at the Second Annual Women's Fund Luncheon Celebration held in Knoxville on April 11. The grants were given to “exemplary programs that address skill attainment” in two focus areas: life skills and education and work-related skills.

The SISTERS of the Rainbow program, an “intensive outpatient alcohol and co-occuring treatment program for adult women” received a $15,000 grant. New Opportunity School for Women (NOSW), a three-week program at Maryville College designed to help women facing overwhelming hardships like poverty, limited opportunities for education and employment and domestic violence achieve greater “self-sufficiency,” received a $60,000 grant.

Grants will be awarded every year at the Women's Fund luncheon based on data collected by the research and grant committee of the organization to determine the areas of greatest need for women and children in the 25 counties it serves.

“We research. This isn't a fly-by-night group,” Women's Fund founder and advisory board member Carol Transou assured.

Members of the research and grants committee (along with researchers from the University of Tennessee and East Tennessee State University) interviewed 50 to 60 organizations in East Tennessee across the 25-county region that deal with low-income clients and asked them, “What did they believe are the most important needs for women and children in their respective areas?”

The results were: education and work-related skills, life skills, domestic violence, physical or mental illness, and transportation. Of those, the advisory board of the Women's Fund narrowed its focus to the two areas they felt they could feasibly address with their resources: life skills and education and work-related skills.

As our resources grow, however, domestic violence is an issue the organization is keeping “on the forefront,” (among others) in the ultimate goal to transform lives of women and children, said Cynthia Burnley, a Women's Fund advisory board member and founder. “If you change the life of a woman, you change the family.”

“Women are more likely to be the objects of domestic violence [and] 70 percent of those in poverty are women and children,” Transou added.

An organization geared towards that demographic is a necessity.

Transou came up with the initial concept for the Women's Fund of East Tennessee in 2009 (there are 130 Women's Funds nationwide). As a board member on the East Tennessee Foundation, she introduced the idea at a meeting and four other members offered their support; the following year, a fifth, Burnley, joined.

“We made a decision early on in this Women's Fund that we really wanted to make a difference, not just give funds because we had a feeling for that organization,” Transou said.

The East Tennessee Foundation, a public, nonprofit 'community foundation' dedicated to the betterment of communities and individual lives through thoughtful giving, serves as host foundation to the fund.

“The East Tennessee Foundation supports the Women's Fund of East Tennessee wholeheartedly as a fund of our community foundation,” said Alice Mercer, chair of the board of the East Tennessee Foundation. “Since both organizations' service areas cover 25 counties of East Tennessee, it is a natural fit. Transforming the lives of women in East Tennessee will shape the future of our region significantly, and that is the goal of the Women's Fund as its endowment grows.”

And grow, it has.

The Women's Fund received its first money, a $10,000 planning grant, in 2010 from the Sunshine Lady Foundation and, since then, by asking women they knew could and would give, it has reached the $2 million mark. But they won't stop there.

Donors to the cause now exist at different levels. The “Founder” level is made up of people who donated $10,000 or more before the fund awarded its first grants (or became founded). The “Legacy Society” has taken over the “Founder” level for a donation of at least $10,000. The “Leadership Society” level is a donation of $1,000 or more, and the “Friends” level is a donation of any amount.

Anyone may apply to be a part of the grant program or donate to the Women's Fund either monetarily or as a volunteer on a committee. The hope is to build an organization “to include women of all means” who have the interest of other women and girls at heart.

For more information, visit the Women's Fund website at www.easttennesseefoundation.org/womens_fund_of_east_tennessee.aspx or call the East Tennessee Foundation, toll free, at 1-877-524-1223.

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