Metuchen loses important non-profit for women

Nov. 30, 2015: Theresa was a single mother in Metuchen looking for help. She had been through a divorce several years earlier and wanted to build a support network.

She found the support she needed at a local non-profit called Women Helping Women. The organization offered group counseling sessions and other types of support at low cost.

“It was invaluable. That’s something that, if you can find it, it’s incredibly validating, especially if you feel alone,” Theresa, who asked that her full name not be used, said in a recent interview.

The low cost aspect of the program was vital to allowing Theresa to be able to take advantage of the services, she said. The experience helped her build a support network in town.

“It was a matter of support, to have this within my community, which is big,” Theresa said.

Sadly, those services are gone.

Women Helping Women, an organization formed by a  group of professional Metuchen women in 1975, was set to close by the end of November, according to Jill Lesko, president of the group’s board of directors.

The non-profit, whose mission has been to help women through divorce, losing a spouse, and other life events as well as mental health issues, is selling its building at 224 Main St. Proceeds will be used to pay off debts and any balance will go to continuing services that will be taken over by Rutgers University, Lesko said.

The beginning of the end — like with so many businesses and organizations — was the global financial crisis in 2008, Lesko said. Funding began drying up and Women Helping Women had a hard time finding new sources. The non-profit ran on support from the state and federal government as well as corporations. One sponsor that pulled back was United Way.

“With the recession, a lot of corporations pulled back funding and were only funding much larger national organizations,” Lesko said. “They felt if they were going to give money, they would give more money to fewer organizations, and have more impact.”

Volunteers who were also affected by the financial crisis couldn’t donate as much time to the organization, Lesko said.

As funding decreased, Women Helping Women continually shrank its services, said Sally Wolberg, a counselor for the organization. In the last few years, Women Helping Women lost counselors and got to the point where only Wolberg remained.

At its height, Women Helping Women ran services to help women get back into the workforce, ran peer training groups, held numerous fundraisers, employed a grant writer, seven or eight counselors, a pro-bono attorney to work with women in transition and nurses on staff. The group also had programs to help younger women deal with bullying, peer pressure, low self esteem and addiction.

The organization grew from its original home at the YMCA into the building at 224 Main St., which it eventually acquired with the help of a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Lesko said. The group expanded the building in the early 2000’s, Lesko said. In 1980, a group spun out of Women Helping Women and formed Women Aware, a non-profit based in New Brunswick that focuses on assisting victims of domestic abuse.

As funding got tight, Women Helping Women invited in other non-profits to the building, including the Literacy Volunteers of New Jersey and Build with Purpose.

While the organization has been shuttered, its legacy will continue to be a program it funds at Rutgers University in which doctoral students, under supervision, counsel members of the community at low cost. “They have a full-time counseling clinic,” Lesko said. “The benefit is we’re helping to teach future counselors, and women have to pay a modest fee to be seen.”

Wolberg, meanwhile, is planning to launch a therapy group for women experiencing relationship difficulties in January to be held at the Reformed Church of Metuchen on Lake Avenue, she said. For more information, call 732-822-3912.

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