100 Women Strong Ohio 100 Women Strong Ohio
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Underneath a photo of Mother Theresa and next to the altar where women pray for one more day of sobriety, three suburban moms are ripping  open the packaging on dozens of cozy snow boots, stylish dress boots and even a pair of Uggs. They line them up neatly by size at the Edna House on West 65th Street in Cleveland.

Two doors down from St. Colman Church, the former convent has been given new life as a safe space with the capacity to treat 47 women recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. The suburban visitors here are from 100 Women Strong Ohio, a nonprofit collective of more than 300 women from 18 to 80 years old who are dedicated to making an impact in the community around them. The boots are just the beginning of what they hope to accomplish.

“I could cry,” says Jenn Lasky, Edna House’s executive director, as she surveys the scene. “We’ve never had this many boots to give.”

In a few moments, the women living here will come into this small chapel after group therapy. They will each select a pair of boots that can be worn to shovel the church sidewalks next door, to catch their bus on the way to their new jobs and, hopefully, to journey back home to their families once they get a firm handle on their addictions and their lives.

But upstairs there is a much larger “gift” in the works. In a single, shared room on the third floor, there are 25 beds; the second floor houses 22 beds in private bedrooms. But there are only two bathrooms to accommodate everyone — with just three showers. A $30,000 gift by 100 Women Strong Ohio is being used to completely remodel one bathroom and add two more showers. 

“I cannot wait,” says Lasky, opening the door to offer a glimpse of the bathroom to her visitors. “Just the dignity of it.”

This is the mission driving 100 Women Strong Ohio: to make a difference in the lives of others, whether by providing a hot shower, keeping feet warm or keeping homeless families together. 

The charity’s model, a national concept brought to Ohio by Hudson residents MaryJo Clark and Jen Yozwiak, is based on a simple idea: Get women to donate a minimum of $200 a year for a membership and use every drop of the money to change lives.

“A lot of us cannot write a $30,000 check, but together we can give a $30,000 check,” says Clark. “It’s giving women a chance to give back to the community in a really meaningful way.”

But it’s more than that. We all know there are people suffering just five, 10 or 20 minutes from where we live, but it’s easy to ignore. Clark and Yozwiak want to make it just as easy to jump into this other world. 

“That’s part of the mission — to expose the need,” Clark says. “We want you to feel the need.”

Erica Charriere, a Hudson stay-at-home mother of three, left her first 100 Women Strong Ohio event wanting to do more than give $200. She joined one of the organization’s grant committees and, while at the Edna House for the first time, asked what else they needed. The answer was boots.

Now, she’s back with Clark and Yozwiak, along with the trunkful of boots sent to her after posting an appeal online. She wipes a tear away as she talks about how proud she is of her mother, who is eight years into her own recovery for alcohol addiction.

“This was therapeutic for me,” she tells Lasky. “I loved doing this.”

Before leaving, she asks one more time: “What else do you need?”

Clark and Yozwiak met in 2016 at a social gathering in Hudson. The group got to talking about women they admired when Yozwiak’s mother, who happened to be visiting from Dallas, told them about the 100 Women Strong group she was a part of in Texas.

It was easy to participate, she said, and you can be as involved as you like. Now in its fifth year, her group has given more than a half million dollars to the community, including enough money for a local food bank to buy a new van. She knew what this kind of group would add to her daughter’s life, if only someone could help her get it started.

“I’m in,” Clark said without hesitating. “I want to do this with you.”

The concept of quick-and-easy giving appealed to both women. Yozwiak was a mother of two children under 3 and managing a full-time job as a pharmaceutical sales rep, and Clark worked full-time in a chiropractor’s office and had three preteens.

Life was full of sleepless nights, sippy cups, hockey practice and hungry kids. There was no time for hours of volunteer work, so while the women liked the concept of the group, they weren’t sure they were ready to start one.

The idea went nowhere — until Clark called Yozwiak in April 2018.

Clark’s father died in 2016 after a lengthy struggle with kidney failure. In addition to missing him, she missed taking care of him — and what it meant to her and her family.

“I think it was amazing for my kids,” says Clark. “Not only did I give back, they gave. It was outside myself. It was outside all of us.”

The void that remained needed filling, so she called Yozwiak and they put a board together by the middle of July 2018. From there, support grew organically via social media and by word-of-mouth. More than 200 women attended their introductory meeting at HiHo Brewing Co. in October 2018 and many of them joined the group right away. Now, they’ve got nearly 300 members.

For some of the women, it was appealing to have a say in how donated money was being used. A grant committee does the legwork of finding three potential grant recipients. Those three groups are then invited to attend a giving event and present their case. When finished, a vote is taken by all members of 100 Women Strong Ohio.

“I was just really looking for a way to get involved,” says Nancy Istenes of Hudson. “Lots of people are doing a little, but it makes a really big impact.”

