Person of the Week
Wenderoth-Holster Dives In to Lead Women & Family Life Center
Jennifer Wenderoth-Holster is the new executive director of the Women & Family Life Center. The non-profit, now in its 30th year, serves 16 towns across the shoreline. (Photo courtesy of the Women and Family Life Center)
On Oct. 18, Jennifer Wenderoth-Holster officially started first her day as the new executive director of the Women & Family Life Center (WFLC). She’s still pinching herself.
“I knew they did a lot at WFLC, but I think nobody really knows how much they do and how much they can provide until you dive into it. I love it,” says Jennifer. “The work that they do is so needed on the shoreline.”
Jennifer lives in Clinton, grew up in Madison, and has dedicated her time to many different community organizations through her professional experience in the non-profit sector.
“I’ve seen things that people need. This organization is like no other when it comes to helping people,” she says. “Even if it’s not something they can do, they will give you that referral and that soft hand-off so you’re not treading the waters on your own, trying to figure it out.”
Whether it’s financial counsel, talking with an attorney, help following sexual assault or domestic violence, or housing issues—to name just a few of so many—“they’re there to help. And it’s not just a one-time assist. You can use our services for as long as you need,” Jennifer says. “The idea is to support, empower and grow our participants that we work with.”
Now in its 30th year, non-profit WFLC was established in Guilford and continues to be headquartered in offices located in a warm and welcoming house at 96 Fair Street, but its outreach and impact spreads far across the shoreline, Jennifer notes.
“We reach from East Lyme to East Haven. That’s 16 towns, and people aren’t really familiar with that,” says Jennifer.
WFLC serves Branford, Chester, Clinton, Deep River, East Haven, East Lyme, Essex, Guilford, Killingworth, Lyme, Madison, North Branford, North Haven, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, and Westbrook—and beyond. Results Jennifer has just tabulated for WFLC’s annual report shows the center provided services to 54 towns in the last year.
“So even though we do narrow-in on 16 towns, we serve people all over Connecticut that are calling in and looking for help,” she says.
One reason may be that those who may have seemingly reached a dead-end elsewhere will likely find a road map to mark their way ahead when contacting WFLC, thanks to its Guided Assistance Program (GAP), Jennifer explains.
“Everybody who comes in or calls speaks with a referral navigator in the GAP program. They find out what services are needed.”
Bringing Strengths to WFLC
With more than a decade of experience working in the non-profit sector, including leadership in women and family services organizations and a background steeped in legislative advocacy in support of women, Jennifer’s credentials and experience will continue to provide strong leadership for WFLC, says board chair Sarah Bishop-DellaVentura.
“The Board of Directors is extremely excited to have Jennifer lead WFLC into the next phase of its important work,” Bishop-DellaVentura shared in a press release issued in September. “She has the vision, experience, and credentials to build upon WFLC’s current success and expand the reach and impact of its programs. Jennifer’s passion for our mission and her experience, energy, and enthusiasm are exactly what we were looking for in our next executive director. We have no doubt that Jennifer will do great things for the center.”
Information shared by WFLC also notes that, since 1991, WFLC has been providing resources and education for women and all families in crisis and “envisions communities where women and all families are free from violence and harassment, are economically secure, and have access to equitable opportunities.”
Jennifer arrived at WFLC from her previous position as director of non-profit Women and Families Sexual Assault Crisis Services in Meriden. She’s also served as equity coordinator for Gateway Community College, as well as having worked with Madison Youth & Family Services, Rape Crisis Center of Milford, and the YWCA Sexual Assault Crisis Service. She earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology, women, gender, and sexualities studies from Central Connecticut State University and her master’s degree in public administration, with a concentration in non-profit management, from University of New Haven.
Jennifer first became involved with WFLC more than four years ago, serving as a member of its Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Task Force. Each December, the task force holds a legislative round table with state representatives of WFLC’s 16-town service area to provide ideas for potential bills in the upcoming year based on needs surfacing at the task-force level.
