Miami-Dade County

Women’s Fund honors women who have contributed to organization, community

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.”

Ellen Shishko, chairman of the board for ArtSpring, says ArtSpring is empowering for the inmates.

“It's not about making the correct choice — it's about knowing that you have a choice,” Shishko said.

Shishko is a former board member of the Women’s Fund. Working with the women, she noted, has been rewarding and often surprising. Some stories struck her, like that of a woman whose son was in a coma for five months before he died. The woman was never able to visit him.

“They were dealing with loss, fear, relationships,” Shishko said.

Billie, a member of the Seminole Tribe, is not allowed into the prisons without special permission because she is on parole. Instead of running programs from within, she helps raise funds for the organization.

“My biggest joy and revelation in life is my ability to do service,” Billie said. “I can't tell you how good it makes me feel to be able to contribute something to society and to inmates.”

By giving back she is helping to right some of her past mistakes.

“This gentleman's life that I took, it's not completely in vain if I reach out to someone and help them on their journey,” Billie said.

By working with programs like ArtSpring, the Women’s Fund has made a significant difference in the community.

“If you know that you're interested in change in the community and you don't know where to start, the Women’s Fund is great because they're finding the grassroots organizations, vetting them and supporting them,” said Alexandra Codina, a documentary filmmaker, who worked with the group for six years.

Codina, another one of the women being honored, is invested in raising awareness. Her 2009 documentary, Monica & David, followed a married couple with Down syndrome and the struggles they face.

“I always just had an interest in having access to the world I wouldn't typically be exposed to and sharing that with people through film,” Codina said. “If you have any level of purpose in life, your only responsibility is to do good.”

Supporting organizations and groups, no matter how small, is important to the Women’s Fund because small sums can add up to big differences.

“I believe in the drop of the ocean theory,’’ Billie said. “You can do something and it might not help a million people but it might help one.”