While working as a mental health therapist, Bebe Heiner became aware of an increasing shortage of mental health care for women without insurance coverage, or the money to pay for it. Struck by the numbers unable to access key resources, she reached out to the medical community to learn how she could innovate new ways to help those with mental illness while simultaneously addressing the stigma surrounding mental health care.

 

Since 2007, the Women’s Initiative has served tens of thousands of women in the region by offering innovative and effective mental health care to women lacking financial access to counseling, social support and education.

SEEING A NEED IN THE COMMUNITY

As a result of my professional experience as a mental health therapist, I became increasingly aware of the shortage of mental health care for people who didn’t have the insurance coverage, financial resources or faced other barriers to treatment. Research studies and interviews with key mental health providers confirmed this. I also knew how essential sound mental health is to one’s overall health and how debilitating, and even fatal, mental illness can be.

 

I wanted to address both the lack of services and the stigma surrounding mental health care by starting a mental health agency that was bright, cheerful, warm, and inviting. I wanted people to feel safe, respected, and cared for when they entered the door. One of the reasons to serve only women and not include men was the reality of the limits of what one start up agency could do. Since women are generally more involved in the health care of their families than are men, I hoped that by meeting their needs we would be supporting the overall health of the family. Also, women experience depression and anxiety at higher rates than men, often the result of being victims of violence; and I wanted to create a safe place for healing that addressed women’s unique needs. I formed a partnership with Carolyn Schuyler, and we began to slowly build a program. We were aware that physical and mental health are completely intertwined, really one and the same, and we incorporated this important information into our treatment protocol, which supports individual strengths and resilience. It remains fundamental to the work of The Women’s Initiative.

 

STARTING UP

With the support of this generous community, and the provision of a rent-free building by Martha Jefferson Hospital for our first five years, we were able to get started. Some immediate challenges were to establish a sound counseling protocol, provide ways to address social isolation, and to connect with women in stressed neighborhoods. We knew that we needed an effective program that was well structured, and we focused on our counseling services to create a safe space where clients with trauma histories could get effective, cutting edge treatment. To address social isolation, we created a living room with a library where women could gather and check out books. A key volunteer started a knitting group that continues to meet regularly in this space. Forming alliances with neighborhood leaders was crucial, and we worked with the Westhaven community to co-facilitate a creative expressions group in their community center. After we had been open for less than a year a shooting occurred, and Carolyn was able to go knock on doors and offer our services because of the key relationships and trust we had built.

 

I happen to be a very determined person, and I don’t give up easily. However when I have felt unable to rise to a particular challenge, I have had the amazing good fortune to encounter others who could do the job quite well. Having others to help shoulder the responsibility has been essential.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people felt as free to seek treatment for their depression and anxiety as they do for a broken bone?”

IMPACT

Having served over 20,000 individuals since opening its doors, The Women’s Initiative has become the second largest provider of mental health treatment to low-income, uninsured women and the number one service for low-income mothers. It is often the only mental health resource available to Latina and African American women. We provided services to 862 women during our first year of service. Last year we provided services to 3,774 women. This is a 438% increase over the course of ten years.

 

The Women’s Initiative is affordable. It offers a low sliding scale fee, and no one is turned away because of inability to pay. It is accessible. It provides free walk in clinics, satellite offices, childcare and multilingual treatment to ensure that all women can access care. As there are very few diverse mental health professionals in Central Virginia, The Women’s Initiative is often the primary resource for culturally competent mental health care. It is a community leader in providing care for immigrant and refugee women. Since its inception, it has recognized the need for Spanish speaking therapists and has become known as a safe place for Latina women and their families. Social support groups include a knitting group, yoga for women of color, and an Afghan women’s tea group. It works in partnership with numerous other agencies such as The Shelter for Help in Emergency, the Charlottesville Free Clinic, the International Rescue Service, and Readykids to address gaps in services and to ensure that there is no duplication of services.

 

Women do get better at The Women’s Initiative. Outcome measurements show that over 80% of clients see improvement – higher than national trends.

 

Adequate mental health treatment is essential to improving the lives of women in our community. Without sound mental health women are handicapped, often severely, in all aspects of life. This not only affects them, but also their families, their children, and their communities, and it often prevents them from being able to support themselves financially. I hope that the community continues to embrace and support The Women’s Initiative and other organizations that are providing critical mental health care.

NEW INITIATIVES

I am still quite involved with The Women’s Initiative and excited to see how its programs are evolving and the impact that they have on the lives of many women in this community. I am particularly interested in ways to address the stigma of mental illness. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people felt as free to seek treatment for their depression and anxiety as they do for a broken bone? Imagine setting aside the misplaced shame about emotional distress and mental illness and instead trying to understand it and begin to heal.

