The Women’s Center In Brevard has grown from small quarters in Melbourne to a multi-purpose, countywide resource

Before March, 1975, Brevard County offered little assistance to women in need to support, counseling and safety. Then hope sprang in the form of a little building on Carolina Street in Melbourne and it grew into a charitable powerhouse.

As it enters its 35th year, the scope of the Women’s Center no longer is limited to South Brevard or domestic violence any more than it is to women. Instead, it is a countywide, multi-resource, nonprofit organization that offers everything from career guidance and a microloan program, as well as transitional housing and counseling programs.

It will celebrate its anniversary with an all-day open house March 8, complete with cake, ice cream, prizes and, of course, a little information about what makes the center what it is.

“It formerly was kind of a crisis center, but now it is so much more than that,” says Executive Director Jenny Gessler, who holds a Ph.D. and ran a domestic violence center in New York City before arriving here in 1995. “In the beginning, much of our services involved peer counseling, for example, but now we have professional counseling. We offer a variety of programs and services and assist about 10,000 clients per year.”

More than 200,000 Brevardians – men, women and children – have been assisted by the center since it opened. About five percent to 10 of people assisted in any given year are men and it provides services to children, particularly those who have witnessed domestic violence.

Teatment for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-injurious behaviors, relationship and communication problems, self-esteem, family issues, divorce, grief or loss, anger management, stress management, addictions, aging issues and personality disorders is available, and children, adolescents, adults, couples and families are welcome. Victims of sexual assault, incest and other violent crimes, including, of course, domestic violence, find help and safety. Support groups for kids and adults are offered, as are classes in a variety of subjects, like resume-writing. It started a much-praised program fro displaced homemakers in 2006.

The idea, Gessler says, is not simply to look at whatever immediate problem a client presents, but to take a broader outlook: “We try to look at the whole situation – what got her into this situation – and go from there, rather than take a Band-Aid approach.”

She adds that the center really was ready to expand at the time she arrived, thanks to highly involved volunteers, not least of which have been its boards of directors.

“Marian Collins (a local activist) really wanted to get more people involved and get more funds for programs . . . . She really saw that people who were coming in for peer counseling really needed more than that alone. So the center first expanded victim services and then, seeing people who were homeless, or who hadn’t eaten in three days, the board said, ‘Let’s help.’ And it did.”

Never have its services been as required, or requested, as they now are.

“With the economy the way it is, we’ve had people stand in line at the center, where we give out food and help in whatever ways we can. We’ve actually given them cars, after cars were donated to us. You know, it may be a 10-year-old car that doesn’t look too great, and people may say, ‘Who would want that car?’ but if it gets someone to that job interview, which puts someone back to work, that’s a great 10-year-old car,” she says.

Jobs are of utmost importance in the current economic climate, and therefore so is self-reliance. The microloan program supports “the entrepreneurial plans of low- to moderate-income clients” with loans of $500 to $2,500 to “provide entrepreneurial women an avenue to start up or expand a new micro-business,” according to its literature. The program’s goals also are to help provide new businesswomen with technical assistance, a mentorship program and connections with local resources.

It – and the Women’s Center’s other plans – will be yet more successful with the successful conclusion with a “mini-campaign” to increase its endowment fund,” said Pam Paquette, the center’s development director.

That is no small task in this era of budget slicing.

“We’re hoping to raise $250,000 toward the endowment fund and we’re also trying to raise $100,000 for operating expenses,” she said. “We’re looking at a half-million dollars in funding cuts, so all the numbers really are focusing on our 35th anniversary as part of (recovering money). If 3,500 people in Brevard County give us $35 each, that $122,500,” Paquette says.

Fundraising is underway, with one of the center’s major annual events the “To Serve with Love” tennis tournament, having taken place in January and the “Venetian Masked Ball” scheduled to take place Feb. 27 at the Crown Plaza Melbourne Oceanfront Resort. Organizers also expect to sponsor a benefit, 5-kilometer footrace later this year. Meanwhile, one of the area’s better-favored thrift shops, Furniture and More, sells on.

“We really want to make it a banner year,” Paquette adds. We just have to pull together as a community and do what we can to help.”

The Women’s Center in Brevard is located at 1425 Aurora Road, Melbourne. For information, go to www.womenscenterinbrevard.org or call (321) 242-3110.

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