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Security Health Plan invests in Marathon County women’s organization

As you walk into the main lobby of The Women’s Community (TWC) in Wausau, just beyond the reception desk you’ll see a wall full of names. When the building was first built and ready for move-in, two of the original residents walked through those doors and read the names on the wall.

Jane Graham JenningsOne looked at Jane Graham Jennings and said with tears in her eyes, “Who are these people? I don’t know any of them.”

Graham Jennings gently replied, “You don’t have to. These are all the people who believe you deserve better.”

Graham Jennings’ answer elicited a sob and the woman said, crying, “For the first time in a long time I feel like maybe I’m worth something.”

That response is the reason Graham Jennings has been the executive director at The Women’s Community, Wausau, for 20 years. TWC is located at 3200 Hilltop Ave. and is a non-profit organization that serves victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault from Marathon County.

Security Health Plan of Wisconsin, Inc., will invest $1,000 in The Women’s Community as part of its Employee-Driven Corporate Giving grant program. Each month Security Health Plan awards a $1,000 grant to a different charity or organization that is nominated by a Marshfield Clinic Health System employee. Employees are encouraged to nominate organizations making a positive difference in the community.

“We don’t just enrich lives, we literally save lives,” Graham Jennings said. “We work with people who have experienced unimaginable traumas; people who have experienced sexual abuse and have deep-seeded self-loathing. It often takes years to recover from that.”

Advance Care Planning Coordinator at the Marshfield Clinic Health System Institute for Quality Innovation and Patient Safety Leslie Ross nominated TWC for the grant because she believes strongly in the mission and vision of the organization.

“TWC exists to provide specialized services and resources to people in Central Wisconsin affected by domestic violence, sexual assault and unemployment,” Ross said. “Our goal is to help individuals and families attain greater emotional and economic self-sufficiency.”

Leslie RossRoss was recently elected to the board of directors at TWC and said she nominated the organization for the grant to help support one of their main fundraisers. She said one of the main donors for the Art of Healing fundraising event backed out unexpectedly this past fall. Ross said the $1,000 from Security Health Plan was able to cover most of the cost of the fundraiser, which includes art exhibits featuring art created by survivors from The Women’s Community. Graham Jennings said the event raised over $9,000.

That is just a fraction of the annual cost to run TWC, whose annual operating budget is $1.7 million. Graham Jennings said about one-third of their funding comes from state and federal grants; the rest is from local donors, fundraisers, county money and Marathon County United Way.

“Receiving this grant means we can ensure our ability to keep people safe,” Graham Jennings said. “This grant covered most of our expenses for the Art of Healing fundraiser so the profits inform the event were actually profits.”

Graham Jennings added, “I really want people to understand that we are very well aware that we do not exist without community support. We only exist because people in our community give us the support to do what we do. I am ever grateful and humbled by the generosity here.”

The Women’s Community’s other two main fundraisers are Chase’N Chocolate, a 5K race held in the spring, and Hooray for Hollywood which will be held later this winter. Information about each event will be shared on TWC’s Facebook page.

While TWC has a secure shelter onsite that can house as many as 40 individuals, Graham Jennings said the majority of the people they serve never utilize the shelter. TWC provides an array of services and support including restraining order assistance, adult survivor counseling, support groups and special population programs. They have Hmong and Spanish speaking advocates and advocates specializing in helping victims over the age of 60. They offer prevention curriculum to the Wausau School District to help students learn about consent and healthy relationships. They even have an advocate who specializes in human trafficking and works with victims who are exploited and trafficked. TWC offers food, clothing, personal hygiene products and financial assistance to help people get into safe housing.

“We offer ongoing lifetime support to help people recover from traumas,” Graham Jennings said.

When the organization began in 1978, Graham Jennings said it was more of an employment program to help women get back into the workforce. As the years have passed the focus has shifted. An apparent need became evident to help support women affected by abuse. TWC became one of the first shelters in the state to receive state funding to provide shelter.

In 2012 TWC built its current building. During that process Graham Jennings said the architect for the project was very concerned with the plan to have the shelter on the upper floor of the building above the offices of all the staff members - because of the noise. The director said her office is directly below a long hallway that runs the length of the residential portion of the building.

“I remember hearing the first running of a child up and down the hallway above my office and it filled me with joy,” Graham Jennings said with misty eyes.

“When children come here they are scared. They are not behaving the way kids normally do. But when they feel safe and secure, they open up and have fun – and run up and down the hall. When I hear a child playfully running up and down the hall I know they feel safe and secure. That is when I know we’ve made an impact.”
Graham Jennings said the average stay at the residential shelter is 52 days, but that number continues to increase because the ability to get gainful employment and affordable housing is difficult. But while they’re at TWC, residents are in a secure building where they are safe from their abuser.

One of the most impactful moments Graham Jennings experienced at the shelter was the day a woman arrived with her son, who was eight or nine years old.

“He wouldn’t leave his mom’s side,” she recalled. “He was very protective of her and stuck to her side. I showed him all the security features and video cameras and he was really looking around and paying attention and said, ‘so if my dad tries to come here you would see him, right?’ I assured him we would and that we’d then call the police. This young boy turned to his mom, put his hand on her leg and said, ‘Mom, I know you’re tired, so why don’t you go sleep and I’ll stay here and make sure dad doesn’t come.”

Graham Jennings said stories like that clearly depict how significantly abuse and toxic relationships affect the children involved.

TWC never charges a fee to any of the people they serve, but interestingly Ross said many of the survivors come back and either work at TWC or volunteer.

“That speaks to the fact that they thought it was a great place and they want to give back and work or volunteer there,” she said.

Graham Jennings said many times they volunteer so they can feel like they are also giving back. “Many times they feel guilty, like they’re taking advantage, but that’s what we’re here for, but they come back and volunteer.”

The Women’s Community is always in need of volunteers and is always accepting donations. To find the most updated list of needs and how you can help visit http://womenscommunity.org/ways-to-help/.