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Community Women Against Hardship helps women in crisis to help themselves

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 12, 2010 - R&B singer Melba Moore couldn't have been a more appropriate choice for last fall's concert at the Sheldon to raise money for Community Women Against Hardship, a self-help group. Its mission is to lift up women and families experiencing streaks of bad luck not unlike the kind that Moore herself once faced.

By the 1980s, Moore, a Tony Award winner, was a struggling mother whose abusive marriage had left her broke and homeless, a fading star whose glow had been extinguished to the point that she was just another anonymous welfare mother and food stamp recipient in New York. Through determination and help from others, Moore eventually bounced back and regained her flame -- just as Community Women hopes its clients will do.

The organization owes its creation, in 1988, to a report about the pervasiveness of poverty among female-headed black families in St. Louis. At that time, no fewer than 50 percent of these households lacked basic necessities; the number is now down to about 30 percent. Alarmed by the statistics, Gloria L. Taylor and the late Betty J. Lee, both administrators at the University of Missouri, decided to make a difference. Their solution was Community Women Against Hardship, which helps people in need so that they might one day be in a position to give back to others.

One dramatic example of the group's success is former client Patrice Johnson. In the 1990s, she was expecting her third child, moving out of a rocky marriage and trying to attend Forest Park Community College. A friend suggested that she call the organization, which provided food and later school supplies and diapers for her new baby, as well as transportation to and from work and school for Johnson.

"Some of the things that my family needed may seem small now," Johnson says, "but at that time I couldn't afford a lot of things that were important to somebody with children, trying to get to and from work and trying to stay in college."

She has since remarried, earned two master's degrees in education -- one from Fontbonne and another from Lindenwood -- settled into a job as a public school teacher in a St. Louis County district and is enrolled in an online program to earn a doctorate in education.

Community Women's big payback has been its ability to tap into the skills and resources that Johnson and others develop over time. Johnson, for example, is now a regular volunteer, having set up academic and tutoring programs for children of clients. Johnson is also about to become a CWAH board member.

"The program was really helpful to the well-being of my children and in getting me started on the journey that I am on now," says Johnson. "What this program says is that people can be a good resource to help others once their own basic needs are met. Giving back is the spiritual part of this organization."

Taylor says Johnson's story is one example of what has to be done in poor neighborhoods. Another example, Taylor says, is a former welfare mother with nine children and improving her situation despite seemingly insurmountable odds. The woman has since worked her way up to a job as a case worker, bought a home and is providing for her family. Taylor says such women illustrate how CWAH makes a difference, one person and one family at a time.

"We all feel that God is the center of all of this," Taylor says. "The question is why are you so special that you should have all these things that people (like Johnson and the welfare mother) shouldn't? What we're saying is that maybe if we provide these women with a little help, they could do almost anything they wanted to do."

Taylor talks constantly as she leads a visitor to various rooms inside of the group's building, an old school annex at 3964 West Belle Place. CWAH paid $1 for the site and then renovated it through donations and in-kind services worth about $500,000. The building is large enough to handle all of the group's operations -- its food pantry, health and nutrition outreach programs, workshops for parenting, tutoring for children, and educational programs for people wanting to earn GEDs or gain computer skills.

Taylor strolls into a large room containing coats, dresses, skirts and other donated clothing, all hanging neatly on racks and displayed as meticulously as they would be in a department store.

"Women like jewelry, too," she says as she pauses and points to a glass display case filled with donated bracelets, earrings and necklaces. "It makes them feel good about themselves."

Then, shifting back to the center's real work of putting women on the track to self-sufficiency, Taylor says, "Every one of us should have some investment in the inner core of the city. We have got to stop isolating it and start including it."

She then thinks out loud about Patrice Johnson and wonders how much human potential is lost in cities "if society takes the attitude that we shouldn't help people like her because she's got two kids and one on the way, and we can't imagine her going for a Ph.D."

Community Women strives to work with about 100 new families each year. All are recommended by the public with the final selection by a panel. One of the biggest boosters of the group's self-help philosophy has been St. Louis American publisher Donald Suggs, who says Taylor "exemplifies the traditional black values of caring and sharing for our neighbors."

CWAH has two full-time paid staffers and a number of volunteers. For its financial support, the group depends on golf tournaments and concerts, such as Melba Moore's performance last fall; donations, such as a $5,000 contribution from AmerenUE for a Walk for Life walk-a-thon; and grants, such as the one from the St. Louis Mental Health Board. Some services require paid professionals, but much work is done by volunteer case workers, teachers and other professionals.

"We didn't say we were going to do it all or had all the answers" Taylor says. "We don't have the wealth, but we know we have a lot of talent. People understand that you have to be able to give something back."