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Wednesday, March 11, 2009 12:47 pm

Women helping women, here and around the world

International Women’s Day panel discusses local services, global links

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In San Antonio, Texas, demonstrators marched in support of International Women's Day, March 8.
PHOTO BY JOSEPH COPLEY

In 2006, LaVern McNeese initiated the Springfield chapter of Priscilla’s Lost and Found, a faith-based mentoring program for women that serves just six other cities in the nation. Since then, she said, she’s seen so many women “who just don’t know what to do.”

These women suffer from alcohol abuse, drug use, depression — and whatever the problem, McNeese and the organization’s volunteers believe it’s their calling to help them get on the right track. They’re currently helping four local women and are looking for additional mentors so they can help more.

“We pair Christian women with those women who are sort of lost, who are trying to make a transition, trying to improve their lives,” McNeese said. “We try to step in and help them by walking along side of them.”

Last week McNeese joined three other representatives from Springfield social service agencies that primarily serve women for a panel discussion in honor of International Women’s Day, celebrated annually on March 8. Sponsored by Pax Christi Springfield and The Mary Wood Branch of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the panel focused on how helping women locally can help all women globally.

Veronica Espina, an adjunct Spanish professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield, also joined the panel and kicked off the presentation by offering her own perspective as a Chilean native. When she first moved to Springfield, Espina said, she’d never heard of feminism or women’s studies. She learned quickly from mentors at the UIS Women’s Center and began bringing awareness to the link between women’s struggles in what she calls the Global North and South.

“We have a great investment in how women are treated around the world, in terms of justice and peace,” Diane Lopez Hughes, the event’s organizer and moderator, agreed. “On the local level, there are groups represented here who are doing something similar in terms of women’s empowerment.”

K’Lani Bishoff from Sojourn Shelter, a Springfield organization that assists victims of domestic violence, talked about her role in the Sojourn Advocate For Emergency Response program. As part of this initiative, the Springfield Police Department reports incidents of domestic violence to an on-call advocate, who then responds immediately to the scene to offer support and options to victims.

The organization supports 1,600 clients in Sangamon, Logan, Menard, Christian and Montgomery counties through other such services as an emergency shelter with space for as many as 32 women and children, court advocacy, education and counseling for both women and children, and a 24-hour help hotline.

“This is a worldwide issue, this is a women’s issue,” Bishoff said. “We are working very hard and every year, every moment we are getting closer to stopping the cycle of violence.”

Paulette Roberts, the clinical program coordinator for Project Return, told audience members that her organization mentors incarcerated mothers after their release and helped 11 different women in 2008. Project Return’s team of volunteers offers women a wide array of services, from helping them locate housing, healthcare, or jobs to reuniting them with their children.

According to Project Return, 103,310 women are serving time in state and federal prisons, the majority of them for property crimes and drug offenses. Many of them are victims of poverty and violence, Roberts said, and may have developed these habits as coping mechanisms. What the women need, she added, are people around them to offer encouragement and to show them different ways of viewing the world.

“I tend to believe that they would have chosen a better way under different circumstances,” she said. “Many of them, from the get-go, don’t believe in themselves in the first place.”

Mary Stone, the director of M.E.R.C.Y. Communities, appeared on the panel as the fifth speaker and discussed her organization’s role in introducing transitional living programs to Springfield. Between when M.E.R.C.Y. first opened 10 years ago and today, she said, women and children have continued to comprise the majority of the city’s homeless population.

The organization provides 27 transitional housing units, in which homeless women with children can live for up to two years while they receive counseling and mentoring, parenting and life skills education, and job training. A permanent supportive living program and related services, started in 2005, also serves homeless women with disabilities and their children.

“The first four moms are still with us,” Stone said. “The goal is six months, so we’re happy. We are giving the children stability, the family is intact, and they’re safe — which is probably the most important thing we can do.”

During the comment section of the program, Peg Knoepfle, a local women’s advocate, told the panel that she was “struck by how person-to-person all of these projects are and how much soul and spirit that they have in them.”

Roberts agreed, saying that working with those in need has exposed her to the difficulties and pain that others feel and sparked in her a sense of purpose.

“I have some of my own pain, but I’ve outgrown it and I’m OK now,” Roberts said. “I can set a good example and be a good role model. There are so many women out there who are hungry for that.”

“You’re not out for world peace,” Hughes added. “But taking one person at a time, that’s how we achieve world peace.”