Women give back in northeast North Carolina

Julia Vail

The northeast region of North Carolina, one of the most rural areas of the state, has faced problems serving its needy population.

Now, two women’s giving circles have stepped in to help meet the challenge.

The Northern Albemarle Women Givers serves Gates, Camden, Pasquotank and Perquimans counties, while the Bertie-Hertford Women’s Fund serves nearby Bertie and Hertford counties.

“Most of these six counties are identified by the state as tier 1 or tier 2 counties economically,” says Peggy Birkemeier, senior associate in the northeast region for the North Carolina Community Foundation, referring to their high levels of poverty.

The women’s funds, launched three years ago with $10,000 each from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation through N.C. Gives, aim to serve women and girls, addressing needs ranging from teen pregnancy to domestic violence, Birkemeier says.

The upcoming grant cycle will be the third for the Northern Albemarle group, which plans to award $2,100, and the second for the Bertie-Hertford group, which aims to award close to $5,000.

The deadline for applications is scheduled for the end of April, and payments will be awarded in June.

Last year, during its first grant cycle, the Bertie-Hertford group awarded a total of more than $2,000 to the Pregnancy Center of Ahoskie and the Food Bank of Albemarle.

“The Ahoskie teen-pregnancy center received money to help them purchase prevention kits and training materials,” Birkemeier says.

The food bank, she says, has been pushing hard to get food into some of the remote areas of the counties it serves.

“The grant helped them outfit a mobile food pantry and pay for delivery to sites in rural areas,” Birkemeier says.

Each giving-circle member gives $300 a year, $200 of which goes directly into the grants program, Birkemeier says.

The remaining funds are divided, with $25 going into an endowment and another $25 going to a statewide endowed fund for women. The remaining $50 goes toward administrative expenses.

Both of the funds’ endowments, battered by the economy, have fallen below their original $10,000 value, Birkemeier says.  

The weak economy, along with lower-than-expected membership rates, prompted the Northern Albemarle fund to cut back from two grant cycles a year to one.

During its second grant cycle last year, the Northern Albemarle Women Givers awarded a total of $2,500 to five nonprofits, including SmartStart and the Albemarle Hope Line, a shelter for battered women serving seven counties. Another grant went to the Elizabeth City, N.C.-based H.L. Trigg Community School, which serves at-risk youth in grades six through 12.

“It was an incentive program to encourage them to revamp their behavior and adopt positive learning practices to be successful in an academic environment,” Birkemeier says.

Though neither women’s fund has attained its 25-member goal for last year, they are holding strong and continue to recruit members, says Birkemeier.

The Northern Albemarle group has 16 members, and the Bertie-Hertford group has 23, despite its smaller geographic area.

However, low membership is not a liability, Birkemeier says, especially in rural areas.

“A lot of them like to have a small, more intimate group to interact with,” she says. “In your urban areas, it’s a different ball game.”

The larger membership in the Bertie-Hertford group is partially attributable to distance, Birkemeier says.

“It has to cross a lot of different social groups and social relationships in a four-county area,” she says. “In Bertie-Hertford, the women have more of a shared social interaction.”

Though their members reflect a variety of races and income levels, the funds have had difficulty recruiting younger members.

“That’s a very hard target group,” Birkemeier says. “Many women in that age group are very involved with their families and their jobs.”

But the funds continue to get the word out through e-mail and face-to-face contact, she says.

Each fund’s board, consisting of six or seven members, meets monthly. The Northern Albemarle fund has two full member gatherings a year, and plans to up the number to four this year, Birkemeier says. The goal for both funds is to meet at least twice annually.

The women also have a chance to bond through volunteer activities in the community, she says.

“Not everything they do is tied to monetary grants,” she says. “They are actively engaged in following through with a commitment of their time, or needed supplies and materials.”

The women involved in both funds enjoy showing their commitment to nurturing their communities, she says, and to going above and beyond what is required of them.

“That’s what women do,” Birkemeier says.

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