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‘United for Women’ helps local women emerge from crisis

Kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart addresses more than 800 women who recently gathered for the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Women Leadership Council’s campaign kickoff.

TribLIVE – Andreá Long never expected to be a fulltime caregiver to her teenage son. But, after an injury in a pickup football game left the 14-year-old unable to walk, Long’s daily routine became a grueling blur of caretaker tasks, hospital visits and mounting bills that the single mom juggled in between work.

The $120 weekly rehab co-pays quickly put Long in the red, by more $600 a month. “I played the juggling game,” said Long, 51.

As she researched assistance programs, she found that “if I qualified for one, I didn’t qualify for another. It was feast or famine. I’d either fall below the poverty line or just above it.”

Two months behind in the rent, Long and her son nearly had to move out of their McCandless home.

And that’s when she turned to the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania and found the “United for Women” program.

An initiative funded by women for women, United for Women was created by the local Women’s Leadership Council in 2012 specifically to help women in crisis like Long. Last year, the council raised $9.3 million and helped more than 1,900 women get their life on track after a divorce, spousal death or domestic violence.

The money United for Women raises is distributed to local programs like the South Hills Interfaith Movement’s Smart Investments, which helped Long with rent, gas cards and utilities.

“I didn’t know how to cope by myself,” Long said. “They allowed me to catch up.”

The Women’s Leadership Council kicked off its annual fundraising campaign earlier this month, featuring a speech by kidnapping victim and survivor Elizabeth Smart. The luncheon drew more than 800 women.

By the end of the year, the initiative will have helped 10,000 women since its launch.

“It’s all about women lifting women,” Stacey Juchno, the Women’s Leadership Council Committee co-chair, told attendees. “Not only do we help these women, but we help their families and communities.”

It was a sentiment echoed by many others, including Smart.

Smart, 31, was kidnapped at 14 from her Utah home in 2002. She was held captive for nine months and raped almost daily. She was rescued after photographs of her suspected captor appeared on “America’s Most Wanted,” leading him to be identified in a public place.

“I decided I would do whatever it took to survive,” Smart told attendees about her captivity. “That decision was tested every day.”

Organizers said they chose Smart for the kickoff because she embodies the resilience its programs hopes to instill in local women facing an unexpected life event.

While Smart questioned why she had been kidnapped, she said wasn’t sorry her abduction happened to her because of the platform she has today, and the introductions she gets to “local heroes” such as the domestic abuse victim who shared her journey out of homelessness.

The hard lessons taught Smart that the best punishment for her captors – and by implication to the challenging circumstances women in crisis face – is to “be happy.”

“Never give up,” Smart said, “because life is beautiful and worth believing in.”

Read the full article and see the video here.