Name change boosts awareness of center

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Last spring, the Women's Center of Southeastern Michigan was renamed in honor of Ann Arbor attorney Jean Ledwith King, a trailblazer for women's equality.

The new name has made a difference in a couple of ways.

"One thing that's changed is an increased community awareness of The Women's Center and what The Women's Center does and what it stands for," said Executive Director Kimberli Cumming, speaking with The Legal News at the center's open house last week. "Certainly the name has broad recognition and generates automatic admiration and respect from those who know the work that she did. And curiosity from those who know her work, and now see it affiliated with a grassroots nonprofit in Ann Arbor, Michigan."

Cumming said honoring King also helped clarify the center's mission among the board, staff, volunteers and other affiliates.

"We're in existence not only to provide direct services and help folks cope with difficult things in life, but also to have more of an increased focus on gender equity," she said. "We want to make the situation better for women and girls, and not just help them cope with injustice."

Located on Ann Arbor's west side, the Jean Ledwith King Women's Center of Southeastern Michigan offers personal counseling, job coaching, divorce support, financial counseling, tax preparation assistance, referral resources, and voter registration to women, girls and families.

Fees are based on a sliding scale, and scholarships are available.

Jerri Jensen is chair of the center's Circle of Friends, a group of people who support the center with financial help and community outreach.

"When I was a young woman and a single mom, it was agencies like The Women's Center that enabled my family to survive and thrive," said Jensen. "They had the emergency services that we unfortunately needed because we were struggling with poverty and they also provided the kinds of services so I could built up my self-esteem, find a job, and be able to get out in the world and be a productive citizen and parent."

"That was in Ohio. Now that I've moved here, I really think it's important to make sure there are agencies like the Women's Center around to help families in crisis."

The Women's Center helps more than 600 families a year, and makes countless referrals into the community.

"It's a one-stop shop," said Jensen. "You can get some clothing, if you need it, to wear to a job interview. You can talk to someone and practice your interview skills. You can get counseling if you've been a victim of domestic violence. Many times people have all these problems at one time."

Cumming is particularly proud of the woman who recently came to the center in the throes of a painful divorce following 20 years of a marriage in which she had stayed home to be a fulltime homemaker and mother.

"Her experience as a homemaker had been so invalidated," Cumming said. "The message she was receiving was, `Why don't you get up off the couch and go get a job?'"

In the process of helping her gain confidence, a job coach at the center helped her realize she had many transferable skills. Eventually she began representing herself in the divorce process, and in the Michigan Court of Appeals--and won on quite a few counts.

Jean Ledwith King was undoubtedly also proud.

King was the mother of three when she decided at age 41 to enroll in law school. When she graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1968, she was one of 10 women in a class of 350.

After graduating, she became active in both local and national politics, as well as litigation for women's equality. She is best known for working on behalf of female student athletes, and helping to promote Title IX of the Education Amendments, which was passed by Congress in 1972 and says that: No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

King was unable to attend Friday's open house due to health reasons, but her spirit is there every day as counselors help women and girls raise their awareness and take control of their lives.

"We consider our counseling program as very much an empowerment-focused program," said Cumming. "And to decide what they can change and what they can't, and where they want to be active and where they don't."

The Jean Ledwith King Women's Center will hold its spring benefit from 6-10 p.m. May 11 at Barton Hills Country Club.

Published: Thu, Mar 29, 2012

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