Supporting Women to Share Their Stories of Struggle

Tonia Alexander

Tonia Alexander

Volunteer Spotlight: Tonia Alexander

Since 2008 Tonia Alexander has been a volunteer for The Women’s Initiative’s Challenge into Change Writing Contest, an annual celebration of women’s stories of hope and healing. As a member of the Challenge into Change Committee, she helps guide the vision for the program and the culminating event at the Virginia Festival of the Book, our largest outreach event of the year. A Senior Self-Sufficiency Specialist at the Department of Social Services, Tonia also continues to inspire her clients to share their stories in each year’s contest.

Tell us about how you got involved with The Women’s Initiative originally.

I have shared each year’s book with so many women who may have been facing some type of struggle. I wanted to show them they aren’t alone. I think it can be empowering to know that, ‘Hey, my sister, my friend has overcome these things, and if they can, so can I!’
This year’s Challenge into Change book debuts at the Virginia Festival of the Book.

This year’s Challenge into Change book debuts at the Virginia Festival of the Book.

I have always found myself looking for resources that would serve my clients—something sustainable in the community that they would be able to access long after their time with me. I first found out about The Women’s Initiative when I was looking for a resource for a client who was dealing with major depression and I was trying to find a place that was very welcoming to her. The Women’s Initiative was nearby, so we were able to walk over and inquire about the services that were available. Charlottesville has a lot of resources, but it was great to have a resource directed towards serving women. We were able to make use of several opportunities available right from the beginning.

What inspires you to volunteer for Challenge into Change?

Over the years I have found that sometimes people will not be successful as they move towards self-sufficiency because of the additional stressors they’re dealing with. It has felt great to be there for these women—not only are they able share their stories in writing but their voices can be heard.

I have shared each year’s book with so many women who may have been facing some type of struggle. I wanted to show them they aren’t alone. I think it can be empowering to know that, ‘Hey, my sister, my friend has overcome these things, and if they can, so can I!’

How would you describe the impact of the Challenge into Change program on the authors who participate?

Every woman’s story is different, and it has made each book different over the years. Whether you’re sharing the first book or the most recent, there is always a woman that the book is able to speak to. Challenge into Change creates a connection between the authors and the readers that you can’t find in other books and I think that’s powerful. To be able to read the words of women from our own community, our own neighbors, to have an opportunity to share an encouraging word with a neighbor or a sister in a town that continues to heal, that is impact in itself.

All are welcome at this year’s Challenge into Change Celebration on Wednesday, March 20 at Carver Recreation Center.

This article is adapted from our 2019 Winter/Spring Newsletter.

Nature connection helps clients on path to healing

Carolyn Schuyler, LCSW, was the first program director of The Women’s Initiative and continues to be a board member today. In 2017, Schuyler founded Wildrock, a nonprofit that provides educational, recreational, and therapeutic programs in nature. Partnering with The Women’s Initiative, Wildrock has connected our clients with chances to explore ecotherapy. As one client shared about a half-day retreat at Wildrock’s nature center: “I had an amazing day of calm and connection with nature and new friends. It was a day of healing.”

What is ecotherapy? Who can benefit from it?

HEALING OUTDOORS.  Carolyn Schuyler, LCSW, helps connect TWI clients to opportunities for self-care and stress reduction in nature at Wildrock.

HEALING OUTDOORS. Carolyn Schuyler, LCSW, helps connect TWI clients to opportunities for self-care and stress reduction in nature at Wildrock.

Carolyn Schuyler: Ecotherapy supports people in developing a reciprocal, healing relationship with the natural world. The work can take many forms—equine therapy, horticulture therapy, expressive art in nature, the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku [“forest bathing”], stewardship practices, deep appreciation and observational practices, and scientific inquiry. I believe ecotherapy is at its best when people are not only receiving the broad range of social, emotional, cognitive and physical benefits of spending time in nature but also giving back to nature. Ecotherapy practices can help people develop an embodied understanding that their own well-being is inextricably tied to the well-being of nature. There is now a robust body of research revealing that a connection to nature is an important predictor of subjective well-being and ecological behavior.

How did your interest in ecotherapy develop?

I grew up with the freedom to play with my sister in a fossil-rich creek and forest area by my house. I believe my own adult happiness is fed by the reservoir of positive experience I had spending long, relaxed periods outdoors early in life. I have noticed in my years of being a therapist that this was true for many of my clients, too. Time and time again, I heard people telling me that their most hopeful, empowering experiences were times when they were immersed in nature.

