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Seeing women in difficult situations succeed inspires staff at WIN

Wichita Women’s Initiative Network won the Sister Tarcisia Roths Award for a Not-for-Profit. WIN employees pictured from left are: Lori Barnes, Alicia Villa, Alishea English-Harris, Karen Schmidt, Turquoise Thomas-Morales and Amber Beck.
Wichita Women’s Initiative Network won the Sister Tarcisia Roths Award for a Not-for-Profit. WIN employees pictured from left are: Lori Barnes, Alicia Villa, Alishea English-Harris, Karen Schmidt, Turquoise Thomas-Morales and Amber Beck. The Wichita Eagle

When a woman named Susan came to the Wichita Women’s Initiative Network for help, she seemed to have three strikes against her.

She had endured an abusive decade-long marriage, had struggled with drug addiction and was a stranger in a new town.

Thanks to WIN – and her own inner strength – Susan wasn’t out quite yet. By the time she left the program, she had completed her GED, established stable housing and started college. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in business and is now assistant manager of a Sam’s Club in a neighboring state.

Stories like Susan’s inspire the staff and volunteers at WIN, which is the winner of the Sister Tarcisia Roths Award for a Not-for-Profit.

“We are continually surprised by the resilience of the women we serve,” WIN executive director Karen Schmidt wrote. “The abuse and trauma that many of the women have been through can be pretty severe, yet they are able to heal and move on to be healthy and happy.”

WIN serves female survivors of intimate partner violence who are experiencing financial barriers to living independently. It was the brainchild of two teachers at Newman University: Sister Glenda Reimer and Sister Susan Reeves.

They realized that a gap existed in services for women leaving domestic violence shelters. The sisters brought together a group of women from a variety of faiths to help raise money and develop a plan for WIN.

In 1997, the Junior League of Wichita adopted WIN as a community project, and WIN served its first four participants. The program began by offering the women jobs packaging bean soup and baking mixes.

Over the years, the number of women employed grew and WIN’s product line increased to 15 food products and hand-sewn items such as rugs and place mats.

The social service aspect of the program expanded, too, through the hiring of master’s-level social workers for the positions of executive director and case manager.

WIN offers guidance in setting career and educational goals, help with tuition and fees, life skills training, mentoring and emotional support.

More recently, WIN has been redesigning its approach, finding internships for participants with community businesses.

Last year, a startup called Filimin employed WIN participants to assemble Wi-Fi-enabled lamps sold around the world. Skills like programming motherboards and soldering wires are relevant in today’s job market, Schmidt said.

As important as work is for WIN, the program depends on donations, grants and fundraisers as well. Its annual Divas on a Dime fundraiser has been a hit since 2012.

WIN’s 20th anniversary will be celebrated with an event in October.

Part of WIN’s mission is educating the public about domestic abuse. Each year, according to the organization, Wichita police respond to 7,500 domestic violence calls.

From the outside, Schmidt said, it’s difficult for many people to understand why some victims stay in abusive relationships. Some people assume her job must be depressing, she wrote.

But Destinee is another woman whose story illustrates what a difference WIN can make. After growing up in foster care, Destinee found herself on her own with no means of support. She became pregnant by a man who abused her. When he started abusing her son, too, she left and sought help.

Extremely shy when she first came to WIN, Destinee worked on becoming independent, conquering seemingly simple tasks like making a grocery list and going shopping by herself. By the time she left WIN, she was able to take care of her son’s and her own needs.

Destinee now works full time, has her own car and shares a house with a roommate. Her son is doing well in school.

“As we move women out of poverty and into being productive, employed citizens, our community is positively impacted,” Schmidt wrote. “We are extremely proud to be part of our program’s participants’ journey to independence.”

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