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Case Study: Women's Transition Project

Shelter, Services and Job Training for Women In Need

The Women's Transition Project is a home for women and children in need of shelter and services that help them transition into permanent housing. It is located seven miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border in Bisbee, Arizona, a former mining community of 6,000 persons in southeastern Arizona.

In less than two years, the nonprofit organization has assisted more than 50 women, mostly victims of domestic violence and women recovering from substance abuse. Two emergency shelters for battered women in nearby communities serve as the primary referral agencies. While emergency shelters can provide up to 45 days of housing, the Women's Transition Project provides up to two years of housing and supportive services, including case management, job training, life skills training, substance abuse counseling, on-site day care, and prenatal care. The facility accommodates up to nine women and six to ten children at a time. It has been operating at full capacity since opening in 2001.

The project was conceived in 1999, when founder Linda Meltzer and several leaders in the Bisbee community recognized that Cochise County had no substance abuse treatment centers for women. Lou Anne Sterbick-Nelson, a member of the founding board and a recovered alcoholic, often hosted women who needed a place to stay. However, Lou Anne and others realized that they were unable to give women the full range of supportive services. When Linda's husband received a transfer out of the community, Lou Anne stepped in to provide leadership as president of the board.

In the fall of 2000, the board began to search for a facility. They found a vacant building, which had been leased to the county probation department for $5,000 a month. Although the owners wanted to sell the building, Lou Anne wrote a letter explaining the board's vision for the community. She was able to negotiate with the owners to secure a lease for $1,000 a month.

By the spring of 2000, the Women's Transition Project board began fundraising to renovate and operate the home. They raised about $4,000 at a local art auction and then secured two grants: one from the Arizona Community Foundation for $15,000, and a second from the Amazon Foundation for $10,000. A Bisbee grant writer, Sharon Mitchell, worked closely with the board to submit a grant application to the state housing office. Paul Harris, the rural continuum of care coordinator for the Governor's Office of Housing Development, helped facilitate the grant application process. The grant application was successful and provided $47,000 for remodeling, and $25,000 for initial staffing and operations.

The early achievement led to others. Lou Anne, a former attorney with a passion for seeing the project succeed, devoted herself to volunteer fundraising, making it a 12-14 hour a day job. Although new to computers, she learned to educate herself about foundations and fundraising through Internet research. Over the past two years, she has spent more than 6000 hours successfully raising funds and building relationships with more than 30 sources. These include private donors and foundations, such as the Pulliam Foundation, the Armstrong Foundation, the Southern Arizona Women's Foundation and corporate donors such as Phelps Dodge and Arizona National Car Rental. Although she was told that many donors would never give to a small nonprofit operating in a rural area, her advocacy and efforts to build personal relationships with prospective donors has paid off. The Women's Transition Project keeps in touch with prospective and current funders through face-to-face meetings, phone calls, regular correspondence, and a quarterly newsletter.

Also important to the nonprofit's success have been developing extensive partnerships with local social service agencies and Cochise College. The college is currently providing classes to four women free of charge. Social service agencies provide services, transportation, food, and a range of programs for women and children. As part of the information sharing and networking process, Lou Anne has shared her strategic business plan, grant applications, and grants research with dozens of organizations throughout the county and the state.

Last year, the nonprofit's many accomplishments convinced state housing staff that Women's Transition Project was prepared to take on increased responsibility. In 2001, the organization successfully applied for $200,000 in state housing funds to purchase the facility they were leasing. Although the owners of the building initially planned to sell the building for $285,000, the nonprofit negotiated the purchase price to $200,000.

In the past year, the organization has concentrated on hiring quality staff to manage the facility. In the spring of 2001, Jessica Simms - who brings more than a decade of experience with special needs populations, at risk youth, and victims of domestic violence to the position -- joined as executive director. Jessica manages day-to-day operations and helps develop and implement programs and services. In early 2002, the nonprofit hired Linda Moats, an experienced grants writer and trainer, as its development director. The Women's Transition Project also has hired a full-time case manager, several administrative staff and seven "house mothers" who provide on-site supervision and assistance, 24 hours a day. The staff receive additional assistance from several volunteers, made possible through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Job Corps program.

Challenges

Helping women overcome high-risk behaviors and make healthy living choices has been particularly difficult. "Our retention rate has not been terrific," Lou Anne says. Some women have gone back to their perpetrators of domestic violence, a few have left the home too soon, and staff have had to ask five or six women to leave the house because of unwillingness to make lifestyle changes. On the other hand, some women have had success. Some have left the home because they have found full time employment. One woman suffering from alcoholism has remained sober and obtained her high school equivalency certificate and her associate's degree at Cochise College. Other alcoholics have stayed sober for many months at a time, attended college courses, and maintained a rigorous schedule of business administration, carpentry and life skills classes. All have contributed collectively hundreds of hours in community service. Three have been united with their children through the courts. Women's Transition Project has received a commendation from the Superior Court lauding its efforts to make these reunifications possible.

To help women effect life changes, the nonprofit's life skills training program aims to help clients set and meet attainable goals. A structured environment is important. Women take college or career development coursework in the mornings. In the afternoons and evenings, they meet with counselors, use their emerging business development skills, and work on homework. The structure helps women overcome the "start-stop" behaviors that impede them from keeping a job or finishing a college degree.

An ongoing challenge is in getting social service agencies to provide on-site services for clients. Often, the distances in the county -- the size of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined - present a barrier. However, over the past several months, the Women's Transition Project has been able to attract more interest in "one stop" services by providing a coordinating role in the social service community. Over the past year, Lou Anne has helped organize interest and participation in the Cochise County "Continuum of Care," a group that meets every six weeks to coordinate county social services and needs for the homeless. As the group has met and more agencies have agreed to coordinate services, two area homeless shelters and two domestic violence shelters for women have received funding from HUD through the state housing department.

A challenge familiar to Women's Transition Project and to all nonprofit organizations is finding time for development activities. Lou Anne has applied for at least 75 grants. She has been successful in obtaining funds through about half of these sources. The development and relationship-development activities are time consuming, and they require both committed staff and board members.

The Future

Women's Transition Project aims to help its clientele become emotionally and financially self-sufficient. The staff and board hope to soon reduce the 24-hour supervision currently provided, as women become more independent. The reduction would also cut overhead costs.

The Women's Transition Project has no immediate plans to expand. However, the board hopes to provide more permanent and independent living opportunities for women by building a second facility, where women could rent low-income units while still having access to some supportive services.

In efforts to help women become financially self-sufficient, the nonprofit is assisting the women in launching a client-run business. In 2002, the Women's Transition Project applied for and received nearly $130,000 in HUD supportive services funding through the state's rural "Continuum of Care" application to establish an employment training program. The funds will employ two existing staff and two part-time staff to assist with business planning and development. HUD funding is renewable on an annual basis for the next three years. The nonprofit's application ranked number one in the state's continuum of care review process.

The women have developed their own business concept, which they have named "Southwest Skies Unlimited." Women will build and market birdhouses that are replicas of Women's Transition Project. Jessica believes that the concept is symbolic of the women building a home of their own. As part of their business development, the women are learning how to incorporate a business, develop policies and procedures, and market their business through the Internet. They are learning carpentry skills and plan to begin marketing their product at an annual "birding" festival in a neighboring community in August.

As Women's Transition Project continues to develop, staff hope to help women develop their potential. "We are starting to see some real leaders emerge," Jessica notes. "It's about helping the women discover their talents and act on them. It's really all about empowerment, sharing and caring."

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