Funding Women: 300 Women Seek to Expand Opportunities For All of Ojai
By Sarah Howery Hart
Story by Sarah Howery Hart | Photos by Brandi Crockett
In the recent movie, “Wonder Woman,” Diana, who has trained to be a warrior, leaves her island paradise home to battle for the rights of others, and, in doing so, becomes part of their world. The Ojai Women’s Fund is home to more than 300 local wonder women who use their organization’s training to serve the underserved in the Ojai Valley. In fact, the members of one of the OWF’s smaller groups-within-the-group has taken the name, The Wonder Funders.
Many of the OWF’s smaller groups have such whimsical names, including Andy’s Angels, the Kick Ass Girls, the Ojai Book Women, and, in reference to Ojai’s famous citrus groves, the Pixie Chicks and Ojai Pixies. Their philathropical goal, however, as described on their website, is strictly business: “. . . making substantial grants on an annual basis to organizations that target critical needs in the Ojai Valley.”
“Together we, as a Giving Circle, can do much more than we could ever do alone,” the website also states. The geographical area for the giving circle’s services covers Casitas Springs to Upper Ojai, with the categories for the non-profit organization grants including Art, Education, Environment, Health and Social Services. Although 2016 was the inaugural year for the Ojai Women’s Fund, the group has already reached a membership in excess of 300 women, who have contributed over $60,000.
The model for this organization is not a new one, according to OWF co-chair Peggy Russell. “Karen Evenden, the founder, was the force behind the OWF, Russell says. “She was founder of a women’s fund in Seattle, which started over 20 years ago. That group has now given millions of dollars to non-profits, and when Karen moved to Ojai, she wanted to start a group here.” Russell says response at the initial informational meeting was overwhelming, with women wanting to join right then and there.
“All my life I have felt very fortunate to live in a beautiful place; to have wonderful friends, and enjoy whatever there is to enjoy, and I think we all really need to look past ourselves and see what’s needed by those around us. I think this organization has done that for a lot of these women. It does my heart good to see these women say, ‘I didn’t even know this need existed.’”
— Peggy Russell
The Ojai Women’s Fund Philosophy
The philosophy behind OWF is relatively simple. Women combine financial resources and their time, and their basic task begins with observing what is occurring in their community, including levels of poverty. “More than 22 percent of the people here are at poverty level,” Russell explains, “and they’re underserved. A lot of people don’t know about the underserved.”
To ensure that the members have a thorough understanding of that little-known population and which groups are serving them, according to Marquita Flemming, OWF Grants Committee co-chairperson, the observation process is comprehensiv. It begins with detailed questions for each organization requesting a grant. “We’re asking, what is the population they serve; how do they know that population needs those services; how do they know their services are working; how do they follow up?” She adds that representatives of the grant-seeking organizations have the opportunity to visit the Grants Committee and ask their own questions about the process.
And, Grants Committee members visit them. “The one thing everybody says,” Flemming reports, “is how amazing it is to go out and meet with the people doing the work. There’s a big difference between just reading the application and actually going out and seeing the passion in someone’s eyes.”
“The Grants Committee then selects two applicants from each category to recommend to the general membership,” Russell says. Then, the members vote.
The 2016 Grant Winners
And, the winners were, receiving $60,000 in grants in 2016: Girls Empowerment Workshop in the Education category; Once Upon A Watershed (Environment); Ojai Youth Opera (Arts); Livingston Memorial Visiting Nurses Association (Health); and due to a tie, both the Nan Tolbert Nurturing Center and Reins of H.O.P.E. (Human Opportunity Partnership with Equine) won in the Social Services category. “We pulled from our donors and got another ten thousand dollars so we could fund both,” Russell says.
An example of how the funding was used by a group was the opera “Brundibar” by the Ojai Youth Opera. “The grant was so needed and so appreciated,” says co-founder Julija Zonic. “Our project was a success, we had an amazing performance at Libbey Bowl and in Santa Barbara. The kids had to each develop their own character, so had to learn about the history of Holocaust. The look on their faces when they realized how real these characters were …. At the end of the performance the kids were crying.”
Zonic continues, “I feel really good about what kind of seed we’ve planted in these future leaders, how they felt empowered by learning about something like the Holocaust. We give the message of positivity, proactiveness and that our future is through our youth. It was important for our community to spread a positive message and teach children through children.”
The Ojai Youth Opera also applied funding to outreach programs for Ojai schools, enabling students to become involved in their musical performances.
Although not all applicants receive a grant like Ojai Youth Opera, Russell says that even groups not receiving OWF funding usually benefit in other ways. “The work accomplished by OWF often extends beyond the winners. Even though an agency might not receive our grant, others often donate to them.”
“She was founder of a women’s fund in Seattle, which started over 20 years ago. That group has now given millions of dollars to non-profits, and when Karen moved to Ojai, she wanted to start a group here.”
— Peggy Russell on Karen Evenden
The Wonder Women Profile
Before joining OWF, most members already operated from overflowing calendars, including full-time jobs, families, and for most, volunteer work for several other organizations. But each has a specific reason for further extending their time and resources to bring the world of OWF into their own. “I think all my life I have felt very fortunate to live in a beautiful place,” Russell says. “To have wonderful friends, and enjoy whatever there is to enjoy, and I think we all really need to look past
ourselves and see what’s needed by those around us. I think this organization has done that for a lot of these women. It does my heart good to see these women say, ‘I didn’t even know this need existed.’”
Member Mary Ann O’Conner, who along with her mother and three adult daughters comprise their own smaller OWF group, has a particular reason for joining, as well. “Women need to support women,” she says. “The wage gap is real; violence against women is real; sexual harassment and assault are real. Women live longer than men and are therefore more vulnerable to elder abuse and to poverty in old age.” She adds, “When you can give, give generously. You never know when you or someone you love might need the help that these wonderful organizations provide.”
