As director of Ithaca’s Women’s Opportunity Center (WOC), Dammi Herath regularly works with women who have to make uncommon decisions and sacrifices. One woman she remembers could not buy herself new underwear because she needed the money to feed her children.
“This is America, the richest country in the world,” Herath said. “We should not have to choose between food or underwear.”
The WOC began as the Displaced Homemakers Center in 1979 to help women become independent following separation, divorce or becoming widowed. In 1995, it became an independent not-for-profit organization and moved to its current location at 315 North Tioga St. In 1998, it changed its name to the Women’s Opportunity Center, according to the center’s Web site.
The center offers six-week classes in subjects like technology, personal finance and interview techniques, and also offers a donated clothing closet for women who need professional clothes. According to a recent county geography report compiled by the center, the WOC helped 656 Tompkins County residents in 2006. Veronica Perina, education and outreach coordinator for the WOC, said the center does help men, but they make up less than 7 percent of the clients.
To support the classes and the rest of the WOC’s work — which costs around $600,000 annually — the center looks for state and national level grants, Herath said. One of the center’s most recent grants was secured by Ithaca College’s chapter of Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE).
SIFE has been working with the WOC for three years, said junior Amy Tuczynski,
co-president of SIFE. This is the second year the group has applied for and received a national SIFE grant sponsored by HSBC bank. The $500 grant, awarded in February, will be used to sponsor classes at the center.
Freshman Amanda Crawford, SIFE liaison to the Women’s Opportunity Center, helped write the grant proposal. Crawford said the grant will be divided among a credit score class this spring and an entrepreneurship class beginning in July. She also said the group is working to create a savings program with America First Credit Union (AFCU). AFCU plans to contribute $1 for every $3 participating women deposit into their accounts, Tuczynski said.
The college’s School of Business also has a relationship with the center. Karen Gorewit, manager of the college’s trade room and internship coordinator for the School of Business, sets up internships at the center.
“The School of Business … more or less adopted the Women’s Opportunity Center as our community service place of choice,” Gorewit said.
Gorewit said the business school made sure this year’s liaison between the center and SIFE was a freshman so the person could form an early relationship with the center’s employees.
“I wanted someone very young so that I would have some continuity for the next four years,” she said.
Gorewit, who teaches computer classes at the center, said classes are kept small to give women optimal attention and fit the class’s ability.
“It’s really a good ratio,” she said. “You get to really be able to push [the women] as far as they can go, and they even go further.”
Gorewit and Rob Gearhart, director of online learning, certification and professor program, are developing a program that grants a professional certificate from the college.
In order to earn the certificate, women must take specific courses and prove proficiency in basic skills, like hygiene and courtesy; managerial skills, such as book keeping and filing reports; and computer skills.
The women must also complete training in the new WOC Retail Training Store, designed to help women get hands-on experience in the retail world. The store will sell professional and business-appropriate clothing.
“A lot of these women can go in and run a cash register at Wal-Mart, but I’d like to see them go beyond that,” Gorewit said. “This is an opportunity for them to get that … training.”
Before the certificate can become official, it must be approved by Susan Engelkemeyer, dean of the School of Business, and other college officials.
“Most of these women do not have degrees,” she said. “So this certificate program will be something to say, Here, I’ve demonstrated I have the skills to work at a retail facility.”
While the students help the WOC, the center also benefits the students.
“The students benefit from [community service] as much as the recipients,” Engelkemeyer said.