Only in Lawrence 2013The Journal-World asked Lawrenceians to tell us about the unsung heroes in the community, resulting in the annual Only in Lawrence feature.
Most people have experienced times in life when they are just one more problem away from total disaster – a flat tire that would keep them from getting to work or a broken window in the winter they can’t afford to replace.
Those situations can be especially hard for women in a crisis situation, such as when they’re trying to leave an abusive relationship or escape homelessness.
At those times, women may think that only a fairy godmother could get them through that one difficulty standing between them and a better life. Fortunately, here in Lawrence, that fairy godmother actually exists.
In 2005, a group of local women launched the Fairy Godmother Fund, a program administered by the United Way of Douglas County, which helps women in crisis get past that critical hurdle.
“We always talk in terms of helping people just get a step up,” said Diane Oakes, one of the founding contributors to the fund. “So if something’s standing between you and your ability to get to work, if we can provide assistance to that, obviously that’s going to help you be successful.”
In one recent case, Oakes recalled, the fund helped buy an air conditioner for a woman whose small child suffered from severe asthma.
Another woman struggling to get out of a homeless situation had just gotten a job as a nurse, but needed to be on call and couldn’t afford her phone bill. So the fund paid her cellphone bill for a few months to help make sure she could keep her job.
“The conditions are that it’s a one-time request,” Oakes said. “We don’t provide ongoing funding for anything. It’s to really address that need of that one-time critical issue, and that it is a need that nobody else in town can fill.”
Oakes gives credit for the idea to Barbara Reavis, a former executive director of the United Way who died in December 2004.
“She recognized that there was a need in the community that (other) agencies, because of the restrictions on their funding and because of their missions, weren’t always able to meet,” Oakes said. “So she kind of gathered a group of us together, and we came up with this idea of raising money to establish a fund that would provide immediate cash assistance, on a one-time basis, to women in crisis.”
The fund began with donations from Reavis, Oakes and a dozen other area women, but since then roughly 500 other individuals have become regular contributors to the fund. The funds are deposited with the Douglas County Community Foundation, and money is distributed through the United Way on behalf of women who are referred by other partner agencies.
United Way officials say that since it began, the Fairy Godmother Fund has distributed just over $100,000 to more than 400 area women facing a crisis.
The fund does not give cash directly to the recipients, Oakes said, but instead pays bills or expenses on their behalf.
Erika Dvorske, who is now president and CEO of the local United Way, said what makes the Fairy Godmother Fund special to her is the sense of camaraderie it fosters among women in the community.
“Basically there’s a group of women in the community who want other women to know we’re here to help,” Dvorske said. “We want to be on your team. We want to cheer you on when you’re facing struggles.”