President John F. Kennedy once said, “Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone …”
Soroptimist International of the Americas, a global women’s organization, agrees. Since 1972, Soroptimist has ensured that women have the education and training they need to improve their lives and the lives of their families through its Women’s Opportunity Awards program. This grant program provides cash to women looking to achieve career goals through job skill training or continued education, an opportunity often not previously afforded to them due to economic or social barriers, or personal circumstances. Many of the women that have received the grant have overcome enormous obstacles including poverty, sexual and domestic violence, the death of a spouse, and substance abuse.
Unlike other programs, the Women’s Opportunity Awards empower the women to choose how to best use the money, which might include tuition, transportation, childcare, or other living costs. The program is funded through charitable donations raised from Soroptimist members and others who support Soroptimist’s mission of improving the lives of women and girls through programs leading to social and economic empowerment.
Thousands of applications are received from each of the 19 countries and territories that make up Soroptimist International of the Americas, and since 1972 about $30 million has been disbursed through the program.
“We have determined that while the challenges facing women are complex and inter-woven, one of the most effective ways to set them on a new path is by ensuring they have the education and skills they need,” stated Soroptimist’s executive director and CEO, Elizabeth Lucas. “For more than 40 years, our Women’s Opportunity Awards program has made a measurable and sustained difference in the lives of our recipients.”
In fact, Fels Institute of Government, a research and consulting organization based at the University of Pennsylvania, released a 2013 study evaluating the program and giving it high marks. The report concluded the Women’s Opportunity Awards are highly effective in helping women gain the tools they need to make measurable improvements in their lives. Three years after receiving the cash grant, almost 80 percent of recipients report having a higher standard of living; 98 percent report an increase in self-esteem; and 92 percent say they now serve as a positive role model for their children. Almost 80 percent of recipients enter into the helping professions (teaching, nursing, social work), which ultimately improves conditions for individuals and communities.
The program also is the recipient of the Associations Advance America Summit Award—ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership's highest level of recognition.
Recently, Soroptimist announced three recipients to receive the finalist $10,000 Women’s Opportunity Award. About 1,000 awards in smaller amounts are given at other levels of the organization, totaling nearly $1.6 million each year.
Among the 2013 recipients is Aziza Kibibi McGill Ayinde. Aziza is a survivor of horrific sexual abuse at the hands of her father from the age of 8 until 23, which resulted in the birth of four children, one of whom tragically died recently. She was deprived of any schooling and hidden from the world, enslaved to her father, who was—to the outside world—a renowned director and MTV award-winner who worked with The Fugees on the “Killing Me Softly” video. His public persona and fame hid his dark secret of abuse. Aziza summoned the strength to break free from the life she had been forced to live after the state intervened when one of her children, affected by a genetic disease, became ill. Aziza now resides in East Orange, NJ, works as a chef, and supports her surviving children while also putting herself through school. Aziza is using her Women’s Opportunity Awards to complete her education in liberal arts/communication. She hopes to start a nonprofit that will work to protect children from sexual abuse, and is in the process of working to publish a memoir. Aziza’s personal blog can be found at: http://www.unashamedanopenbook.blogspot.com
Two other finalists, who requested anonymity for safety reasons, have also experienced trauma in their lives. One is a formerly abused single mother with a serious degenerative eye disease, and the other is a Congolese refugee whose husband and brothers were murdered for political reasons. Both women will use their $10,000 grant in pursuit of education, leading to a better life for themselves and their children.
“We thank Aziza for her courage and willingness to share her story. And we congratulate all of our recipients for their fortitude in moving past their challenges and reaching for their dreams,“ added Lucas. “These women are the reason we’re here. They inspire us each and every day and we are honored to serve them.”
For more on the Women’s Opportunity Awards, visit http://www.soroptimist.org/awards/awards.html. 2014 Submissions are now being accepted, and Soroptimist encourages all qualified to apply.
*Fels data can be found at http://www.soroptimist.org/pdf/FelsCaseStatement.pdf
Headquartered in Philadelphia, Pa., Soroptimist (Soroptimist.org) improves the lives of women and girls through the work of volunteers in 1,300 clubs across 19 countries and territories. In addition to its Women’s Opportunity Awards, Soroptimist is currently developing a new program aimed at providing career guidance to teenage girls. A 501(c)(3) organization that relies on charitable donations to support its programs, Soroptimist also powers LiveYourDream.org—an online community offering offline volunteer opportunities in support of women and girls.