Julia Pritt found her calling in one of the darkest periods of her life.
The death of her mother, a divorce, and a cancer diagnosis turned Pritt’s world upside down within a short period. While receiving treatment, she prayed for guidance on what to do next. She received her answer: help low-income women.
Pritt observed the damaging effects of poverty, poor health care, and the lack of education on a woman’s life through her mother. Pritt’s mom dropped out of high school and got married. Because of this, Pritt said, she never earned more than minimum wage. With little money to go to the dentist, her oral health deteriorated and she had to wear dentures. Feeling inferior and experiencing low self-esteem, Pritt’s mother also suffered from depression and alcohol abuse.
Pritt realized she wanted to help women improve their lives and the lives of their families with much-needed resources.
In 1992, Pritt founded Washington Women In Need (WWIN). Over the past 28 years, WWIN has distributed over 6,500 grants to help women improve their lives through education assistance and addressing health care needs, including counseling, dental, physical, vision, and hearing care.
“Starting WWIN had been the most rewarding experience of my life because I know that the women we help will not have to endure the pain of losing all their teeth. They will not have the frustration of not being able to see clearly, they will not withdraw into themselves because they cannot hear, they will have the comfort that comes from having a counselor to talk to in time of stress, but most of all they will get the education they need in order to support themselves and their families,” Pritt said in a statement.
While the organization was originally established to help low-income women transform their lives with grants for education and health care, WWIN’s grant programs have evolved over time to align with the needs of the women they serve.
“Today, our grant programs provide education and career support for women to attain economic stability,” WWIN executive director Michelle Nitz said.
Nitz said women face an equity gap in society despite the progress achieved over the past few decades.
“Throughout a woman’s life, there are countless systemic and psycho-social barriers, including gender discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, disproportionate caregiver responsibilities, lack of affordable childcare, and the internalization of sexism,” she said.
These barriers are even greater for single mothers, women of color, and women of low socioeconomic status, she said. While seeking an education, a woman needs a plan for funding the high cost of tuition, fees, books, and supplies. But if a woman has children, she will endure additional financial setbacks while also tackling the everyday struggle of juggling motherhood with being a student.
“To work full time on top of all this is next to impossible, but without reliable income, unexpected expenses can threaten to derail a woman’s financial plan during school,” Nitz said.
Nitz continued that research shows that when women are entering the workforce, many lack the skills and confidence needed to strategically search for and apply to the high-paying jobs they deserve.
“Low-income students in particular lack the ‘social capital’ that many middle- and upper-income students enjoy,” she said. “This social capital gap leaves those students with an even steeper hill to climb as they begin their professional careers. Once she starts her career, a woman faces the wage gap. In Washington state, 58 percent of women are in the workforce. Yet data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that a woman in Washington earns only 75 cents for each dollar earned by a man.”
This is where WWIN steps in. While the organization has awarded educational grants to women for the past 28 years, graduation is not the ultimate finish line.
“What so many women are lacking is a true and powerful support system as they navigate the challenging transition from being a student to being a confident and financially stable woman in the workforce,” Nitz said. “With our coaching programs and our scholarship program, that is what WWIN provides.”
WWIN’s coaching and scholarship programs support women in a variety of ways. For one WWIN scholar, it allowed her to pursue her dreams of becoming a doctor.
“This scholarship has been more than a blessing. It has provided me once again with hope, and the confidence to assure myself that I will be the first in my family to earn a degree and pave the path for other people in my family,” Kasey, a WWIN scholar, said in a statement. “With the help of [the] WWIN scholarship, not only will I be closer to achieving my dream of becoming a doctor but it gives me hope to fight for a future where every woman has the right to pursue higher education without the burden of economic instability.”
Hearing these words of gratitude from past WWIN scholars fill Nitz’s heart.
“Our hearts are full and we remember why this work is so important,” she said. “When women thrive, our entire community thrives.”
While 2020 has thrown some curveballs, Nitz said the women of WWIN are persevering. This year, WWIN awarded over $1 million — supporting approximately 200 scholars this academic year.
“This year calls for new and creative ways to join together to raise program funds to help more women in Washington,” Nitz said. “We are grateful to be a part of this year’s Women to Watch with the shared mantra of ‘Be Inspired, Be Empowered, Be Challenged.'”
A portion of the proceeds from 425’s Women to Watch event will benefit WWIN.