by Ann M. Colford

The story begins with Miryam's House on the lower South Hill, a residential program for women in recovery from domestic violence, abuse, addiction and displacement, founded nearly two decades ago. Then in 1991, Sr. Cathy Beckley of the Holy Names Sisters began the downtown Women's Drop-In Center (WDIC), initially on West First Avenue and now located at 218 S. Howard Street, creating a safe and non-judgmental haven for low-income women living in the downtown area. Soon after, the Dominican Sisters opened the Transitional Living Center (TLC) in the former Spokane Children's Home at 3128 N. Hemlock to provide independent living in a supportive community atmosphere for previously homeless women and children. In January 1995, these three transitional services for women and children merged to form one umbrella organization called Transitions, whose goal is "moving women and families to wholeness."

Supporting all of these services are four local communities of religious women: the Holy Names Sisters, the Franciscan Sisters of Philadelphia, the Sisters of Providence and the Sinsinawa Dominicans. Representatives of each congregation work together on the board of directors with lay women drawn from the broader community to oversee the programs. The Transitions programs are all nondenominational, although spirituality lies at the heart of each program through groups in spirituality and 12-step recovery.

While the programs have seen increased participation and plenty of positive feedback, funding has been an issue for the Transitions board as it has for so many other non-profits.

"Like other organizations, we've done a good job working with foundations and grant programs, but people are giving out less now because their investment returns are less," explains Transitions board member and Development Director Mary Murphy. "And the value of our own reserves has gone down for the same reason."

Facing an operating deficit of nearly $200,000 this year, the board confronted the difficult task of balancing the budget while maintaining program quality. "We agonized about it," Murphy recalls. "We didn't want to cut our programs and services. There was nothing wrong with any of the programs, it was just a problem of money. The only place we could see to cut were administrative services."

In a novel solution to a common problem, the women of the board temporarily cut four paid positions and volunteered to take on those functions themselves. A Dominican sister stepped in to carry on the bookkeeping and other office functions while another board member agreed to do some administrative oversight. Murphy is donating her time for the development position. In addition, the three program directors agreed to take on grant-writing duties. The board members would have preferred to avoid layoffs, Murphy says, but the current solution allows the board to work toward fiscal soundness while maintaining the level of services provided to poor women in the community.

"We believe so strongly in the mission," she says. "We have that at the core of any decision."

Demand for Transitions' services continues to increase even as budgets are cut. The number of applications to the TLC's 15 apartment homes grows each year, as do referrals to rooms at Miryam's House. The WDIC now serves nearly as many women every day as it did each month during its first year, and the women coming in are more likely to be dealing with serious physical and mental health issues. The center has seen client usage grow by 57 percent in just the last three years. Still, the center hosts a wide variety of support groups and classes, including workshops on writing and visual arts. Artwork and poetry created by the center's guests decorate the walls and tables, expressing their makers' joys and struggles.

One bright spot for all of the Transitions programs is the addition of computer training to the roster of services. Thanks to a Community Access to Technology (CAT) grant from the Gates Foundation, technology training centers have been created at each location. The grant funded the purchase of 21 computers, along with associated applications software, networking, Internet access and a full-time staff person for two years. Women in the programs will learn the basic computer skills that will help prepare them for job opportunities.

Announcing the grant last year, Natalie Kenney, director of the Transitional Living Center, said, "We see technology as a learning and empowerment tool that can help women and their children break the cycle of poverty and dependence."

The computers are up and running at the TLC and Miryam's House, while the space for the training center is in development at the already over-crowded WDIC. The center has outgrown its space and is looking to move around the corner to the former Productivity Point building on Third Avenue, which is up for sale. Purchasing the building would offer twice the space of the current rented quarters without impacting the annual operating budget.

"With better space, the program can continue to grow and develop with more offerings for groups and classes as well as better individual services," says Murphy. "It's imperative that we stay in the downtown area. Our client base is located in and around the city core."

The Transitions board has launched a fund-raising campaign to come up with the purchase price. The organization acquired federal funding through Sen. Patty Murray to cover more than half the cost and received commitments for additional funds from the city and private donors, but the board now must raise $197,000 before November 15 to secure the $525,000 building.

Transitions: 328-6702

Publication date: 08/07/03

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