WRC of Manatee and Sarasota join forces to empower local women.
WORDS: Amy Bell
PICTURES: Whitney Patton
The Women’s Resource Center (WRC) has been providing counseling, training, and guidance to women across the Suncoast for nearly 40 years. Today, WRC serves thousands of women and families in Manatee and Sarasota counties. The organization offers strategies and resources to encourage self-confidence, determination, and a sense of place. It all comes together to solve immediate needs and provide hope for the future.
A couple of years ago, the organization underwent an exciting change: a merger between the Women’s Resource Centers of Manatee and Sarasota.
“A shared vision to reach greater numbers of women in a cost-effective manner was the catalyst that brought the Women’s Resource Center of Manatee and the Women’s Resource Center of Sarasota together,” says Ashley Brown, President & CEO of WRC. In 2016, the two organizations started to explore how a merger could create additional opportunities to empower more women.
Of course, the merger was no easy task. With The Patterson Foundation providing facilitation expertise, Brown says the WRC Board of Directors and executive leadership of both organizations spent more than 1,400 hours discussing the idea with stakeholders, donors, community leaders, and area community foundations. A year later, the two organizations formally joined forces.
“A new era began at the Women’s Resource Center as the merger of the Manatee and Sarasota centers became official January 1, 2017,” Brown emphasizes. “Going through a merger takes a tremendous amount of effort. We have an amazing staff, Board of Directors and volunteers who continue to work on creating systems to bring the best of our programming and culture to the community.”
WRC now offers programming at three locations: Bradenton, Sarasota, and Venice. The organization also provides programming onsite for some community partners.
Making a Local Impact
Earning a livable wage is a real issue for women and their families, Brown says. “The United Way ALICE Report (which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) helps illuminate the magnitude of this problem,” she adds. The ALICE population represents those who work hard and fall above the federal poverty line—but they still live paycheck to paycheck.
“In other words, the working poor,” she explains. “For many, a small emergency can quickly become a major financial crisis.”
Brown points out that 44% of Manatee County households live below the survival budget of $47,184 (for a family of 4), and 37% of Sarasota County households live below the survival budget of $45,984. “The population that struggles most is single mother head of households,” she adds. As housing, child care, and transportation costs continue to increase, and local wages are below average, this working poor population is on the rise in Manatee and Sarasota counties.
“For many low-income women, their goal is to attain independence from public benefit programs and become self-sufficient,” Brown says. “However, they are stuck in a cycle of poverty that keeps them from advancing. They can’t earn enough money to get to a financially secure level, or they reach a wage that disqualifies them from any assistance but results in less net income. This is also a huge problem for employers who experience high turnover and work disruption as individuals quit or reduce their hours so as to not reach the ‘cliff.’”
This is where the Women’s Resource Center is trying to make a change. The WRC, along with other organizations, is advocating for state representatives to create a Florida public benefit system that provides for a gradual shift off social programs as workers earn more money.
They are also calling for representatives to assess current eligibility levels to help more families break the cycle of generational poverty. “Such a system would create a pathway out of poverty for individuals and families, help to stabilize the labor market and reduce overall government spending,” Brown says.
Aside from policy change, the WRC offers hands-on programs to help and educate the community’s women and families. “We are so fortunate to live in a region where every day there are people, companies, foundations, and agencies focusing on the tough questions such as affordable housing, quality child care, and livable wages,” remarks Brown.
While she says WRC doesn’t have all the answers, it’s a great place for women to start. “Imagine if you were living paycheck-to-paycheck, underemployed but unsure of how you are going to get a higher paying job,” she illustrates. “Imagine if you were going through an emotional rough spot and did not have the resiliency or support system to remind you that this too shall pass? Everyday women walk through our doors who are struggling with issues like these, and we are here to help. At WRC, we have staff and volunteers who connect, train, mentor, and support our clients on their journey. We are their support system, their tribe.”
Two Decades of Dedication
Born in Carrollton, Georgia, Brown grew up in Bluefield, West Virginia and Columbia, South Carolina and graduated from the College of Charleston. She first started volunteering at WRC nearly 20 years ago.
“I was working in Palmetto at Ohio Transformer and used to drive by the center on Manatee Avenue,” she recalls. “One day, I decided to call and see what volunteer opportunities were available.”
Her first volunteering “job” with the organization was teaching computer classes at night. “I loved working with the clients and really connected with the mission of WRC,” she enthuses.
A couple of years later, Ohio Transformer was sold, and Brown lost her job. Coincidentally, there was a job opening at the Women’s Resource Center in finance and development. “It was a complete departure from what I had been doing professionally, but I wanted to work at WRC—so I applied, and the rest is history!”
Brown became the WRC Director in April 2003. Today, as President & CEO, she is still steadfastly committed to the WRC’s mission, and her passion for the work continues to grow.
While her job is certainly challenging at times, Brown says it is also extremely fulfilling. “Without question, the most rewarding part of my job is the clients,” she says. “Whether I am interacting with them directly or just hearing their stories from staff or volunteers, they are the reason I come to work every day.”
Brown says she recently ran into a client who was leaving a WRC class. “I asked her how things were going,” she says. “She looked at me beaming and said, ‘I came here in pieces and you all helped me put myself back together.’”
Last month, Brown received an email from a client who used WRC’s services way back in 1979. The email read something like this: “The Challenge program turned my life around. I was divorced, heartbroken, the mother of two, and had no idea how I was going to support us. I was a member of the second Challenge graduating class, under the tutelage of Muriel Quimby. Because of her belief in me, and the support I found, I was able to move forward. I built on the foundation of the Challenge classes, lived a successful life, and still put the skills I learned in this program to use. I will be forever grateful to WRC for helping to guide my life on a journey of blessings.”
These are just a couple of the amazing WRC success stories among thousands that span over four decades. “The collective impact of our services is amazing,” Brown emphasizes.
A Resource for ALL Women
Brown wants to get the word out that the Women’s Resource Center offers valuable programs for women of all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life. “We want to make sure people are aware of our programs,” she explains. “There are so many wonderful agencies doing great work in our community, but people are not aware of all of the services available to them or are unsure of how to access services.”
Brown emphasizes that the WRC is available for anyone and everyone. “If you or someone you know is struggling with anything, please reach out to WRC,” she encourages. “If we do not have a program that fits your need, we can connect you with another resource.”