Kathy O’Dell, Founder of Women4given

From Vision to Reality

by Kathy O’Dell, Founder of Women4given

ko photoFor 16 years I was a staff member for Southwestern Illinois College’s Foundation, the department devoted to friend- and fund-raising. It was the best job of all—the opportunity to see the joy of giving firsthand.

In the late 1990s, there was talk of a new opportunity for college and university giving through a “giving circle.”

This was about women pooling gifts and then meeting to explore, consider options, and jointly making a decision on what to fund. The giving circle was an inspiring place for giving, learning, and having fun. I thought this was a great idea and tucked the concept in the back of my mind.

One day in reading the Bible, this verse leaped out:

And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. Acts 2:44-45

Hmmm, I thought, it seems the Bible was the oldest reference of a giving circle.

After my retirement, a giving circle was still on my “someday” list—perhaps as a tool that might have some place in the church. Yet there was never a spiritual nudge or a time or cause presented.

In December 2008, I read the book The Giving Myths: Giving Then Getting the Life You’ve Always Wanted by Stephen B. McSwain. What McSwain wrote jolted my head and my heart about giving:

I’ve written this book to remind you that, for all the insights you will find on self-help shelves in bookstores, you will find purpose, peace and contentment when you start doing one thing – giving yourself away, first to God and then to others. . . . Let the giving of your money be the place you start. Everything else in your life will start falling into proper place. Jesus said, “Wherever your treasure is, there your heart and thoughts will be also.” Do you want your heart to be more on God? Then start giving your treasure away. Want to be a better spouse and parent and give more of your time to those you love? Then give your treasure to those who God brings to you who have needs. It’s not complicated. Your life will change for the better in every other aspect if you start with your checkbook and pocketbook.

Six months later, I happened upon this Bill Moyer’s Journal on PBS that changed my life. The program featured the story of Leymah Gbowee, a woman from Liberia who inspired and led other women to unite against a dictator and warlords to restore the rule of law to their country.

For 15 years Liberia was gripped by civil war. More than 200,000 people had been killed, one out of three were homeless and two-thirds of the females had been victims of sexual assault.

The story of women of Liberia is captured in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

Just prior to Gbowee’s appearance on the PBS program, she had been in Boston to accept the prestigious Profile in Courage Award for all of the women of Liberia who risked their lives to bring peace to their country.

Gbowee termed the war “hell on earth.”

“There is no other description,” she said. “You wake up in the morning and you’re just wondering what is going to be different today?

“Am I going to be shot as I walk the streets? Or is my younger brother going to be conscripted? Am I going to be raped?

“I had a dream. And it was like a crazy dream, that someone was actually telling me to get the women of the church together to pray for peace.

“When I had that dream, I felt so oddly placed. Because I always say I was the wrong person for God to be speaking to about bringing the women of the churches together because I wasn’t, like a 100-percent Holy Ghost-filled Christian, doing all of the right things. I was doing everything wrongly. And I felt if God had to speak to someone, it had to be someone perfect.

“But I said, ‘We need to call the women of the churches and find a leader.’”

At the meeting the women told Gbowee she was the leader.

“And I’m like, ‘No! God just told me to tell you all because you are the ones living the right life.’

“And the older women were like, ‘Haven’t you read about a prostitute in the Bible that God used? Haven’t you read about a sinner, a woman that Jesus encountered?’ And then they went on and on.

“And I was like, ‘You don’t understand. It can’t be me.’ I was a single parent. And in my church, I could not excel to any position of authority because I wasn’t married. And you constantly hear things being badgered into your head that women who are not married and have children are the worst sinners . . .

“But after they convinced me, we started this journey together. Then I realized that every problem we encounter on this journey, I’m going to rise above it and lead these women because they trusted me with their lives and their future.”

After hearing Gbowee’s story I asked myself, what am I doing to help others?

In 2009, I took part in a Bible study, Beth Moore’s Esther: It’s Tough Being a Woman. We all remember this powerful statement by Mordecai: “Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?”

Esther replies, “Go and gather together all the Jews of Susa and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will do the same. And then, though it is against the law, I will go in to see the king. If I must die, I must die.”

After studying Esther’s story I asked myself, where am I in this passage?

Then in November 2009 I read Richard Stearns’ book, The Hole in Our Gospel. This is the compelling, true story of Stearns’ ultimate acceptance of God’s call for him to set aside worldly success as CEO of Lenox China to accept a similar post as CEO of World Vision—to walk with the poorest of the poor in our world.

Stearns tells us 15 percent of the world’s population is forced to live on less than a dollar a day. (In fact, this statement was the catalyst for the idea of the Women4given annual membership contribution of $365, one dollar per day.) Yet Stearns reminds us there is hope because of all of us:

We might imagine that God’s vision for our world is like a great jigsaw puzzle. You and I are the pieces in His hands, and He places them in just the spots where our particular shapes, sizes and patterns best fit with the other pieces. The full picture only takes shape as all of the pieces come together in their proper places. In this view, no single piece is insignificant. . . . No other person has our same abilities, motivation, network of friends and relationships, perspectives, ideas or experiences. When we, like misplaced puzzle pieces, fail to show up, the overall picture is diminished.

I had already known halfway through the Esther study that I had to do something.

Early in 2010, the idea of a giving circle idea was becoming more than a “someday.” The “right time” and “right cause” had been placed on my heart. I shared my vision of a giving circle with a small group of Christian women in my living room.

What did they think? Would they help? Their collective, unanimous answer was: proceed!

In May 2010 the first paperwork was submitted to the Illinois Secretary of State. And so it went: quiet background work, writing bylaws, filling out forms and more forms and waiting . . . and waiting. The news we were waiting for arrived in October: the IRS had approved our application for tax-exempt status.

launch event picstitch
Launch Event, February 2011

With the small group of women with whom I had shared my vision, we planned a “launch event” for early February and invited our friends to learn about this idea of a giving circle. On a biting cold evening, thirty women showed up at Westview Baptist Church in Swansea, Illinois, to learn about Women4given!

A few months later, we presented our first annual grant awards—totaling $7,000—to two worthy non-profit organizations: Christian Activity Center of East St. Louis, Illinois, and Marion Medical Mission of Marion, Illinois. We were able to increase our grant awards to $15,000 in 2012 and $21,000 in 2013.

God has allowed us to grow at a manageable rate in our first few years, and we are immensely grateful for his guidance and continued blessings. We look forward to the future with great anticipation as we continue to focus on

encouraging generosity

to serve women and children

in Christian love.

The Founding “Class of 2010”

The following women gathered together in February 2010 to explore the idea of creating a giving circle. Without their enthusiasm and support, Women4given may not have come to fruition. The “Class of 2010” is: Lisa Camp, Deborah Clark, Emily Climaco, Ann Duncan, Marsha Heffner, Gail Johnson, Christine Kirchoff, Heidi Klein, Kathy O’Dell, Mim Phillips, Jenny Schroeder, Wendy Smith, Valerie Thaxton, Mary Ann Turner, and Gail Witter.