By: Lorraine Longhi
Before she had a career spanning 20 years in social services, Susan Berman was a single mother of three trying to work her way through college.
Today, Berman is President and Chief Operating Officer of Fresh Start Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping empower women going through transition.
Started in 1992 by Pat Petznick and Beverly Stewart, the Fresh Start Foundation began as an organization seeking to help women help themselves, be it in their personal or professional lives.
“We’re very holistic in that we pay attention to the whole woman,” said Berman.
“We try to assist with anything that will make her feel better about herself and give her the confidence to go out and do the things she needs to do.”
While the organization does not provide shelter for women, the services provided run the gamut from financial counseling and esteem building to career wardrobing.
“This is not a handout,” said Berman. “It’s a hand up.”
For Kathy Tilque, East Valley Executive Council Chair, the transitioning stage that all women go through is a time where she believes they need the most assistance in navigating through obstacles.
An organization simply described as women helping women, the service centers are open to all women over the age of 18 who are going through a divorce, out or work, or simply looking to advance forward in their career field.
“We have our own personal stories of transition in our lives,” said Tilque. “I’ve always wanted to help women in transition lead lives they want to lead in regards to their career and their families.”
According to the foundation’s demographics, 56 percent of clients carry the sole financial responsibility for their households.
Additionally, a total of 69 percent of these women live without a partner or spouse in their homes.
However, instead of telling women what to do, Fresh Start is there to guide the women in whatever way is most helpful in their particular case.
“We don’t design a business plan for you,” said Tilque. “We’re there to build self-esteem and give self-empowerment to women.”
The services offered to the women at the centers are multi-faceted and tailored to each individual woman.
Aside from attending interview and resume building workshops, the women can also engage in on-the-job training at a retail boutique run by the foundation.
In addition to receiving a stipend for working at the boutique, it gives the women fodder for their resumes as well as career readiness that they might not have otherwise had.
Alongside the Jewell McFarland Lewis Center in downtown Phoenix, the organization’s newly opened East Valley Center is now open to the public five days a week.
Located at the East Valley Institute of Technology, the center prides itself on convenient access to public transportation as well as the accessible hours available for women to come in whenever they are ready.
“The hardest thing to do is pick up the phone or walk in somewhere and say, ‘I need help,’” said Tilque. “We need to be there or we’re going to miss that call.”
Additionally, the location had to be somewhere that women felt was secure for them to go out of their way to ask for help.
“A safe environment means more than just security,” said Tilque. “It had to be somewhere that women don’t feel intimidated.”
EVIT’s technically skilled students and facilities were also a key factor in establishing Fresh Start’s East Valley location, with students trained in cosmetology and nursing to help with various services.
The idea for an East Valley center came after the success of the Fresh Start center in Phoenix and the decision to adapt it elsewhere.
“How do we create a model that can expand into other regions?” said Tilque. “If you’re going to develop a model, it has to be sustainable.”
The process was undertaken with great care, both in regards to choosing the location and making sure all of its services were fully functional.
Started from the ground floor, the organization was primarily advertised through word-of-mouth before it was fully functional.
“First we wanted to prove we could provide the services before we started advertising and fundraising,” Tilque.
Though they do not receive public funding, the foundation receives several grants yearly that help to fuel their endeavors.
Among these grants includes a $125,000, 2-year grant from Boeing.
Fundraising is also done throughout the year in the form of annual events, chiefly the organization’s yearly breakfast and dinner.
The Fresh Start East Valley Breakfast, held this year on April 19, is open to the public and is a chance for supporters and newcomers to dine, enter to win raffles and hear stories of the women’s success through the program.
Described as both a fundraiser and a “friendraiser,” the breakfast consistently sees new men and women expressing interest in volunteering or donating to help the organization.
“So many people at this last breakfast came up to us and said they wanted to volunteer and donate and become involved,” said Berman. “That is worth its weight in gold to us.”
The dinner, called A Night of Heroes, is an honorary affair and more focused on the fundraising, as participants must pay to attend.
Also, the Men’s Council in conjunction with Fresh Start helps display the idea that women empowerment no longer has to do with solely women.
The Men’s Council takes active part in helping raise money for the organization, including hosting an annual golf tournament to fundraise for Fresh Start.
“It’s not just about women, it’s about all of us,” said Berman. “These men know that.”
In looking towards the future, Berman says she hopes to foster a collaborative relationship with the other East Valley cities as well as local transitional housing agencies in making Fresh Start’s presence known.
By doing so, Fresh Start can also become a value added to these agencies and alert more women to the opportunities offered at the centers and how they can assist in taking charge and improving their lives.
“It may take a lot of courage to walk in and say you need help, but none of us do it alone,” said Berman. “We need someone to light the path for us.”
Tilque also expressed her hope that every woman who would like to improve some facet of her life can realize that she is not alone.
“Every woman involved is a Fresh Start woman,” said Tilque. “When we were younger, there was nobody to turn to. We want to make that easier for women today.”
For more information on Fresh Start Foundation or how to visit a center, go to http://phoenix.wehelpwomen.com/