UPDATE recently sat down for a chat with the Community Foundation’s Ann Fergemann and Nancy Timmons about the Women’s Education Coalition grant program.

How did the Women’s Education Coalition get started?

ANN It’s a wonderful story of community collaboration and partnership, traits that seem to define our community. The idea began when staff from the Center for Women’s Services at WMU, Nazareth College and KVCC recognized the need for funds to assist unemployed and/or under-employed women who wanted to make better lives for their families by continuing their education.

NANCY Research shows that when a woman is educated, she lifts the prospects of her children.

ANN It was clear early on that helping women striving to get ahead through education could help their entire families too. So, in 1991, Allene Dietrich, Betty Thompson, Sally Mounger and Jane Vander Weyden approached Jack Hopkins — who was president of the Community Foundation at the time — and they started talking about an endowment fund. The Kalamazoo Network had also become involved and was interested in moving forward, but knew it would be important to partner with other nonprofits that believed in the importance of education for women. The project gained momentum in 1993 when meetings began with representatives of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Delta Sigma Theta sorority, Kalamazoo Network and the YWCA. That coalition gave birth to the Women’s Education Coalition: WEC.

What did it take to get enough funds to award the first grants?

NANCY Betty Upjohn Mason and Ronda Stryker volunteered to co-chair a campaign to raise $1 million for an endowment fund that would fuel the grants to women. The four coalition organizations raised operational funding, which included a challenge grant from the Community Foundation.

ANN By 1995, there was enough money for grants and five women were awarded a total of $6,000 that first year. The next year 12 women received a total of $15,000. The following year 25 women received a total of $33,000, which included 10 women receiving renewals. The Women’s Education Coalition was off and running thanks to endowed money that would last forever.

NANCY By 1997, WEC had achieved its goal of $1 million for the permanent endowment.

ANN That endowment of a little more than $1 million in 1997 is now valued at more than $2 million, and has invested more than $1.2 million in the lives of local women. That’s a powerful investment.

What was the initial impact?

ANN We could immediately see that these grants would touch many lives, in many ways.

NANCY One woman earned her teaching degree and went on to earn her master’s degree. Another woman lost her husband unexpectedly, which made her the sole supporter of two college-age daughters and an elderly parent. Not only was she awarded a grant to become a nurse, but one of her daughters also received a Community Foundation scholarship for her own undergraduate degree.

ANN The community was noticing too. Within two years of the first grants, WEC received the J.C. Penney Golden Rule Award and five volunteers were recognized as Voluntary Action Center’s Volunteer of the Day. WEC was honored with a STAR Award in 1998. It had quickly become established in the community thanks to deep collaborations.

NANCY By 2004, the 10-year anniversary of WEC grantmaking, 40 women said they’d completed their education and were employed.

The grants help with a variety of needs, right?

NANCY Absolutely. The founders of WEC were women who understood the importance of helping other women overcome barriers and that barriers come in many forms.

ANN One woman who had completed her degree was having difficulty finding a job because of the condition of her teeth; it was hurting her self-confidence in interviews. She received money to pay for dentures and that made all the difference for her.

NANCY WEC is unique in that while the grant recipients are in school, they’re eligible for emergency funds to address unforeseen financial situations, like repairing a car for example. WEC has provided more than $112,000 in emergency grants.

Any final thoughts?

ANN WEC has been changing lives one family at a time for 22 years now. It not only helps women, but also their families — and therefore the community. The access to educational funding is huge, of course, but the women also appreciate having their ambitions validated.

NANCY We’ve heard from many women that WEC is an important part of feeling supported by their community. They know the community supports their dreams.

October 2, 2017