The Women’s Fund of Miami-Dade, Miami’s first organization designed to support women and girls, is celebrating its 20th anniversary by honoring 22 women who have helped to shape it.
A small group of women who saw a need for change in Miami started the Fund in 1993. Marilynn Gladstone, who was director of the Donors’ Forum at the time, was a founding member.
“I thought Miami needed to have an organization that would focus on women and girls,” said Gladstone, one of the 22 women being honored at the April 19th luncheon. “For me equity has always been important, and social justice has always been important. I think there has to be as much emphasis as possible on leveling.”
When Gladstone, who has since retired, and the other women began the organization, they only had $5,000 to give in grants.
“It was a catalyst,” she said. “We became a beacon in the community for other funders.”
Fran Katz, senior programs officer for the Fund, began working with the organization when there were only two people on staff. She said working with the “unsung heroes” of Miami makes her job rewarding.
“There are people who go to work every day in the trenches and neighborhoods that are scary to some people, trying to help the most disadvantaged in our community and really making a difference,” she said. “I have had the opportunity to get to know and closely interact with some of the most amazing people in our community.”
Katz tells the story of an organization called GEMS (Girls Educated and Motivated for Success), which a high school teacher started in the late 1990s. She asked for funding, and the program grew to help girls on several levels, from finding scholarships to finding prom dresses.
Years later, one of the former participants had become the student body president of Miami-Dade College and had lunch with the college president.
“If you hadn’t taught me, I wouldn't have known what to do with all that silverware there,’’ she later told the organization.
Stories like that, Katz said, are a driving force.
“It's just been really an honor to help some of the leaders of those organizations, many of whom were women from these communities who saw a need,” she said.
The Women’s Fund has dispersed more than 400 grants and supported more than 50,000 women and girls over the last 20 years. It has a large presence in the agricultural community, where a program helps teach women computer skills and how to get their GEDs, and in the prison system, with programs to help empower women through the arts.
ArtSpring, for instance, is a program funded by the Women’s Fund . It engages incarcerated women to express themselves through art, dance and theater. ArtSpring Board Member Janice Billie was in prison for murder when she discovered the program.
“It opened up an avenue in my mind that I didn't even know existed,” Billie said. “You get caught up in the everyday, ‘This is how it is, you're just surviving.’ ”
Billie was released on parole in 1999, but still remembers how much the arts helped her when she was in prison.
“It was a sense of freedom inside the prison walls, psychologically speaking,” she said. “With that I knew there was no limit in life. We only limit ourselves.”