Women Helping Women. “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Madeleine K. Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State. For several years, stories have circulated lamenting the fact that when it comes to reaching out, women are reluctant to help other women succeed. Perhaps at one level this is true. We’ve all heard stories about women fighting their way to the top of the corporate ladder, and once there, fighting tooth and nail to protect their spot. But for every story like that, there are hundreds more that tell a much different story. The women we’ve interviewed are tirelessly reaching out to help less-fortunate women, in our community and across the world, to achieve their own dreams and shape their futures in a strong, self-sustaining way. Within Colorado, there are countless women who are helping change forever the lives of others. In this article, we’ll introduce you to just a handful of the many committed and energetic women who are dedicated to bringing dignity and self-respect to the life of every woman in Colorado, across the nation and around the world.
GRETCHEN GAGEL MCCOMB
President and CEO, Women’s Foundation of Colorado
The collaborative power of women is nowhere better evidenced than by the work carried out at the Women’s Foundation of Colorado. Here, dedicated staff and countless volunteers work to identify and improve the lives of Colorado’s female population. Basing her philosophy on the “collective power of philanthropy,” Gretchen Gagel McComb says that it takes momentum and willingness to band together to truly effect change. “It’s such a big issue, because today there are 275,000 girls and women living in poverty in Colorado, and twice that number are living below the economic self-sufficiency level,” she says. “So we have the working poor, and those who are too ‘rich’ to be poor, meaning they’re being denied the benefits they so badly need to sustain themselves.” One of McComb’s overriding goals is to empower women in the community as philanthropists, an effort she said has grown immensely in the past two decades. “Twenty years ago there just weren’t many women philanthropic leaders, but this number has grown as we’ve witnessed the serious issues faced by women. Today, those of us who have made it are now able to reach out to others to offer a helping hand.”
McComb’s words are much more than cautionary. In May, a study conducted by The Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute revealed two alarming trends:
• Fifty-four percent of single mothers in Colorado live below the self-sufficiency standard and don’t make enough to pay bills at the end of each month; and
• A woman of color with a bachelor’s degree is more likely to live below the self-sufficiency standard than a white man with a high school education.
“There are so many equality issues we now face. The generous endowments we receive enable us to look at these systemic issues and effect change,” she explains. “It’s really all about what we can do as a group. A woman can write a check for $50 and will know that her money is being combined with so many others, so that it truly will make a difference.” Need more statistics? Studies show that only 83 percent of girls who begin their senior year of high school will graduate. “What we need to do is work with the low-income single moms, so that they in turn can help their children. A lot of these women are working two jobs and cannot take time to attend parent-teacher conferences, out of fear of losing their job. We need to focus on this segment, because the chance of a dropout girl later achieving economic self-sufficiency is between slim and none,” she says. McComb indeed should feel a great deal of pride in her role at the helm of such a far-reaching organization. With a degree in mechanical engineering, and a career spent “working with the boys in construction management,” she had always been adamant about volunteering time for worthwhile organizations. Then, in 2002, she found a niche in the nonprofit sector that pulled her away from life as she knew it. She recalls, “I told myself that if I couldn’t find the time to do my volunteer work and help people in that way, then I would make it my work. So I took night classes in nonprofit management, and before I knew it, I had climbed to the top of the mountain. I wanted to make sure I wanted to jump off, and right when I was graduating, my predecessor at the Women’s Foundation resigned. I threw my hat into the ring and got this job. “I love being part of this community and the exposure to the women across the state who give so much in so many ways,” she says. “The Cliff Effect is an invisible issue that we have to educate the public on. Forty years ago, domestic violence did not have a name, and through education and training, we can teach the community as a whole about this huge issue that affects us all.”
PATRICIA BARELA RIVERA
Colorado District Director, U.S. Small Business Administration
Her title may be somewhat deceptive, but Patricia Barela Rivera’s commitment to helping improve the lives of women is amazingly clear.
Indeed, this dynamic woman is steadfast in her resolve to make sure women are provided with an equal footing in every aspect of their lives.
