NCJW loan project aims to empower domestic abuse victims

Presentation of NCJW’s first micro-loan check to a Lydia’s House resident. Left to right: Marilyn Ratkin (NCJW Project Chair), Lisa Moseley (Lydia’s House Program Director) and Ellen Alper (NCJW Executive Director).

BY PATRICIA CORRIGAN, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

The Healing Hearts Bank is small, open to only a few select customers, but the bank’s mission is far-reaching. The micro-lending program, initiated by the St. Louis Section of the National Council of Jewish Women, aims to help end domestic violence by improving the economic status of women. 

“When a woman gets her teeth knocked out, she needs new teeth to go to a job interview, and a bank won’t lend her money for that,” said Ellen Alper, executive director of NCJW St. Louis. “Or maybe a woman enrolls in her first college course, and she needs money for books. This is a stop-gap program to help women.”

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The Healing Hearts Bank serves clients of Lydia’s House, a transitional housing program for battered and abused women. Clients of Lydia’s House, which currently serves 36 women and their children, may apply to borrow up to $500 to help pay for clothing, education and transportation.

“Of course, $500 won’t move a woman from financial dependence to independence, but it may address an immediate crisis that will allow her to go to work every day, get training or remove a small roadblock that can seem insurmountable,” Alper said. 

Three clients of Lydia’s House and 10 members of the NCJW serve as “bankers” to  collaboratively operate the bank, which was established with a $5,000 grant from the Incarnate Word Foundation. “A lot of our women don’t pay attention to money, and even the idea of a loan is a foreign concept,” said Lisa Moseley, director of Lydia’s House. “This program will help them learn about finance.”

The idea for a micro-lending program for abused women here grew out of Higher Ground: NCJW’s Domestic Violence Campaign. Marlene Hammerman, president-elect of the St. Louis Section and a member of the board of directors of NCJW, Inc., is chair of Higher Ground. “My task force worked for a year just to come up with the issue on which we wanted to focus,” Hammerman said. “After extensive research, the task force zeroed in on the fact that women get into, stay in and go back to abusive relationships because they don’t have the economic stability to support themselves and their children.” 

Hammerman cited research that shows a woman’s ability to avoid domestic violence is often directly related to her level of economic security. “In 2008, 28.7 percent of female-head

ed households were living in poverty compared with only 13.8 percent of their male counterparts,” Hammerman said. She added that the most common reasons given by women who stayed in abusive relationships were “lack of money, shelter and police support.” 

All 95 sections of NCJW participate in the Higher Ground campaign, which calls for: 

Making work pay by raising the minimum wage, promoting equal pay and encouraging family-friendly workplace policies 

Creating pathways out of poverty for women and girls by investing in education and job training

Shoring up our nation’s safety net so that women and families in crisis receive the services they need to recover and rebuild.

The campaign’s national public policy agenda also includes lobbying on the Paycheck Fairness Bill, the Healthy Families Act and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

Locally, the St. Louis Section started its Higher Ground project with a needs assessment. “We didn’t want to duplicate services, so we met with the heads of domestic violence programs to see what Higher Ground could do in St. Louis that was not being done,” said Marilyn Ratkin, project chair. “We came up with the idea of emergency loans through a micro-lending program.” 

Ratkin remembered that the Incarnate Word Foundation had worked previously with micro-lending programs and sought the grant that funded the pilot program. A connection with Lydia’s House was already in place. “NCJW St. Louis has done several projects with them, helping to furnish transitional apartments and having household showers for women moving toward independent lives,” said Ratkin. “Lydia’s House was a logical place to start.”

The first monthly meeting of the “bankers” was held last September. Clients at Lydia’s House came up with the bank’s name and mission. They also determined criteria for loan eligibility and granting, developed the application forms and set the payback schedules. A community advisory board, with members from financial institutions and the clergy, is available to provide guidance.

The Healing Hearts Bank also offers an educational component, with occasional programs that feature “food, fun and finances,” Ratkin said. A program scheduled Monday focused on financial literacy regarding credit. “Many of these women have no credit whatsoever, and it’s very difficult for them when they go out in the real world.”

Last month, the first loan was approved for a client at Lydia’s House. As the program there grows, NCJW St. Louis is meeting with other local organizations that may choose to establish small micro-lending programs. Eventually, a model will be in place that could be used by NCJW sections elsewhere in the country as part of Higher Ground. 

“Most people have heard of micro-finance loans in Third World countries, programs that help individuals start cottage businesses,” Ratkin said. “This micro-lending program is to help abused women here get on their feet.” 

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