Out of Focus: Longtime women's support org folds
The same year Congress gave its blessing to the Equal Rights Amendment, a team of Charlottesville women launched a new support group to assist what were then quaintly called "displaced homemakers." Forty years later and despite creating a well-known flea market and nurturing a mediation center, the Focus Women's Resource Center has quietly ceased operations, perhaps a victim of a faded era– or of its own success.
"If there's a woman going through it, there's another woman who can help her," says co-founder Ellen Vaughan, of the nonprofit's philosophy.
The group would sponsor special counseling programs, financial management classes, legal advice nights, and help for pregnant and parenting teens. The mediation center that carried its name for over a decade grew so popular that it's now a separate organization.
Vaughan explains how Focus efforts would often find mainstream acceptance– as when Piedmont Virginia Community College began offering a financial management course– so the group would move on to other services.
Before Focus, the Junior League was the major women's volunteer organization in Charlottesville, and some Leaguers saw the upstarts as a bunch of intellectual "bra-burners," according to Vaughan, who was a member of both organizations.
"People in Focus looked at Junior Leaguers as unwilling to get their hands dirty and do what was needed to be done," says Vaughan. "[Focus volunteers] didn't wear little black dresses and pearls."
It turns out there were plenty of "closet" Focus members in the ranks of the Junior League, says Vaughan, and the two organizations collaborated to create what is now called SHE, the Shelter for Help in Emergency.
Lila Lasseter was hired as the first executive director in 1978 and served for two decades as Focus grew to an eventual staff of 26. In the 1990s, when still a powerhouse, it purchased a mansion on Grady Avenue as its headquarters, and it later moved to rented space downtown in the Ix project.
The Focus Flea Market, a shop most recently located on West Main Street, helped fund myriad services by selling used clothing and end-of-season apparel donated by retailer J. Jill. For many years, women needing business attire could count on Focus to help them dress for success.
"It served a purpose," says Lasseter. "It was heavily covered by volunteers. I thought the volunteers got as much out of it as the clients."
Focus got its start in 1972, when many married women were more likely to volunteer than hold a job. The founders gathered in one of the Sunday school classrooms at Westminster Presbyterian Church.
"Everyone was hopped up on the Equal Rights Amendment," remembers Jim Baker, now the pastor at the Rugby Road institution that also helped incubate the Jaunt transit service and the Jefferson Area Board for Aging.
Though the proposed Constitutional change failed to garner sufficient state support to become reality, Focus found ways to help displaced homemakers– "divorced, widowed, mistreated women who needed community support to get into the job market," Baker says.
"In my 30s, I was a gangbuster volunteer," recalls co-founder Vaughan. But even she later joined the non-Focus workforce. "I didn't have time to volunteer in my 40s."
Ultimately, a lack of volunteers combined with funding woes to sound the death knell. Without fanfare or even a public announcement, Focus ceased operations this fall.
"[It] is heartbreaking to have to close in our 40th year,” board chair Hobby Parent says in a statement prepared after a reporter calls for comment.
"Times change, and the world changes," says Vaughan. "I think there was a time for Focus."