How does ecotherapy fit into the overall mission of The Women’s Initiative?

The Women’s Initiative provides many avenues to support the resilience of women. Given the strong research supporting nature connection as a means for reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression and trauma, it makes perfect sense that TWI would support women in exploring nature connection as a form of self-care. When I opened Wildrock, I came to TWI and offered to run Nature Nurture retreats. This started a wonderful collaboration that has now expanded to TWI offering walking groups in town and workshops at the office to support people in strengthening a healing relationship with nature. Having helped found TWI when I first moved to Charlottesville 11 years ago, it felt fitting to start ecotherapy work with TWI in this new chapter of my career.

How can clients incorporate ecotherapy practices into their healing process?

It can be as simple as women putting pictures of nature up around their desk at work (even looking at pictures of nature has been found to improve productivity and reduce stress). It may mean that women take regular mindful walks, find a special location in nature to visit repeatedly, or help with local stewardship initiatives, such as planting pollinator gardens. On our retreats, we provide women with a list of experiences that are evidence-based approaches to ecotherapy.

Tell us about your vision for the partnership between TWI and Wildrock.

I hope that we will continue to offer Wildrock retreats in the fall and spring, workshops on how to incorporate nature connection into a treatment plan, and regular in-town meet-ups to support ecotherapy practices. I would love to do a research study to explore how practices specifically impact anxiety.

This article is adapted from our Winter/Spring 2019 Newsletter.

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Upcoming Ecotherapy Offerings

Connecting with Nature and Ourselves in Winter

Monday, March 11, 5:30-7 pm

Join with other women to use the wintertime quiet to cultivate restoration, creativity and connection. We will use collage, mindfulness, writing, movement and nature elements to cultivate gratitude and self-love and set positive intentions. Facilitated by Shell Stern, MSW.

Registration optional: (434) 872-0047 or info@thewomensinitiative.org.

Nature Nurture Retreat
at Wildrock

Saturday, April 13, 9:45 am-4 pm

A day outside to learn how to use nature to deepen your self-care and reduce stress.

Wildrock is a nature park and barn center tucked away in the Blue Ridge foothills 40 minutes from Charlottesville. Transportation to Wildrock will be provided from TWI Main Office, 1101 East High St.

Facilitated by Carolyn Schuyler, LCSW, Shell Stern, MSW, and Hannah Trible

To register: sstern@thewomensinitiative.org or (434) 872-0047 x114

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Yoga offerings help women heal

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Yoga at The Women’s Initiative helps women restore a feeling of safety in their bodies.

Increasing research testifies to the healing power of yoga and other mindfulness practices. Bessel Van Der Kolk, a professor of psychiatry at Boston University Medical School and a leading researcher in traumatic stress, has found that frequent yoga practice over extended periods of time helps decrease symptoms of PTSD and depression in women.

The Women’s Initiative offers new yoga classes each season. Examples include Chair Yoga; Gentle Yoga for Mindfulness; and Yoga for Women of Color in partnership with Common Ground Healing Arts. Click here to see our current yoga and other mind-body offerings.

Yoga and mindfulness practices can help us befriend our bodies and their sensations, release muscular tension instilled not just by everyday stress but by traumatic histories, and use our breath to regulate our nervous systems—all processes that trauma is apt to disrupt.

Mind-body programming at TWI is free and open to all women and all bodies.Though any community yoga or mindfulness class can help one to heal, our trauma-sensitive program is unique in that it puts particular emphasis on cultivating physical and emotional safety. In TWI mind-body classes, all "instructions" are really invitations: a participant is as free to exit a pose or a movement or the room as she is to enter it. And this invitation is itself part of the healing, enabling a sense of physical and emotional agency that the traumatized body may have forgotten.

This article is adapted from our Winter 2018 Newsletter.

New healing offerings start this fall

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Find your path to healing this fall through one of our many new and ongoing groups and offerings.

We are pleased to offer a host of free groups including …

Call (434) 872-0047 or email info@thewomensinitiative.org for more information and to register.

July is Minority Mental Health Month

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In honor of Minority Mental Health Month, join our Sister Circle Program for special healing and self-care offerings for women of color. Registration is required (except where noted). To register, call (434) 872-0047 x105 or email swood@thewomensinitiative.org.

