When United Way of Lewis County’s Power of the Purse event was started 15 years ago, it was meant to inspire and empower local women to be part of change in their community.

It has sparked numerous community projects, and last year inspired the creation of Women United, a group of women with big plans for the future.

“There is such an energy about Power of the Purse,” Annalee Tobey, president of Women United. “Every time I walk away, I think ‘there aren’t opportunities like this in our county’ and ‘it’s such a cool event’ and ‘how do we keep this ball rolling?’”

Women United is what is known as an Affinity Group. Angela French, resource development director for the United Way of Lewis County said United Way organizations often have Affinity Groups, which are sub-groups of United Way supporters who share demographics along with their passion for United Way. Some examples of Affinity Groups in other areas include: Young Philanthropists; Emerging Leaders United; United Pride; Tocqueville Society; and Women United. French said United Way of Lewis County leadership felt the time was right to start a Women United group in Lewis County.

“It’s literally a group of about 10 passionate women who said ‘how can I do more?’” French said. “At their core is their support for women and children in poverty so they can attain self-sufficiency.”

French noted that the group’s goals align perfectly with the greater United Way of Lewis County goal of “30 by 30,” which aims to pull 30 percent of Lewis County’s population out of poverty by the year 2030.

The core group of leaders, including many female business owners in Lewis County who gave financial support to Women United, were identified and asked to join last year. Leaders set up an organizational infrastructure and had formulated a full calendar of projects for 2020. But their plans were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Things kind of came for a halt and so many of our members are active in other areas of the community where they were needed more urgently,” Tobey said.

With the pandemic showing no signs of letting up soon, eventually the members of Women United more recently began discussing if there were any of their ideas that could be implemented amid the new normal of COVID-19. The idea that did not require large gatherings, or even in-person meetings, was to renew the Dress for Success program that had been championed by the late Donna Karvia. After getting blessings from the remaining volunteers who had been part of that former program, Women United partnered with Visiting Nurses to create Career Closet.

The Career Closet program, which is now available to community members, provides free career clothing for anyone who may lack the resources to purchase them. Those interested in getting career clothing need to get a voucher from one of several locations and then bring that voucher to either the Centralia or Chehalis Visiting Nurses thrift stores. The voucher allows its holder to choose any five items to make a complete work outfit, free of charge.

“It’s a great opportunity for Visiting Nurses to partner with United Way and provide community support,” said Jacki Jewell, who became executive director of the Visiting Nurses Foundation in July. 

Jewell, who grew up locally and previously worked for Lucky Eagle Casino for the last 10 years, is an example of the reason Women United was started in Lewis County. Jewell has deep ties to Visiting Nurses as her grandfather served on the foundation’s board for many years, but said she didn’t consider a career in nonprofits until she got acquainted with United Way. She said she first got acquainted with United Way through the Chef’s Night Out event and through volunteer work with the nonprofit, found a passion for being part of positive changes in her community.

“It just really filled my love tank and then I heard about this position and it really spoke to me,” Jewell said.

When using Career Closet, clothing can be business suit-type clothing but can also be any type of clothing needed to interview for or participate in their chosen job. For example, someone who has secured a position on a construction or road crew could look for study boots and blue jeans.

“The wonderful thing about people who would be using this program is they can shop from the entire store,” Tobey said. “I’m just really glad to have this available in Lewis County.”

And although Career Closet may be administered by a women’s organization, Jewell noted that the career clothing is available for any gender. Jewell said a man recently came in to one of the thrift stores with a Career Closet voucher and was able to create a career outfit for himself.

“It was exciting to see we’re starting to reach people in our community,” Jewell said.

It is hoped that when social distancing requirements are not as stringent, Career Closet may include another planned project for Women United, which is a program where local women will be trained to be mentors to others. For now, the mentoring takes the form of displays at both thrift stores, as well as information from Women United with tips for dressing for success. Tobey said an educational component for Career Closet that will provide information such as tips interviews and job searches, is also planned. 

French said while COVID-19 may be keeping many of their planned events and projects from happening right now, their long-term goal is to get more women involved in Women United. She said anyone interested in volunteer opportunities that may become available in the future should follow Women United on Facebook or sign up for their e-newsletter on the Women United web site.

“We may revisit some of this in 2021 and hope to get the calendar back to life and more people involved,” French said.

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