“I believe in all women’s lives, and I’m passionate about doing what I can to help other women succeed. And while opportunities for women have improved, it’s still a struggle. We have to keep our momentum going, in terms of how we can counsel, support and just be friends with each other. In the end, it makes for a better world,” Rivera says. What it comes down to, she believes, is that wome n have always been, and remain today, the matriarchs of the family. Absent that stability and consistency, the family structure starts to break down. Based on this belief, she stresses the importance of helping every woman feel valued, respected and worthy.
Raised in New Mexico, Rivera worked for a time for the University of Albuquerque, and then for the federal government, eventually organizing seminars and training women in the work force. She later founded a management consulting and training firm, which provided small-business strategic planning for clients. After six years, she was appointed by then-Gov. Roy Romer to be deputy director of Local Affairs, and later director of Citizen Advocacy for the state of Colorado.
“That was the best job of my career, because it helped me realize how important it is to help people who have been disenfranchised and who are not part of the mainstream of society,” she says. “It ignited a passion in me to help people who don’t have a voice, a group that typically is women and minorities. I’m both of those, and I know what it feels like to be denied these opportunities.” In her own life, Rivera acknowledges that tremendous obstacles have fallen in her path, such as racism and sexism in the workplace. As the first Hispanic woman to be a director of the Small Business Administration, Rivera says she has been tested in so many ways. “Racism is more subtle today, but it’s alive and well. I’ve had to learn a whole new leadership skill and learn to weave through the problems and the roadblocks. It’s a very lonely process, and it drains your spirit and passion. But as women, we always have to take the high road, and we must remember that no one can take away our integrity,” she says. In her efforts to better the lives of women, Rivera works with several local organizations. “I love the women’s community, and I want to empower it as much as possible,” she says. “I want to see the new generation of women rise up to assume key positions. I’ve done my thing here, and it’s time for new leadership and new effective women to take over.”
Rivera says that when it comes to women helping women, it’s more about giving opportunities to people who have never before had them and opening doors that were once closed. “I’ve been there as a small business owner, when I didn’t know where to go for help. So I choose to remain out in the community, helping people and making some sort of impact,” she explains. “My philosophy is this,” she continues. “When a door is shut and you’re given a key, you have a choice of what to do with that key. You need to seize opportunities, open the door, live it, breathe it, think it. What can I do today that will truly have an impact on my community?”
It makes no difference whether a person gives time, money, skills or abilities, she believes. “It’s all about collaborating and making helping others a priority,” she says. “It’s no longer a you-me world, it’s a we world. We need to move away from the me-orientation that asks ‘What can I gain from this financially?’ and put aside our egos, because that simply doesn’t work. It’s when we let our egos get in the way that we hurt ourselves and others, and that’s not the legacy I want to leave behind. I want to believe that one day people will think about me and say, ‘She touched me, and she helped me achieve something positive.’”
It’s difficult for Rivera to separate her life experience from the impact she hopes she can have on others. Even so, she forges ahead, with a determination to help others where she herself was challenged. “With all the bad I’ve encountered, I should probably be six feet under. But I’ve learned you have to pick your battles and always remember who you are. This has been such an interesting journey, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she says.
President, Junior League of Denver
For Laura Hopkins, the concept of helping others was a natural evolution of her growth as an individual. “I always knew I wanted to help others,” she says. “I believe in my ability to be successful and for others to be successful as well.” As the president of the Junior League of Denver, Hopkins is working hard to ensure that women’s issues remain at the forefront of local social issues that are a reflection of trends nationwide. Based on her recognition of the disparity between males and females, her commitment to this effort stems from the belief that for any society to be its best, all the people in that society must have the opportunity to be their best, and to be treated with dignity and respect. “The entire society benefits when all of its population is empowered to achieve its dreams,” Hopkins says. After college, Hopkins combined her interest in women’s issues with her studies in organizational and industrial psychology to better understand how the two worked together. Today, as a senior director at Western Union, Hopkins devotes numerous hours to her work with Junior League of Denver. The organization of 2,000-plus members has a stated focus to improve the community through the health and education of women and children.
