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The Short Version: Since its establishment in 1905, WomenRising has offered a support system for women experiencing domestic abuse, homelessness, and other types of personal crisis. The nonprofit currently has four core programs that serve more than 10,000 individuals, including single women and their families, in Hudson County in the state of New Jersey. During the COVID-19 pandemic, WomenRising had to adapt quickly to meet the needs of the community. The team’s collaborative efforts ensured a single woman in trouble could always reach out for help and guidance.
For over 116 years, WomenRising has looked out for women and families in Hudson County. It began in 1905 as a Jersey City YWCA, and a team of 168 women worked hard to provide helpful services for women in need. By the end of its first year, WomenRising had 550 members.
In the 1920s, WomenRising successfully raised over $1 million to build a new headquarters on Fairmont Avenue. That headquarters is still in user by the organization to this day. It also has a women’s shelter at an undisclosed location.
The New Jersey nonprofit offers a safe haven for women facing job insecurity, domestic abuse, housing issues, and other challenging circumstances. Its programs include job training, counseling, and housing assistance as well as proactive advocacy work. On average, WomenRising serves over 10,000 women in 11 municipalities in Hudson County. And, yet, there is always more to be done in the fight to end homelessness, economic inequality, and domestic abuse.
Joaneileen Coughlan, the Director of Domestic Violence Services at WomenRising, said the COVID-19 pandemic motivated the team to expand their reach in the community. The nonprofit now offers both in-person and virtual counseling to help domestic abuse survivors talk through their situations. Its virtual programming can also raise awareness about important societal issues impacting women and families.
“It is in our DNA to adapt and help our clients, staff, and community face and overcome barriers,” Joaneileen said. “I think 2020 has made WomenRising more resilient and more determined to effect change and to live our mission.”
Despite all types of challenging circumstances, WomenRising has never wavered from its important work. The women-led organization rallies behind its clients and helps them achieve self-sufficiency and lead productive and happy lives.
During the average year, WomenRising provides counseling services to over 1,500 women and their families. Of course, 2020 was not an average year. The nonprofit organization had to adopt COVID-safe practices and get creative when working with single clients in a fast-changing landscape.
“WomenRising rose to the challenges presented,” Joaneileen told us. “Our services were modified, almost overnight, but did not stop. It was difficult in some ways — but also we got creative and adapted to the new way of working.”
One of the first changes was a halt to in-person staff meetings. The team began working from home whenever possible and meeting via Zoom if they had to collaborate. These Zoom calls became the new normal for the staff, and then it became a new resource for clients.
Virtual counseling sessions replaced in-person counseling during the pandemic. This digital solution was instrumental in uplifting vulnerable women wherever they happened to be. It is a flexible and private resource that is available for free. A session lasts less than an hour.
Thanks to its virtual tools, WomenRising can now reach women in their own homes. Even if a single mom doesn’t have transportation or access to child care, she will be able to talk to a counselor and figure out a strategy to move forward.
Of course, some challenges also came with the nonprofit’s new digital emphasis. The staff members have provided technical assistance to older clients and provided laptop hotspots for students, single moms, and families without reliable WiFi at home.
Joaneileen said she recalled seeing staff members assisting with online unemployment applications and welfare requests.
“Our clients are very resilient, and with WomenRising assistance in all areas, clients were able to adapt,” Joaneileen said. “Virtual counseling was successful because clients didn’t have to leave their home.”
Throughout 2020, the WomenRising Safe House operated at half capacity to allow for adequate social distancing. Strict cleaning protocols were in place to keep everyone safe. Essential staff members showed up every day with a clear idea about what was at stake and what they could do to help.
The COVID-19 pandemic made headlines for sparking a healthcare crisis and economic crisis around the world. However, it also contributed to a less visible crisis. Domestic abuse reports rose dramatically in 2020 as some household lockdowns fueled an unsafe and potentially violent atmosphere.
Many people came to WomenRising because they were struggling with a COVID-related personal crisis. Some women were trapped in their homes with an abusive partner, while others lost their jobs and felt isolated by their single status. It was an incredibly challenging time, and the nonprofit workers had to address issues on multiple fronts.
WomenRising strengthened its advocacy, education, and outreach work to ensure people knew that help was available. The shelter continued to house women who had nowhere else to go, and the 24/7 Domestic Abuse Hotline fielded requests and answered questions from anonymous callers. The helpline number is (201) 333-5700.
Mental health issues affected people of all backgrounds and economic status during the pandemic, yet certain vulnerable groups have had a harder time coping and recovering.
“COVID really increased public awareness around the disparities based on race, economic status, and gender,” Joaneileen said. “Many of the women and families we serve at WomenRising are people of color, immigrants, victims of domestic violence — and most often lack adequate financial resources.”
WomenRising was founded to guide women through crises, and that work became absolutely critical as hospitals became overrun, social venues closed, and even some public support systems ground to a halt.
The WomenRising team was adept at coming up with a COVID safety plan because safety planning has always been a crucial aspect of the nonprofit’s client work. The team works with single women and families to create financial plans, emergency lists, and safety procedures to ensure they’re ready for the challenges ahead.
During COVID-19, WomenRising’s team showed remarkable resilience and worked long hours to keep the home fires burning.
“The staff at WomenRising has been incredible. Everyone figured out working from home or coming into the office,” Joaneileen told us. “We couldn’t be more proud of each other and WomenRising overall.”
Even though COVID kept people apart, online technology allowed communication and education to continue. That’s what WomenRising has learned and its plans to use to advantage in the coming years. The nonprofit’s social media page has become a tool to educate people, particularly young singles, about the red flags of abusive relationships and the resources available to help abuse victims.
WomenRising was founded by women for women in May 1905. The organization started with Bible study groups and dressmaking classes, and eventually it expanded into a state-designated shelter for women. It became a pillar of female strength with a lasting legacy of community support.
Over 115 years later, the nonprofit continues to send a powerful and uplifting message to singles and families throughout Hudson County. Its social services give women the tools to overcome bad situations, including domestic abuse and homelessness, and get back on their feet.
Over the last year, WomenRising faced unprecedented challenges in its everyday operations, but the team has developed creative solutions to be there for people in need. Thanks to its virtual programming, the nonprofit can reach more people than ever before.
“The pandemic allowed WomenRising to show clients and our community that we never close,” Joaneileen said. “We can pivot and change how things are done, but clients are our priority. Providing support services and a safe place to stay is a priority.”