WILLMAR -- When the Willmar Area Community Foundation created a new Women's Fund this past year, one of the first grants went to the certified nursing assistant training program at Ridgewater College, to help pay for books, transportation, tuition and uniforms for women who needed the assistance.
Another grant went to Shelter House for help with child care, transportation and clothing.
Organizers of the new fund hope it's just the start of a long-term initiative for improving the lives of women and children in Kandiyohi County.
"What we're trying to do is help women at risk so they can support themselves and their families and stay in the community," said Suzanne Napgezek, chairman of the Women's Fund steering committee.
The fund fills a gap that has long existed for local programs that target the social and economic needs of women and girls.
Although women participate at a high rate in the Kandiyohi County labor force, their average pay is less than what men are paid, and they're more likely to hold an entry-level job, Napgezek said.
In a county-by-county assessment conducted in 2004 by the Women's Foundation of Minnesota, Kandiyohi County's overall rank was in the bottom half, based on measures such as political participation by women, women's employment and economic status, reproductive rights and women's health and well-being.
Kandiyohi County ranked 59th out of 87 counties in women's health and well-being and 35th in women's employment and economic status.
It's the goal of the Willmar Area Community Foundation's Women's Fund to support programs that educate and train women for the work force and improve their access to basic services such as child care, housing and legal services.
In particular, the fund is targeting women in transition, women's education needs, and women and girls at risk. Grant money potentially could be awarded for scholarships, services for pregnant teens or women who've experienced domestic violence, or projects that support immigrant women or non-traditional college students.
Families generally fare better when the women are educated and not on the brink of economic or social instability, Napgezek said.
"We're trying to help women become trained for jobs that actually can help them support their family," she said.
The Women's Fund was launched last summer with a $50,000 challenge grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation.
Smitty Luschen, of the Women's Fund steering committee, said that amount has already been matched by a donor, creating a pool of $100,000 from which to begin awarding grants.
The Women's Fund has now started another challenge: to raise $100,000 more and increase the grant endowment to $200,000.
The goal is to reach this match by June 2011, Luschen said.
This will allow the fund to offer up to $10,000 in grant funds each year. The steering committee hopes to ultimately have a $500,000 endowment by 2015.
Organizers spent two years setting up the fund and talking to other local organizations to assess the level of local need and interest.
"The women we've talked to have been pretty excited," Napgezek said. "We'd just like to do as much as we possibly can. Hopefully we're really thinking about the future."
For more information about the Women's Fund or to make a donation, visit www.Community Giving.org.