“One thing that is difficult in a larger organization is the idea of moving around to different areas,” Hopkins explains. “But in a nonprofit such as Junior League, there are myriads of opportunities to grow.” In fact, rather than limiting its work to the confines of the organization, Junior League has partnered with many other women-focused organizations to concentrate on issues and concerns facing women today. “When you consider the thousands of nonprofits in Colorado, efforts to accomplish great things may become somewhat splintered. But a few strong organizations working together can accomplish huge goals,” Hopkins explains. To that end, Junior League of Denver is taking the initiative to educate its members and others in the community about the meaning and import of the recently completed Cliff Effect study. She comments, “It’s a scary conclusion that basically says that as a family’s earnings increase, its eligibility for government benefits either decreases or stops. But it’s a series of cliffs, whereby one pay increase may put an end to emergency assistance, the next increase may end health care, the next, child care. So women are turning down pay raises because they lose these important benefits. “In Denver, you need to make more than $40,000 annually just to survive. But as earnings go up and families lose benefits, they fall below the sustainable line. So then people refuse the pay increases, which create an artificial ceiling that they cannot go beyond. This most significantly impacts single parents and families with young children. In other words, women,” she explains.
So how do these alarming trends translate to Hopkins’ passion? “If our society is going to thrive by ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to be successful, it’s important for everyone to realize that women must help other women,” she says. To that end, Hopkins and members of Junior League work diligently to educate people on the import of the Cliff Effect. In addition, she stresses the need to work with women and help them become leaders in the community by improving the health and education of women and children. Programs in place include partnerships with other local organizations, mentoring programs designed to help women achieve self-sufficiency and career connection and career advancement programs. So what will Hopkins do once her tenure with Junior League comes to an end? “My work will not stop,” she says. “I will remain active in the organization as long as I can, and I will concentrate on organizations and programs that can ultimately affect an entire community.”
CEO, Warren’s Village
When you meet Sue Mohrman, you realize she is as committed to her organization as she is to her overall mission of helping people scale heights they never dreamed possible. A lifelong devotee of reaching out to those less fortunate, Mohrman has a career that reads like a road map to helping the fallen. After receiving her Master of Divinity degree, she decided that working in the church was not the path she wanted to take. Instead, she began working part time as an administrative assistant for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), eventually serving as executive director of that organization. “MADD was an organization that let mothers help other mothers, and it fit in so well with what attracted me to the church, which is people caring for people,” Mohrman says. After working with MADD, Mohrman moved to Florida, where she served as the first executive director of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “It was during that time I became entrenched in the idea of helping women. I came to realize that the strongest impact I can have is in working with my staff, and the impact that in turn has is on the families we served,” Morhman says.
While still in Florida, Mohrman became interested in Planned Parenthood, which had a presence in Florida, but no staff. She helped the group secure a large grant to buy a building and eventually took over the reins of the organization. “We provided services to lower-income women, providing annual education and exams. We primarily served Disney employees who had either no insurance or grossly inadequate insurance,” she says. Eventually, Mohrman returned to Denver, working with the National Stroke Association and then serving as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She remained there for several years, but “the mission of the organization wasn’t in my heart,” she says. Finally, she left the ACLU, with no goal or passions, and unsure about her next move. It was then she saw an ad for Warren Village, and virtually instantly, her life’s mission once again took shape.
