One stimulates the imaginations of young and old. The second brings care to the uninsured. The third feeds schoolchildren with the fruits and wisdom of the earth.
All are invested in the well-being of the Island community.
Together, they serve the hearts, souls and bodies of Islanders in their daily work, said Women Empowered board member Ljuba Davis, while presenting the Women of the Year honor to Lee Fierro, Sarah Kuh and Noli Taylor.
The honorees represent three generations of Island life, she said.
Ms. Fierro is the longtime artistic director of Island Theatre Workshop, an organization founded in 1968 to bring theatre education to the Island.
Sarah Kuh, program director of the Vineyard Health Care Access Program, helps an average of 3,000 Islanders apply for medical and other public benefits each year.
And Noli Taylor, the youngest of the honorees, is the program director at Island Grown Schools, a nonprofit that engages schoolchildren in farm-based education and serves 1,500 meals made with local ingredients every school day.
“Each of these women has made an outstanding difference in the quality of our lives,” said Women Empowered president Vivian Stein at the fund-raising event, held Sunday at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown.
Women Empowered was founded in 2000 to help Islanders navigate financial difficulties. So-called facilitators help clients ranging in age from 18 to 80 gain a sense of control over their lives, often in the realm of personal finances. Many turn to the organization for help applying to jobs, learning budgeting strategies and managing debt. Some clients may be newly divorced, or newly widowed, and might not have experience managing their own finances, Ms. Stein said. Others may be struggling to make ends meet due to winter unemployment.
Facilitators could meet with a client on a weekly basis for as long as a year, or just once or twice, depending upon the severity of the difficulties the client is facing. Clients are often referred to the Healthcare Access Program to sign up for benefits, so they know the impact of Ms. Kuh’s work firsthand.
Ms. Stein said choosing just three women for the award wasn’t easy as there are many deserving Islanders. She hopes the Women of the Year honors will become an annual tradition, she said.
Ms. Davis presented each honoree with a hand-blown vase from Martha’s Vineyard Glassworks in West Tisbury. “May you continue to do the good work that you do,” she said. “What’s inside [the box] represents clarity, because it’s clear, it represents strength because it’s strong and it represents beauty, because each of you have been able to provide beauty to so many people on the Island.”
Ms. Fierro, known to many as the actress who played Mrs. Kintner in Jaws, said she was astonished and very proud to be named a woman of the year. She said she had only become aware of Women Empowered this summer, and feared many were similarly unfamiliar with Island Theatre Workshop.
Ms. Taylor spoke of those who support her organization.
“I have a theory that when women get recognized for the work that they do, there is an army of women who stand behind them, who make that work come to life and also deserve recognition alongside them,” Ms. Taylor said.
Her army includes the 14 women and one man who contribute to the programming of Island Grown Schools, as well as the cafeteria staff who serve the local foods. She also thanked the Island’s teachers who welcome IGS into their classrooms.
Ms. Kuh recognized her fellow honorees, whom she called “amazing women.”
“I thought we should call it the cool chicks award,” she said, inspiring laughter.
Risë Terney, a member of the board and a former facilitator, says her involvement with Women Empowered allows her to meet new people, and is similar to her former job as an attorney working with domestic violence victims in Chicago.
“This view we have of the Island is that everyone has a lot of money and is on vacation,” Ms. Terney said. “And it’s not always true.”
As a facilitator she has helped women come up with their own strategies to straighten out their lives. “We try to empower them to make their own decisions,” she said.
Sometimes it takes a while to get clients to take action on their behalf, said fellow board member and intake counselor Joyce Brigish. But Women Empowered can only help the client if he or she is ready to engage in problem solving. Clients are charged on a sliding scale, and though the fee may be small for a session, it is important to require payment, Ms. Brigish said. “Even if they pay a nominal amount, they will take ownership,” she said. “It’s very hard to help them when they are not willing to help themselves.”
In the seven years she’s worked with Women Empowered, Ms. Brigish has worked with clients as young as 22 years old as well as those in their 70s — and men as well as women. This year the organization is changing its name to Islanders Empowered, to more accurately describe the population it serves. She says the name change is essential to their outreach to men of the community, who she suspects are embarrassed to say they seek help at Women Empowered.
“Men need our help just as much as women,” Ms. Stein said. “Now we’d like men to feel as though they are not excluded.”
In her speech, keynote speaker Janet Wu, a reporter for 7News, congratulated the organization for its work.
“You . . . are working hard to make this beautiful place even more so, and for that, I commend you,” she said.
Women Empowered welcomes new clients who wish to better manage their money, resolve debt, explore job options and apply for tuition assistance and microloans. Visit women-empowered.org for more information.