“Advocacy is a huge part of what we do at WFLC,” says Jennifer. “Because when we find out there’s a need and we can work with our legislators, we can create change, not just in an individual’s life, but potentially in the entire state.”
As a survivor of a relationship that involved sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking, Jennifer is also the founder of Let It Be Heard, an organization working to provide education and awareness outreach around those topics. She was compelled to establish the shoreline-based organization after she couldn’t find the type of assistance she needed to navigate the legal and personal safety issues she encountered as a victim and survivor.
“I founded Let it Be Heard because I realized that there was nobody speaking out about this on the shoreline. That’s because there’s a stigma around victims and survivors, when the fact is, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong.’ We needed to start putting ownership on the perpetrators, on the abusers,” says Jennifer. “And what was lacking was education. Most people don’t realize there is a law in Connecticut that requires sexual assault prevention education has to be taught in all public schools, starting in kindergarten every year through 12th grade.”
Jennifer’s work with Let it Be Heard helps erase the stigma and has been instrumental for many districts looking to fulfill that requirement.
“I wanted this information to be heard, and yet I wanted the survivors’ voices to be heard and speak out. And that’s why I go into schools and provide this education,” she says.
Jennifer also brings the message of Let it Be Heard by speaking at community events and different programs of organizations seeking “to bring some information to their community on how they can come together to end this culture,” she says.
Currently she is the sole educator for her program (learn more at letitbeheard.org).
Ways to Help
At WFLC, Jennifer leads a staff of seven (she also notes one of those positions, for a referral navigator, is currently open) and works directly with WFLC’s highly involved board of directors. She also greatly appreciates the added service support provided by the center’s small volunteer base.
“We are always looking for more volunteers as well as more people to be on the board,” says Jennifer.
In particular, the board is currently seeking those with a background in finance to serve on its Finance Committee or to volunteer at WFLC. Financial advisors and attorneys are always welcome to volunteer their time to provide professional advice to individuals seeking help from WFLC.
“We do have volunteers who donate their time for financial consult or lawyer’s time. They’re doing it because they’re wonderful people and they enjoy helping somebody who may not financially be able to reach out,” says Jennifer. “Like our tagline says, they’re there to support, empower, and help somebody grow. That’s really what we are all about.”
In addition to relying on talented volunteers willing to lend their services, as a non-profit, WFLC also relies on donations, grants, and contributions to assist in its work. Private donors and companies interested in assisting can get in touch with Jennifer and/or WFLC Development Director Meg Lenzzo.
“We are a non-profit and we do rely on the overwhelming generosity of those in the community,” says Jennifer. “If somebody wants to learn more or connect with us, we’d love to welcome you into our little home here so we can go over what we’re doing, or if they’d like to learn more, donate or get involved.”
This month, the WFLC board announced it would retire its signature fall fundraising event of 26 years, Men Who Cook, and bring forward a new, exciting annual fundraiser, the EmpowHER Gala, coming in March 2022 in honor of Women’s History Month.
As WFLC noted in an Oct. 14 press release, “this event will serve as a platform to share the real-life stories of women and families in our community who are served by the center every day and to highlight the growing need for our programs and services on the shoreline.”
Jennifer shares the enthusiasm for EmpowHER Gala as an event that will support WFLC while also focusing on “those that we serve.”
“It’s going to be exciting. We’re hearing a lot of good feedback,” she says. “While Men Who Cook has been an important part of our history, it’s nice to even hear from men who actually do cook in the event saying they think it’s a great new direction.”
As the latest among the exceptional women who’ve led WFLC as executive director through the years, Jennifer is looking forward to helping to guide WFLC into the future.
“I’m really excited to be here. It’s an organization that, for quite a while, I hoped I’d eventually work for. The work they do is absolutely amazing; the staff is amazing, the board, the donors—everybody is just fantastic. And they do it from a place of love,” says Jennifer. “We want to empower people who might be dealing with crisis, or have a challenging time, to know that they’re not alone; that somebody’s there, somebody is going to help you.”
For more information about Women & Family Life Center programs and services, visit www.womenandfamilylife.org.