Today, as president and chief executive officer of the organization, she focuses her efforts on helping low-income single parents achieve self-sufficiency. Efforts include helping these families through subsidized housing, on-site child care, counseling, education and job training. “Our residents are 99 percent women, and I see incredible young women here who have fallen on very hard times. When they come here, they’re so brave and strong and committed,” Mohrman says. “And when they leave here, they can go out in the community as productive, able women.” Founded by the Warren United Methodist Church, Warren Village “brings me back full circle to my background, by tying the spirituality and the lives of the children together,” she says. “These women and children are forever changed, and they will never again experience that life of chaos and confusion.” For most new residents of Warren Village, hope has become a distant dream, and the future holds little promise. Through the work of Mohrman and her staff, the women and families can truly turn their lives around: “These are almost all single moms, and many come from violent situations. When they come here, they say, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but I want life to be better for my children.’ It’s so wonderful to know that through my work and with the help of others, we are truly changing families, communities and lives. And in the long run, the better off these young people are, the better off their families will be, and the better off the community as a whole will become.”
Owner, Buckingham Baby
Her story unravels like a novel: Small town girl (Walsenburg, Colo.) travels to the big city (Denver), falls in love with the hustle and bustle and creates a life filled with travel, adventure and fun. Along the way, she focuses her energies on helping other women better their lives, both at home and in the workplace.
An interior decorator by profession, Garbizo left her business in the hands of a competent staff and in 2000 began traveling the world, beginning in Hong Kong and eventually working her way to Switzerland. “Once the travel bug kicked in, there was no stopping it,” she recalls. “All the new sights renewed my interest in architecture and design, and I just couldn’t get enough of the world.”
In 1997, she accompanied some friends to San Moritz, where she met a man stationed with London’s Royal Air Force. Several months later, she began communicating with him in earnest, and finally went to visit him at his flat in St. James Palace, headquarters of the royal family. “It was surreal. I got to see Buckingham Palace from the inside out and have photographs that are fantastic,” she says. Although the relationship eventually fizzled, the experience did not, and Garbizo returned to Denver to found a company that she appropriately named Buckingham Baby. “It was 2002, and I knew I wanted to do something different, but I could not figure out what it was,” she explains. “As a child of divorce, I did not want to get married and have kids unless I could have some sort of guarantee that my own marriage would not end in divorce. A friend of mine asked me to name the thing that really tugs at my heart, and I realized I wanted to do something related to babies.”
Two weeks later, while shopping with a client at the Denver Design Center, they came upon a beautiful crib. Something in the back of her mind began to take shape: “I had been collecting fabrics for several years from around the world, and I began making prototypes with them. I started with the baby bedding, and soon we attended our first show in Las Vegas.” Unfortunately, just before the show was set to open, all her merchandise was stolen. “I did not quit, but instead I told myself this was happening for a reason,” she says.
At the show, she met a couple of women who sold fleece sheets, and, with their help, they were able to piece together an exhibit. It was then Garbizo came up with the idea of a mail-order catalog that focused on the high-end luxury market for baby goods. One of the featured products in the catalog, and what truly separates Garbizo from the rest, is her beautiful collection of hand-knit baby sweaters. Each sweater is knit by a group of women living in a small Peruvian village. “I send them the prototypes, and they knit the sweaters,” Garbizo explains. “This allows these women to remain at home with their children, so they don’t have to work in the factories or the sweat shops. They truly are a labor of love. “I wanted to do something I can feel good about and that helps others in some way,” she continues. “I feel truly blessed with all the opportunities I have had, and I wanted to do something that would add beauty to the world we all live in. I did not want to use slave labor for my products, and I hoped that through my efforts, I could infuse these women with a sense of independence and empowerment.”
Today, Garbizo offers her time to organizations that can further support women in the community. As a volunteer for Project Wise, which trains women to get off welfare, she strongly believes that the way to help other women is to give them the tools to leave their pasts behind, begin anew, and help them develop the belief that everything is possible. “They can leave behind the life that was their mother’s and their grandmother’s before them, and achieve their own, better and more productive goals,” she says. “As a woman, it’s so humbling, because we all want to believe we can do it all. But I can give a bit more of myself every day, and as long as I’m not compromising myself along the way, I will continue to give this gift. Someone once told me that when someone asks for help from you, give it to them freely. It’s the least that I, as an individual, and collectively, as a society, can and should do.”
By ELLEN GRAY
Photography STEVE GROER