Nearly 900 women were seated in a ballroom at the Wyndham Grand Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh last Friday as a woman named Hannah stepped up to the podium. Despite the large crowd, the room fell silent once a round of vigorous applause died down.

Hannah, one among more than 9,600 women who have been helped by the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Women’s Leadership Council (WLC), had come to tell her story.

The facts were upsetting, but not at all uncommon: To escape violent domestic abuse, Hannah had fled her home with her then 8-year-old son. With only a part-time job, she had nowhere to go. She had no family in the region.

With help from the WLC’s United for Women program and the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, she was able to find a studio apartment and get a job. Two years later, Hannah is now a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, working toward becoming an engineer. Her 10-year-old son is safe and thriving, and he’s determined to become an engineer just like his mother.

The women in the audience had come to celebrate the work of the WLC and to kick off a new season of fundraising. The Council’s signature initiative, United for Women, has raised more than $5 million since 2012 to meet the urgent needs of women like Hannah who are facing homelessness and other crisis situations. Many of these women are also caring for small children.

In 2017 and 2018, the Women’s Leadership Council raised nearly $9.3 million to help women in need in the southwestern Pennsylvania region. And the group has grown to more than 2,000 members, making it the third-largest United Way WLC in the country — despite, as WLC co-chair and UPMC Chief Quality Officer Tami Minnier points out, Pittsburgh being about the 66th largest city in the country.

Among their key offerings is the 211 service, which people in crisis can call to request help. “The phone is answered by an amazing group of individuals who take these stories in,” Minnier explains. The 211 staff asks questions to determine exactly what help is needed, while also offering emotional support. They then point the caller toward the right services.

Often United for Women connects people directly with one of their eight partner agencies, including the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh and Project Journey. But if those services aren’t the best options for help, Minnier says, the 211 staff connects callers with other United Way agencies or other programs within the community.

At the start of the luncheon, Toni Murphy, regional vice president of sales and marketing at Comcast, told the audience this: “There is no force more powerful than a woman determined to rise.”

Hannah’s story illustrated that in a very personal way, and the message was echoed even more dramatically by the event’s keynote speaker, Elizabeth Smart.

Smart spoke about the traumatic experience of being kidnapped at age 14 and held hostage for nine months. But the focus of her speech was the remarkable resilience that women can find in the face of trauma, and the powerful sense of community that initiatives like United for Women can build for women in need.

Prior to the luncheon, Smart and Minnier sat down with NEXTpittsburgh to talk about the ongoing work of fighting abuse and building equality for women in America.

Elizabeth Smart speaks with WLC’s Tami Minnier and NEXTpittsburgh managing editor Melissa Rayworth prior to the WLC luncheon on Sept. 13. Photo courtesy of United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Both agreed that women are often uncomfortable asking for help or even telling their own stories. And yet these things are both vital.

“Sharing your story breeds compassion,” Smart said. “It breeds strength.”

When people hear about the abuse she suffered, Smart told us, they assume it’s a very rare thing. “Actually,” she said, “it happens all the time. The only thing that really sets my story apart from thousands of other women — one, was that it was highly publicized, but the second thing is that what happened to me came from strangers.”

“The majority of cases of abuse, of kidnapping, of sexual violence, come from someone you know, whether that was family or a neighbor or someone maybe you thought was a friend,” Smart said. “So speaking out and sharing stories is an extremely powerful tool. It’s an educational tool, and it helps to bring about change.”

Just as United for Women’s programs offer both a supportive community and concrete assistance, Smart is using the nonprofit foundation she launched in the wake of her kidnapping to create support programs for women who have experienced trauma and training programs to help combat sexual violence and other forms of abuse.

“I have met so many people, so many survivors, who didn’t realize what had happened to them was abuse, or was rape, or was sexual violence,” Smart says. “And so I want to help bring this conversation around to what exactly is sexual violence, and how do you recognize it?” As women try to cope with the emotional and physical impact of trauma, and attempt to release their pain, “many times they turn to unhealthy outlets. So we want to help educate people on why is this happening to them, on better outlets they can turn to.”

Additionally, she is planning to launch a series of self-defense classes — first in Utah and eventually nationwide.

“Self-defense cannot just be a one-and-done kind of deal. It needs to be something you constantly have at the back of your mind,” Smart explained. So along with developing a series of classes that women can take, the plan is to have women who have completed the classes join local chapters which meet monthly to discuss personal safety and to support one another in preventing abuse and in handling any abuse that does arise.”

As the WLC has demonstrated, it’s incredibly important that “you have that community,” Smart says. “So heaven forbid anything does happen, you’ve got that community of sisters, of mothers and daughters who are there to support you and to rally around you, but also where you can get together. And you can talk about the different situations and scenarios, and even practice.”

Minnier agrees. A tangible community and the courageous act of sharing one’s story “is so important. Because it also just normalizes it. It makes us all feel normal, like these things happen to people. It’s not rare. It’s not unheard of,” she said. “Things happen to all of us.”

Sponsors for the Women’s Leadership Council event included the Eden Hall Foundation, UPMC/UPMC Health Plan, Peoples, FedEx Ground, Highmark Health including Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield and Allegheny Health Network, and PNC Bank.

Click here to learn more about the upcoming WLC Day of Caring on Sept. 25. And you can find Elizabeth Smart’s most recent book, “Where There’s Hope: Healing, Moving Forward and Never Giving Up” right here.