Upper Ojai’s Tiarzha Taylor’s reason for joining includes a personal component. “For me I’m so grateful for the blessings I have in my life, and I recognize so many people who came before me and sacrificed so I could have the same opportunities as others.”
The OWF webite states, “You can do a little or you can do a lot,” and Taylor is an example of the many women who become involved beyond their role as general members. “I joined last year,” Taylor says, “and was so impressed, I wanted to step in and take a larger role.” The role she chose was working with membership. She is also now leader of a one of the small groups, the Motley Crew. “We are made up of a group of women who didn’t have a group.”
The Second Year’s Goals
Now in its second year, OWF’s goals include recruiting younger women and girls. Taylor says, “I think you’re never too young and it’s never too early to start thinking about how to help others and give back.” Toward this end, her own daughters, 10 and 13, have joined the group. “I think it’s important to teach children to be compassionate and help others, and I think the
Ojai Women’s Fund is an amazing way to do that. They get to hear what’s happening in our community, to learn about non-profits, and decide for themselves where the money should go.”
She adds that as members, her daughters joined her in reviewing the grant applicants’ materials. “It was a really great experience for a mother to have with her daughters. Other moms are wanting to do this, too.”
O’Connell agrees. “It is one thing to talk to your children about the importance of charitable giving. It is a whole other order of engagement to have them participate in making decisions about where charitable dollars should go.” She adds that her family’s three generation approach has been valuable on a number of levels. “I value so much the conversations we’ve had about the various organizations and the work they do. It is great to have my 87-year-old mother’s point of view in these discussions, as well as to hear what my 20- and 30-something daughters think. This year my ten-month-old granddaughter sat in on the conversation. I can’t wait to hear what she’ll have to say!”
Future Funding Needs
Toward the goal of addressing Ojai Valley’s current needs, Russell says one critical area is education. “Right now, it seems that the greatest need we’ve seen overall is education in the grammar schools. That includes helping students that don’t have access to computer. Some of the schools have put in applications for grants to keep computer labs open after school until 6 or 7 p.m. at night, so parents can come in too.” She says elementary school support is also a goal. “There are a lot of single-parent families, and these people need support. Some have support from family members, but many have none. Kids need lunches, they need places to go after school.”
For the 2017 grant season, 31 applications were submitted, and winners have now been announced (see sidebar, opposite page). Two goals were to increase the membership to 450 and increase grants to $90,000. “This is far-reaching,” Russell says “and it’s only our second year. We’re learning a lot, and we are getting women joining, including those who hadn’t thought about doing this before.”
OWF members are realizing the benefits to themselves, as well. “We didn’t even know each other,” Taylor says, referring to the Motley Crew group. “But we’ve come out of this experience as friends. If not for the Women’s Fund, we might not have crossed paths to provide the diversity of experiences we bring to the table. We had our meeting last week, and were so happy to see each other again.”
“I think you’re never too young and it’s never too early to start thinking about how to help others and give back … It was a really great experience for a mother to have with her daughters. Other moms are wanting to do this, too.”
— Tiarzha Taylor
Flemming has a group comprised of former strangers too. “It’s really fun, and it was an organizational anomaly,” she explains, adding that many of the smaller OWF group members were already involved with each other in other groups. “We discovered that there were women who wanted to join, but they weren’t members of other types of groups.” And similar to Taylor’s rationale in naming her group of strangers the Motley Crew, Flemming chose to call her group Karass. “It’s a word I remember from reading Kurt Vonnegut,” she says. “It means people who cross your path and just become part of your world.”
In the movie, Wonder Woman leaves her home island in order to become part of the world of others whom she can assist through her special skills and expertise.
In Ojai, the 300-plus wonder women comprising the Ojai Women’s Fund organization have chosen to enter all of the worlds within their home, the Ojai Valley, to find and assist the underserved populations, using their own special skills and expertise.
(Ojai Women’s Fund, ojaiwomensfund.org, 805-746-3096, P.O. Box 310, Ojai, CA 93024)
The Ojai Women’s Fund is pleased to announce $64,000 in grants to eleven organizations in the Ojai Valley. These grants, awarded in five program areas, reflect the Ojai Women’s Fund commitment to making grants on an annual basis to organizations that target critical needs in the Ojai Valley.
• Fully Funded: $10,000 Boys & Girls Club — Project Name: Oak View Club Site Serving Ojai Valley Residents
• Honorary Grant: HELP of Ojai — Project Name: Student Mental Health Program
• Fully Funded: $10,000 OjaiCARES, Inc. — Project Name: Patient Navigation
• Honorary Grant: Ojai Valley Community Hospital Foundation — Project Name: The Gift of Healing Air
• Fully Funded: $7,850 to Food for Thought Ojai — Project Name: Planting, Eating, Saving, and Sharing; Seeds and Students
• Honorary Grant: Mira Monte Elementary PTO — Project Name: Mira Monte Garden of Knowledge
• Fully Funded: $8,550 to Ojai Unified School District (Music Department) — Project Name: Ojai Valley Mariachi Camp
Honorary Grant: Nordhoff Dance Alliance — Project Name: Broadway’s Best Moments, Spring Dance Concert (OUSD)
• Honorary Grant: Ojai Valley Libraries Friends & Foundation — Project Name: OVLFF Sponsored Little Free Libraries
• Fully Funded: $10,000 to Ojai Festivals, Ltd. — Project Name: BRAVO Program: Education Through Music
• Honorary Grant: Performances to Grow On — Project Name: The Ojai Storytelling Festival