by Joyce Forney
Like many other volunteers, my first venture was an act of self preservation. As the wife of a traveling engineer, and mother of three under the age of 3, I desperately needed adult conversation. The League of Women Voters of Dallas met my needs. First it was the local discussion group; later it would involve Board positions. Within those parameters I found myself setting up the Annual Finance Drive, planning and emceeing a weekly radio talk show and, eventually, becoming President of the LWV of Arizona.
Once you've found an organization you can identify with, you meet like-minded people and it becomes a mainstay in your life. With the League, you also had a way to start out in a new community and make new friends. Even little Sedona, AZ, (pop. 12,000) offered me that affiliation. I'm not a political person --- never ran for office --- but I'm interested in clean government, so the League was a good match.
One of the important things I learned there was that having differing opinions doesn't (or shouldn't) produce enmity. That, with varied opinions a group should arrive at better solutions to problems.
But I'm jumping ahead too fast. Back in the 60's I had six teenagers at home and some of them were "acting out". I decided to put a little distance between us so I wouldn't be myopically absorbed in their antics. I went back to college and collected a Masters in Counseling and Student Services in Higher Education. No job openings at the Community Colleges in Dallas? Then a job with the Texas State Employment Commission would be fine.
It was wonderfully instructive. I learned about the "Dictionary Of Occupational Titles" and about helping people feel confident enough so they could step up and apply for work. Public transportation wasn't available at the right hours to take my clients where job openings existed so I steeled myself to testify at a public transportation hearing.
Then my husband took early retirement and we decided to test the climate in Colorado. My degree didn't net a job immediately so I offered my services for free. A Women's Center was located on a Community College campus nearby and I spent a few hours each day developing a resource book listing all the agencies and organizations that could help our displaced homemaker clients. Next we enlisted our clients and prepared to go with them to visit Colorado legislators and ask for funding for a Displaced Homemaker program. The legislators had no idea how many divorces were being granted annually until they pledged $5 per divorce to be used by Women's Centers in the state. I became Director of the Women's Center.
Still not enough money to cover the programs. So we became involved in writing grant proposals. Between funding from Red Rocks Community College where we were located, the divorce fees and our grants we built a staff of eight, almost all of whom began at the Women's Center as I had --- as volunteers. We designed programs to attract re-entry women students and displaced homemakers whom we'd counsel and support emotionally and, sometimes, financially.
We developed an "early" loan which would tide a person over until their Pell grant came through. Sometimes it fell on my lot to collect loans slow in coming back. But the whole process of assisting women to find a career and recognize their value to an employer was exciting. Sixteen years later I still get an occasional thrilling message: "You may not remember me, but I remember my trembling entrance and I wanted to let you know what I'm doing today."
We designed new solutions to old problems, one of which was the deplorable default rate of divorce and child support payments in Jefferson County. It seemed sensible to me to go to Court with clients; acting as a Special Witness I would explain that testing and counseling had brought my client to a career choice. It would take x months to prepare, during which she would need financial support. Following that she would hunt for a job, after which support for her would not be needed. Judges seemed to like this solution and it resulted in greater likelihood of payments with an end in sight.
After meeting Dr. Mohammed Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, I was convinced women who lived in the Verde Valley of Arizona (where we lived in the 90's) could benefit from a micro lending program. A few friends and I drew up an incorporated not-for-profit organization called "Working Capital for Women of the Verde Valley". We sank our own funds plus a little from Soroptimists and a Methodist Women's group and began the venture with $5,000. As Dr. Yunus predicted "Poor women are not poor risks banking-wise. 'Working Capital" partnered with a local bank to put money into C.D.'s which secured the loans they would make to our entrepreneurs. We acted as the gate keepers to give a thumbs-up on the most likely aspirants. Then the bank loaned from what became a revolving fund. We didn't lose any money and we helped a few women establish small businesses and become more conversant with banking practices.
The entrepreneurs included a woman who wanted a wood floor and an air conditioner in her garage so she could teach tap dancing; a woman in her early 60's who established a tour business oriented to senior citizens; one who made fine artificial flower arrangements; and a school teacher who wanted to switch to a more flexible schedule cleaning houses.
The learning involved in every new endeavor is priceless. The friendships made are important. I'm pretty convinced that new accomplishments are built on the "bones" of past learning experiences. At 81 I'm comfortable speaking publicly, editing a newspaper for our retirement community, convening meetings and many other activities because of past repertoires. It's been a great life in large measure because of my exposure to new challenges and people.
About the Author:
Born and raised in New York State, Joyce Forney attended Cornell University, where she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in 1946. She earned her M.A. from U of Texas at Denton in 1970 before relocating to Denver, Colorado, where she worked as a volunteer in the Women's Center at Red Rocks Community College. Within six months, she became the Center’s Director, a position she retained for 10 years. Joyce next moved to Sedona, Arizona, where she worked at the Food Bank to help adults find employment and became President of the League of Women Voters for the State of Arizona. She now lives in a Presbyterian retirement community in Dallas where she is editor of the community's newsletter.
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