At their first giving event in February 2019 at Hudson’s Western Reserve Academy, three different nonprofits made their case. Gigi’s Playhouse of Canton wanted to finish building a community center for children with Down syndrome. The International Institute of Akron hoped to help refugees with resettlement. And Family Promise of Summit County was looking to renovate a building to provide emergency shelter for homeless families. Within 10 minutes of voting, Family Promise was given a check for $17,000.

“Everyone was crying,” says Amy Conti, a 100 Women Strong Ohio member. “It was a really powerful night.”

One after another, women stream through the door at Red Twig in Hudson on Nov. 5, carrying bags of shampoo, soap, toothpaste, makeup and deodorant. Party music is playing and wine glasses are clinking as the women chat, hug and check out raffle prizes for private yoga sessions, Nutcracker tickets and salon blowouts. The floral design studio, owned by a 100 Women Strong Ohio member, has been donated for the evening’s event, along with the food, drinks and prizes.

The night is meant to be fun, but it’s also so much more than that. 

Mary*, who asked to only be identified by her first name, stands near the front door with Cynthia Rios, the executive director of Women’s Reentry Ministry, a nonprofit that helps women transition back into the community after getting out of prison. 

Someone offers Mary a drink, but she declines. After more than three years of sobriety, she says she’s not tempted, doesn’t like the smell. But it was alcohol that landed her in prison, which is how she got involved with Women’s Reentry after being released. 

After about an hour, Yozwiak takes the microphone as the crowd gathers around her.

“We have so much to be grateful for, so much to celebrate tonight,” she says. “We truly are stronger together. We had such a successful first year.”

At their first introductory event in October 2018, they collected hundreds of mittens, scarves and hats for Akron Snow Angels, a nonprofit that provides warm clothing to the homeless. Tonight’s goal: Collect personal care items to give to Women’s Reentry Ministry, as well as its Dinami House, a sober home in Slavic Village for women just out of prison.  

When Yozwiak is finished, Rios and Mary join her.

“We are truly overwhelmed,” says Rios. 

Women who get out of prison often face the enormous task of building a life from scratch, often while managing an addiction. They need a job, but don’t have a car. They need connection, but don’t have friends. The Dinami House provides all of this, as well as a feeling of safety these women might not have experienced in years.

“We have had [a total of] 25 women living in our house and not a single one has gone back to prison,” says Rios. The room erupts in applause. 

Then it’s Mary’s turn. Mary got out of prison in January 2019 and was able to secure a spot in the Dinami House. By fall, her consistency and hard work had earned her the position of house manager. She’s dressed just as stylishly as the women surrounding her, but she also has the alert look of a survivor. She holds up a pamphlet for the Dinami House as she addresses the crowd.

“I carried this brochure around with me for a year,” she says. “In prison, I went to 90 meetings in 90 days and I went to church. Everything started changing. I took small steps.”

Again, the room breaks out in loud applause. But instead of continuing to talk about herself or the obstacles she’s overcome, she talks about the women who will be helped by tonight’s donations.

“They’re going to be overwhelmed with all this stuff,” she says.

Women who are going on job interviews will have deodorant, hair spray and even a little makeup. Nobody will have to choose between shampoo and groceries. Plus, Mary says laughing, all women are alike in that they love things that smell good.

“I wish you could see their eyes light up,” she says. “I’ve never seen support like I have in the city of Cleveland.” 

Outside, the parking lot is full of shiny SUVs that will take most of these women back to their comfortable lives. Mary’s newly acquired 2000 Volkswagen Jetta will take her back to the Dinami House. Still, she sees kinship in the surrounding faces.

“I saw all of the girls out there and they reminded me of our girls,” she says. “We’re all the same — just in different situations. It’s so beautiful for women to start thinking how they can help other women.”

Yozwiak swings by to check on the progress of Glendora House, the former 10-unit apartment building in West Akron being renovated by Family Promise of Summit County for use as an emergency shelter for homeless families. During this November afternoon, executive director Jeff Wilhite and case manager Erica Cherry are unloading cabinets, sinks, paint and lighting fixtures from a truck.

In just a few weeks, the first of 10 families will be arriving to stay here. While walking through a two-bedroom unit, Yozwiak coos, looking around at the freshly painted gray walls, elegant plaster molding and tidy white kitchen. This unit is nearly finished, thanks to the $17,000 grant given by 100 Women Strong Ohio last February.

“This is beautiful,” she says. “I just can’t imagine what a family would feel like coming into this space.”

In 2018, Cherry explains, there were 518 homeless families who sought shelter in Summit County, noting that monthly rents are going up, but wages are not.

“This building has the potential to put a real dent in the homeless population,” she says.

But what few people understand, she says, is what homelessness really looks like. Yes, it’s the man on the exit ramp with a sign asking for money, but that’s just one face.

“You don’t see the families that are homeless,” says Cherry, “because they’re trying to hide to keep their kids.”

In Summit County, boys older than 12 must go to an Akron youth shelter for boys, while their mother, sisters and younger siblings go to a separate shelter for women and children. The situation is even more bleak for single fathers, because there are simply no shelters that will accept men and their children together.

