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Quarter-Century of Women’s Empowerment Yields $10K Prize for Charity

December 5, 2011

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The founder of an organization that helps empower low-income women in Appalachia feels she's just won the lottery after finding out she's the $10,000 grand prize winner of a national contest by AARP. Jane Stephenson founded the New Opportunity School for Women in Berea nearly a quarter-century ago, and a prize of ten grand was announced last week for her charity as part of AARP's Create the Good "Win and Do Good" contest honoring community service by or for people age 50 and older.

Stephenson says the sweepstakes has drawn great publicity to her cause, while reinforcing a key mission of the New Opportunity School for Women: volunteering.

"And, it ties in so well with one component of our leadership development, because we are encouraging the women that come through our program to volunteer."

The executive director of the New Opportunity School for Women, Lori Sliwa, is overjoyed by the exposure it's given the organization, as recruitment has been a major problem. The program gives middle-aged women in Appalachia tools to improve their personal, financial and educational circumstances.

"It is giving them back their own power. Self-esteem is key; it's a core component to what we do. And we really help women re-ignite that fire within and realize their full potential."

Nearly 700 women have graduated from the program in its nearly-25-year history. And within those numbers, Sliwa boasts, there's a lot to brag about.

"79 percent of our graduates are employed, in school, or both. And the really incredible statistic is that 80 percent have completed some form of higher education; everything from an associate's to a master's degree, and we even have, I believe it's two, with PhDs."

Mimi Castaldi, vice president for volunteer engagement at AARP, says Jane Stephenson's record of commitment with the New Opportunity School for Women is a model of volunteerism the national contest sought to recognize. Castaldi hopes stories like Stephenson's will inspire other older Americans to "create the good" in their own communities.

"She started it 24 years ago. She was just about AARP's membership age when she started, just a little bit under 50. And, she's been going strong every since. And, what a difference she has made in that time period."

The New Opportunity School for Women is a free three-week career and leadership development program that teaches essential workplace skills for low-income women in the central Appalachian region.

Stephenson had already won $5,000 in AARP's regional volunteer contest. There were 1800 total entries in the sweepstakes, and public on-line voting determined the grand prize winner.



Renee Shaw, Public News Service - KY