Lowering Obstacles: Women's Fund of Door County
Jennifer Moeller was chatting with a local 10-year old girl, both of them attending a wedding in Door County about seven years ago. “I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up,” Moeller recalls. “She said, ‘I’d like to be a veterinarian ... but I’ll probably be a waitress like my mom and grandma.’ ”
The comment rocked Moeller. She tripped over her words for a moment before choosing to encourage the youngster to follow her dreams. About a year later, Moeller joined the Women’s Fund of Door County and currently serves as board co-chair.
Moeller, 50, and a dozen more women on the board are channeling that same spirit of encouragement as they raise
and distribute funds to women at all stages of life in Door
“Whether it’s that little girl who had already stopped dreaming at 10, or a woman who is returning to college at age 40, we’re meeting a wide range of needs Women's Fund of Door County
across our county,” Sally O’Brien, another board member, said.
The organization is entering its 10th year, and is now granting
$100,000 per year to Door County nonprofits. The fund’s endowment campaign, which launched in 2016, has already blossomed to $1.2 million. All those funds are being invested
in Door County women and girls in the form of grants that address health concerns, educational voids, automotive needs and almost any void that crops up.
“We learned that women are more likely than men to suffer at or below the poverty level,” Moeller said. “Be it employment and health benefits or even a lack of self-worth and goalsetting for girls in Door County. To start a women’s fund in Door County was unique.”
The area, however, also is unique. During the summer and fall months, Door County bustles with tourists and seasonal visitors. But as the money flow from tourism fades, so do many of the seasonal jobs, leaving an underpaid population in a high-cost real estate market.
Nearly 8.5 percent of Door County residents live in poverty. And about 30 percent of the county’s female-led households earn below the poverty level.
“A lot of the year-round residents work two-three jobs during the season with no benefits, then theydrop to very limited or no employment,”
Moeller said. “The seasonal population drives up the cost of housing and childcare resources. We are working incredibly hard to
offset these.”And unlike a lot of more urban communities with a Women’s Fund, Door County’s group is meeting needs without the help of large corporate funds. “We’re unique because we don’t have any big corporations,” O’Brien said. “We have lots of family-owned small businesses and a high saturation of seasonal residents, many of whom are great philanthropists at their permanent homes and also help here.”
O’Brien started out as a seasonal resident 31 years ago and has lived full-time in Sevastopol for 11 years. She started as the Women’s Fund first president and now operates as its treasurer. “By 2016 we were getting so many requests for funds that we started an endowment campaign,” O’Brien said. “It’s just three years later and we’ve surpassed $1 million in the endowment.” To date, the fund’s largest grant is the Invest, Dream, Achieve program.
A community collaborative grant, the Fund earmarked $200,000 for a three-year program that teams up with the Northeast Wisconsin
Technical College. The program accepts up to 25 Door County women (it just wrapped up its first year serving 20) attending NWTC and helps guide them through to a degree. The key component of the program is a NWTC-employed support specialist, funded through the grant
money. This counselor helps the women find the right job fit, and helps them set up and contribute to a savings account with a portion
of saved funds being matched by the program. There is one-on one financial coaching and even a $300 bonus for each successfully
“They need to stay above a 2.0 GPA, but the majority are above a 3.0,” O’Brien said. “It takes a village, as they say. We always talk about how
beautiful Door County is. Yes, we’re blessed with beautiful land, but it is the people that make it so beautiful.” Grants like this are the Women’s Fund’s attempt for advancement to change. “We’re hoping these advancement grants bring systemic change,” Moeller said. “Take something like a livable wage with benefits ... look at how that can improve our whole community. The obstacles here are higher. So we’re trying to lower those obstacles.”
While big-ticket grants like the Invest, Dream, Achieve program are marquee mentions, the Fund has invested even more money — via multitudes of smaller offerings — across the county. Deemed sustainability grants, the Fund has doled out donations for victims of abuse to set off on their own. There’s a program that provides healthcare assistance to cancer patients. Another program offered parenting courses for county jail inmates. Like the 10-year-old girl who, as Moeller explained, had already stopped dreaming, both she and O’Brien tend to gravitate toward the programs that help encourage youth.
Moeller, who has lived in Sturgeon Bay for 20 years and practices law mostly in the areas of family law and probate, looks fondly to a grant that had a more government-education tie as one of her favorites. “In 2015, we granted money to our local Youth in Government program. It was timely given the Wisconsin Women’s Council report that year that noted of all of the elected officials in Wisconsin, 23 percent were women,” Moeller recalls.
“Encouraging girls in their leadership potential through Youth in Government enhances their involvement in community and business leadership regardless of whether they run for office or encourage other women that they belong at the table making decisions that impact all of us.”
Also in 2015, O’Brien highlights an educational program that emphasized STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs for middle school students. “For one spring day, all middle school children in the Sturgeon Bay school system were bused to Southern Door High School where they had the opportunity to participate in a series of science experiments,” O’Brien said. “The experiments ranged from simple physics to blowing up things in the parking lot based on chemical reaction. The following day these students brought their parents and grandparents to show them the experiments and display what they did.”
The program, which funded Michigan Tech University students and worked with the Door County Economic Development Council and several employers, was called Mind Trekkers and relied on Michigan Tech senior engineer students. O’Brien said the event helped several of the high school student volunteers change their intended majors to engineering or science-related fields. w