People never think of single fathers, Cherry explains, but there are more of them than ever as the opioid epidemic ravages families. So they’re faced with the choice of having their children taken away or living in their car with their kids and staying hidden.

“That would break my freaking heart,” Yozwiak says, her voice choking up. 

“It’s traumatizing,” Cherry says. “And that’s the inspiration for this house.”

Mothers and fathers will be welcome with all their children and pets. Families can stay for 35-45 days, during which time they are given whatever tools they may need to survive on their own, including mental health counseling, budgeting help and assistance in finding permanent housing. 

“A family can’t heal when they’re separated,” Wilhite says. “But when you keep them together, counsel them and give them the breathing room they need to catch their breath and make a plan, amazing things can happen.”

 “This,” says Cherry, “is the actual light at the end of the tunnel.”

A few days after the 100 Women Strong Ohio event in November, Mary welcomes Clark and Yozwiak inside the Dinami House with a hug. It’s hard to get a word in between Mary’s enthusiasm for this program, the community and her new life. Her one worry is her new car, which stopped running shortly after she bought it.

“I hope I didn’t get a lemon,” she says.

The duplex has light blue-gray walls and gleaming blonde wood floors. It’s full of wall decor sporting advice such as “Bloom where you are planted” and “This is your time to shine.” A computer desk in the dining room is used to look for jobs, while the table by the sunny window is used to share meals.

Mary opens a closet full of the personal care products collected by 100 Women Strong Ohio. Hundreds of items have already been given away at the weekly support group meetings hosted by Women’s Reentry Ministry, but there’s still plenty left to give.

“It’s going to last a long time,” she says.

Mary went to prison in 2016 after taking a friend’s gun to her boyfriend’s house and firing it while standing on the porch. She says she only wanted to scare him and tried to fire straight up, but she was drunk, and the bullet veered into the house.

“I was a raging alcoholic and in an abusive relationship,” she says. “I was at my breaking point.” 

While no one was hurt, Mary was charged with, and pleaded guilty to, three gun-related felony charges. When she was released in 2019, Mary had nowhere to go. Everything she’d left behind was gone. But she had that pamphlet from the Dinami House — and she came here for help. 

Now, she says she’s happy and free, and, most of all, grateful for the chance to help the four other women she lives with.

“I get to see all this,” she says, gesturing to the clean, cozy rooms around her and the opportunity they offer to start over. 

Before Clark and Yozwiak leave, Mary has one last thing to show them. She picks up an album full of photos of her two children, now grown. There’s birthday parties and Christmas mornings — happy times before her life spiraled out of control. 

“That’s all I wanted, was my pictures,” she says.

After saying their goodbyes and leaving Mary at the door, Clark and Yozwiak pause in the driveway.

“I’m going to go back in and give her $150 for her car,” Yozwiak tells Clark, reaching in her handbag.

“Jen, let’s figure out the best way to help her with this,” Clark tells her.

So they leave and decide to come up with a solution in the next day or so. But before they can help her, Mary figures it out on her own. She finds a trustworthy mechanic who tells her that her alternator is bad, and her new Walmart battery is junk. He charges her $75 to fix the car and install a used, but high-quality, battery. She returns the old battery to Walmart and gets her $129 back — coming out $54 in the black. 

Now that 100 Women Strong Ohio is up and running, they’re doing better than they ever could have imagined. Clark and Yozwiak have met their two goals — to make it easy to give and to inspire true empathy for the suffering that exists just beyond our doors.

The irony is that they have made it anything but easy for themselves. Both women, still in the thick of their parenting years and working separate jobs, volunteer roughly 20-25 hours a week to captain the ship. 

If it were just them, it might not make sense. But they’re seeing other women light up and take it upon themselves to start boot giving drives, spend a weekend painting in Glendora House or organizing raffles for their next event.

And then they get to meet women like Mary who, less than a year into her new life, is thinking more about the people she can help than the people who can help her. For them, this sympathy-turned-to-action is intoxicating — and contagious.

“Whatever it is I have had to give up, I don’t even notice,” says Yozwiak, “because this is what I want to be doing. This is that piece that leaves a mark, leaves an impact for years to come.”

This month, after narrowing down 19 applicants to three nonprofits, they’ll host their next giving event Feb. 11 at Walden Inn in Aurora and donate another $20,000-$25,000 in grant money. The group continues to accept new members through 100womenstrongohio.org. 

“I have met a lot of people that I would not have encountered otherwise,” Clark says. “It’s been amazing to see people’s willingness and desire to help.” 

The goal now is to just keep growing. Sure, it means finding bigger venues and managing larger events, but it also means more money to put to work. They’ve already seen it happen in the form of warm coats for the homeless and hot showers for women battling their addictions, in helping women re-entering the community after prison and in a homeless shelter that keeps families together. 

“We would like to make a larger impact on the community,” says Clark. “I know the power of women — and what we can do when we come together. As strong women, we can make a difference.”

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