SUCCESS

I don’t think there was a defining moment of success. Honestly every success was a source of amazement to me. Early on a small group of committed men and women contributed their ideas, creativity and drive. With their support I began to feel that the organization could find its legs, so to speak. As the agency grew, I saw how much committed volunteers and staff and generous supporters are willing to give when there is a real community need to address. The rewards of seeing women get better are what kept us going, and we saw that our efforts were making a significant difference. I also think that our ability to stay focused on our mission and our recognition of the necessity of supporting our volunteers and staff have been absolutely essential. They are doing everything possible to address the gap in services, and this work requires a tremendous amount of energy, focus, commitment and care.

ENTREPRENUERSHIP

I can’t imagine a specific formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur, because there are so many ways to be creative, so many ideas to be had, and so many ways to execute them. But I don’t see how one can succeed without hard work, planning, determination and the realization that failure is part of the process. It has been incredibly helpful for me to learn that failures are great opportunities for new perspectives, ideas and creativity. I’ve come to think that worrying about failure is a waste of time that gets in the way of seeing interesting new opportunities.

SETBACKS

I can’t think of one setback that has stood out, though of course there have been some bumps in the road. During periods when resources and funding have been low, we have managed to stay focused on our goals and objectives. We have always remembered that The Women’s Initiative is not an end in itself, but a means to improve the lives of women in our community, and we stay open to new and better approaches. The focus is on how to best address gaps in services in our community and what are we doing to this end. I am so awed by the strong work of The Women’s Initiative’s staff, volunteers and board, its commitment to reaching women who otherwise would not get the help that they often so desperately need, and by the generosity of this community. It feels like a sisterhood circle, women helping women, and of course men are an important part of this too. We all have life challenges.

“It feels like a sisterhood circle, women helping women, and of course men are an important part of this too. We all have life challenges.”

FOUNDING

I suppose there are an infinite number of definitions of the concept of Founding. One is to recognize a community need, start something new to address it and take it one step at a time. Of course the one step at a time part doesn’t always work out, because sometimes many things happen at once or there might be a crisis, which is a real possibility in mental health work. So I don’t think I am capable of coming up with a very good definition of this. For me the fun part is the people I’ve met along the way, people I would never have met otherwise, and the opportunities to work with them.

DETERMINATION

I happen to be a very determined person, and I don’t give up easily. However when I have felt unable to rise to a particular challenge, I have had the amazing good fortune to encounter others who could do the job quite well. Having others to help shoulder the responsibility has been essential.

INSPIRATION

The people who inspire me the most are women who have worked hard to overcome adversity. Many women use our annual Challenge Into Change Essay Contest to tell their own stories of overcoming personal struggles. Last year 86 women submitted an essay or poem of 500 words or less about overcoming adversity. Their stories demonstrate what lies at the heart of this agency’s vision: women’s capacity for healing. The women who come to us for help exemplify this type of courage and grit as they do the hard work necessary to improve their lives. They inspire me to look more deeply into myself as I face my own challenges. Also, the staff, board members and volunteers at The Women’s Initiative have been a source of inspiration and joy to me.

CVILLE

I have been in Charlottesville all of my adult life. I moved here from New York City with my first and late husband. We were both living there working and decided that we would like to be closer to either his family or mine. He was a Virginian, and I was from Louisiana, and we decided that Charlottesville would be a good place to settle.

 

Though I initially missed the live oaks and bayous, as we became involved in the community and raised our children here, the beautiful mountains and seasons have come to feel more like home. Now I feel very fortunate to be here. I have an office on the Downtown Mall, which I love. It is a fun atmosphere in which to work.

 

Working on the Downtown Mall I see many new businesses and young people, which is evidence that Charlottesville is able to attract entrepreneurs. Also, there are many venues in the downtown area where people who have good ideas but don’t yet have an office can take their computers, a cup of coffee and work. This openness and encouragement of new ideas allows Charlottesville to flourish and become more diverse, and this in turn attracts more individuals with new ideas and drive, who bring yet more interest and diversity. Additionally, the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation and local charitable organizations such as the Perry Foundation provide valuable support for nonprofit agencies.

FUTURE OF HEALTHCARE IN CVILLE

Adequate mental health treatment is essential to improving the lives of women in our community. Without sound mental health women are handicapped, often severely, in all aspects of life. This not only affects them, but also their families, their children, and their communities, and it often prevents them from being able to support themselves financially. I hope that the community continues to embrace and support The Women’s Initiative and other organizations that are providing critical mental healthcare. The Women’s Initiative has been a driving force behind bringing mental healthcare into primary care centers, something called integrated care. I would like Charlottesville to become a national leader in assuring that all of our community members have access to excellent integrated physical and mental healthcare.

“This openness and encouragement of new ideas allows Charlottesville to flourish and become more diverse, and this in turn attracts more individuals with new ideas and drive, who bring yet more interest and diversity.”

2017 FOUNDING CVILLE SPONSORS

FOUNDING SPONSORS