Editor's note: This story first appeared in the summer 2012 edition of Vail Luxury Magazine. Eagle County's male-to-female ratio has long been a running joke in the Vail Valley. In reality, women make up 46.2 percent of the local population, according to census data from 2009. This means that programs and nonprofits that focus on the female gender have a wide-ranging impact on the community as a whole - women aren't a fringe group. Created in 1987, The Women's Foundation of Colorado has been working for 25 years to improve the lives of women and girls across the state.Pam Smith is on the Board of Trustees of The Women's Foundation and is actively involved in the local Vail Valley Committee of the organization. Smith thinks that the best thing about The Women's Foundation is its commitment to research-based action."What attracted me most to this Foundation was that everything they do flows from research," Smith said. "That's so important. You can throw money at problems until you're blue in the face, but unless you understand the problems it's difficult to create effective solutions."And what are the problems? "Last year, 5,750 girls dropped of out of high school in Colorado," Smith explains. "Girls who drop out have a harder time finding employment than boys; their jobs generally provide lower earnings; they have poorer health and they often need to rely on public support programs for their family's basic needs."The average annual income for women in Eagle County without a high school diploma is $12,110. A high school graduate can more than double her annual earning potential. According to the 2011 Colorado Self-Sufficiency Standard Update commissioned by the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, a single mother supporting one pre-schooler needs an income of $54,994 to be considered "self-sufficient" in Eagle County. Approximately 35 percent of single moms on state work supports are high school dropouts. It is estimated that each dropout costs the U.S. $200,000 in their lifetime. The Foundation is focused on creating programs that not only help women and girls individually, but also improve the status of women in Colorado. "We're going for systemic change," Smith said. "We work to remove barriers that prevent women and girls from becoming self-sufficient."Smith said that due to the high cost of living, many women in the Valley struggle to support themselves."With the average wage in the Valley far below the wage necessary to achieve economic self-sufficiency, this is an issue that reaches beyond just impacting women. We are all familiar with many of our residents holding multiple jobs in order to make ends meet," said Lisa Pease, a Women's Foundation Trustee since 2007 and Vail Valley resident.In 2008, The Women's Foundation commissioned a study by Columbia University which then identified the "cliff effect" - when benefits end abruptly without a sliding scale to phase out the benefit. Women who were receiving some type of federal or state support (such as food stamps or child care) were actually turning down raises and promotions because "at a certain income level they would lose all their benefits," Pease said. Pease refers to this as "falling off the cliff," in that a small increase in wages leads to the support being terminated, leaving the woman in a worse financial condition than before the increase, thereby inhibiting the woman's efforts to become self-sufficient. As a result of this study, the Foundation created a variety of initiatives to tackle the problem, including supporting the successful passage of Senate Bill 22 during the 2012 state legislative session. The bipartisan legislation allows up to 10 county governments to extend the eligibility period for the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program within their county from six months to two years to mitigate the cliff effect. The pilot program allows children to remain in important early childcare, gives parents the ability to work and advance their careers, and provides employers with stable workers. Parents receiving extended assistance must pay an increasing portion of the childcare costs over the two-year period.
Funds raised from the group's annual luncheon support the statewide efforts of The Foundation as well as Eagle County nonprofit organizations serving women and girls. "Last year, our Vail Valley Committee granted funds to Eagle County organizations with programs that focused on the economic self-sufficiency of women and girls," Deb Luginbuhl said. The 2012 grants were awarded to local programs that focus on the girls' dropout rate as well as the contributing factors that keep them from graduating high school or continuing their education. "It's exciting to see the positive outcome of the programs that receive the grants. Lives are changed," Luginbuhl said. At Red Canyon High School, support from the Foundation allows girls to participate in an internship program where they learn about different careers and are mentored by successful women.Based in Eagle County, one of The Red Ribbon Project's goals is to prevent HIV, STIs and pregnancy in teenage girls through education and outreach.The Girl PowHER Summer Program is run by the Vail Valley Foundation's Youth Foundation. Studies show that 70 percent of youth who play sports quit by the age of 12. Girl PowHER aims to reverse this trend for middle and high school girls by engaging them in physical and recreational activities. "As a long-time partner with The Women's Foundation, VVF's Youth Foundation has been able to increase mentorship opportunities, enhance academic support and increase fitness among girls most at-risk for dropping out of high school," said Susie Davis, VVF's Youth Foundation Vice President of Education. "Not only does their financial support have an immense impact on our community, but the research and advocacy throughout our state directly benefits our community." Research also shows that girls' interest in science starts to drop starting in the third grade. The Walking Mountains Science Center attempts to foster a passion for science in third to fifth grade girls with their Girls in Science program. Careers in science are one promising path to self-sufficiency.The Bright Future Foundation aims to break the cycle of domestic violence that affects women in Eagle County. The Women's Foundation helps in part to fund the "Light of Hope Self Sufficiency Initiative," in which those who have gone through the women's shelter learn how to make and sell oil candles."If it weren't for funding from the Women's Foundation, we might not be able to offer this," said Sheri Mintz, Executive Director of the Bright Future Foundation. "Women report that they feel supported and stronger when they come through the 'Light of Hope' program. We feel that it's helping the women to maintain steady employment."
In addition to helping to fund organizations, The Women's Foundation also raises awareness about important issues affecting women and girls today. The theme for this year's annual Vail Valley Luncheon is A Place at the Table: Gender Bias in the Media (You Can't Be What You Can't See!). Keynote speaker will be Jennifer Siebel Newsom, writer and director of "MissRepresentation," a documentary film which looks at the ways in which the media negatively depicts women and how this affects their ability to become leaders.The organizers of the luncheon selected Newsom to be the keynote speaker because, in addition to making the film, she also created MissRepresentation.org, a call-to-action campaign that seeks to challenge the media's narrow view of women and girls."Young girls who hear all those comments about their looks, and so few about their capacity to lead, are handicapped with the notion that their value lies in their beauty," Newsom said. "We have so few women and such limited diversity in our media leadership ... We know that 3 percent of the positions of clout, of the decision-makers, are women. (This) means that 97 percent of what you watch, read and hear comes from the male perspective."According to Newsom, without positive images of women in media, it is harder for young girls to believe that they have the power to become leaders.
This message aligns with the Women's Foundation's goal to not only enable women to become self-sufficient but also be at the forefront of changes in our state and community. The more women gain positions of power, the more they will be able to give back and help other women and girls in return. Having lived all over the world, Smith thinks that the citizens of Eagle County are exceptional in their commitment to charity."This is one of the most philanthropic, collaborative communities that I've ever lived in," Smith said. "There does not seem to be this competition between nonprofits for donors. Nonprofits look for ways to work together for the betterment of the community and the people in it."Since coming to the Vail Valley in 2006 Smith has already seen the fruits of the Foundation's labor. When she attended a Girl PowHER mentoring program this June, she could see changes in the high school girls from the previous year."The girls are more engaged," Smith said. "Now they know that somebody cares about them. They've been exposed to different role models. They're looking towards the future and are excited about it."The progress of women doesn't benefit females alone. Families, businesses, and the community at large all reap rewards when women are healthier and more financially secure. Since its founding 25 years ago, The Women's Foundation has granted nearly $10 million to research, advocacy and direct service programs for women and girls around the state. With all the ways they've helped local women and girls, it's hard to imagine a time before The Women's Foundation existed."We're so appreciative," Mintz said. "They're such a strong voice in our community surrounding women and girls. We feel fortunate to partner with them." For more information on The Women's Foundation of Colorado visit www.wfco.org or email WFCOVailValley@gmail.com.