  • Stress Reduction Lunch Hours, Friday, July 13 and Friday, July 27, 12-1 p.m., Sentara Starr Hill Health Center at the Jefferson School. Free.
  • Yoga for Women of Color, Sunday, July 15, 2-3:15 pm. Gather and practice yoga in a safe and nurturing setting. Class includes postures accessible to all levels as well as time for exploring ways to use breath and meditation for wellbeing. Women are invited to stay after class to connect with other participants, share yoga resources and build community. Each class is offered on a donation basis; no one will be turned away for inability to pay. No pre-registration is necessary.
  • Spa Retreat, Saturday, July 21, 2-3:30 pm, The Women's Initiative Main Office. Facials and/or pedicures from a Mary Kay consultant. Massages by Common Ground Healing Arts. Free.
  • Sound Bath with Shawna Bass, Monday, July 23, 12:30-2 pm., The Women's Initiative Main Office. Come be bathed in healing sound waves that will help to bring you to a deep meditative state. Sound baths can be one of the most deeply healing and restorative ways to attain a deep state of relaxation. Our body and minds respond positively to the sound vibrations and resonance allowing us to release of stress, healthily lower blood pressure as well as heal at a deep molecular and emotional level. Pay what you can; no one will be turned away for inability to pay. 

Visit our Sister Circle page to learn more.

Lead story: Women's resilience

Women's resilience was the lead story on NBC29's 11 o'clock news this Wednesday night, as reporter Victoria Wresilo featured the Challenge into Change program and the inspiring personal stories of hope and healing women shared.

About 150 people came out to Carver Recreation Center on Wednesday, April 18 to witness contest participants share their stories of transforming life challenges into opportunities for growth and renewal.

Congratulations to this year's contest winners:

First Place, Dr. Allison Kretlow, for her poem, “Four Year Old Faith”
Second Place, Bellamy Shoffner, for her essay, “Against Adversity, We Can Win”
Third Place (tie), Christa, for her essay, “Giving Birth”
Third Place (tie), Linda Martinussen, for her essay, “Ode to Elsa”

Purchase your copy of this year's Challenge into Change book, which includes stories and poems from our 81 participants, at New Dominion Bookshop on the Downtown Mall, 404 East Main Street, Charlottesville.

Read more about Challenge into Change.

Poems in times of challenge and change

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For National Poetry Month in April, we're celebrating poems that inspire us and speak to the work of our agency: empowering women in times of challenge and change. 

To begin, we are featuring "Where I'm From" by Rebecca Ballard, below, a poem included in the 2016 Challenge into Change Writing Contest, an annual program that encourages women to write and share their stories of transforming challenges into opportunities for change and growth. 

Stay tuned for more as we are getting ready to unveil this year's Challenge into Change book at our Challenge into Change celebration on April 18. We invite you to this special evening to celebrate the process of storytelling as healing.

Follow The Women's Initiative on Facebook and Instagram to keep up with the latest.

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Hear Together: The Women's Initiative

Have you heard? The Women's Initiative is featured on WNRN's "Hear Together."

Executive Director Elizabeth Irvin, LCSW, spoke with WNRN about our affordable, accessible, effective mental health counseling services for women in our region.

"Wanting to reduce as many barriers as possible, we created walk-in clinics as a chance for any woman to come in and be seen same-day, confidentially, with a therapist, and begin the journey of healing," Irvin says.

Click here to listen to the full segment.

CranioSacral Therapy at Walk-in Clinic

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CranioSacral Therapy with Amina Elizabeth Stevens is offered free during our Wednesday Walk-in Clinics at our main office.

CranioSacral Therapy is a gentle form of bodywork that can help relieve pain and stress. The practitioner uses light touch on the head, along the spine, and on the sacrum to release compression. Many people experience deep relaxation and increased physical ease during and after a CranioSacral Therapy session. At The Women’s Initiative sessions are done laying down on a massage table while fully clothed.

Sessions take place in our downstairs studio, 2-5 pm, Wednesdays.

See the flyer for this free offering.

Learn more about all our free walk-in clinics.

Free CranioSacral Therapy is a partnership between The Women's Initiative and Common Ground Healing Arts.

Growing our Mind-Body Program to heal trauma

We're growing our Mind-Body Program to help heal trauma through movement.

Trauma-informed yoga, dance and other movement styles help release muscular tension stored in our bodies because of both everyday stress and histories of trauma. These practices also enable us to use breath to regulate our nervous system, a process which trauma often disrupts. 

All of these offerings are free and open to all women and all bodies, and no experience is required.

Check out our latest mind-body offerings...

Additionally, The Women's Initiative will be hosting a special Holiday Breathe & Move event, with yoga as well as origami paper-crane-making.

Call (434) 872-0047 to reserve your spot, and check out the Facebook event!