WISE: 50 Years and Still Going Strong

When a small but committed group of ‘Founding Mothers’ started WISE 50 years ago as a women’s career and parenting resource center – email, floppy disks, and pocket calculators had just been invented. Also in 1971, women could not own credit cards or purchase property. And the concept of gender-based violence was not part of any community conversation: it would take decades for this to change. Yet the pioneering WISE founders began hearing and believing women’s stories of sexual and domestic violence at home and at work and took the courageous step to act on those stories. Fifty years later, the next generation of WISE staff, volunteers, and board members is still providing a haven for people who suffer from gender-based violence, offering support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

The founding mothers of WISE (top L-R) Martha Popp (Director) Ramey Fair, Jenny Williams (bottom L-R) Alix Olson, Terryl Stacey, Joanne Martin, Georgia

How does an organization successfully sustain this kind of challenging and important work for 50 years? According to long time Executive Director Peggy O’Neil, WISE has continued to evolve with the times, and is fueled by the remarkable dedication and commitment of everyone involved in the organization. “Fifty years is a long time, and one reason for our staying power is that the most amazing people come together – donors, volunteers, survivors, staff, board members – to address this issue and try to make a difference. From the 70s to 2021, people in very difficult situations have reached out and they know they can trust us with their stories.” 

Past Board Chair and WISE strategic advisor Lizann Peyton echoes Peggy’s sentiments. “One reason WISE is so successful is that the staff and board have always thought powerfully about changing systems. WISE leads systems innovation throughout the Upper Valley, partnering with critical organizations beyond its own direct services, working with schools, courts, health care providers, human service agencies, businesses, and others. WISE understands what it takes to help people feel safe and secure.”

Working from an empowerment-based model which promotes resilience and positions the person seeking help as the primary decision-maker, WISE works closely with community organizations to create consistent responses to validate women’s experiences. Lizann remembers a time when public and institutional awareness was not so coordinated. “When I joined the board in 1993, it was difficult to recruit board members and harder to find funding support. The more public awareness was raised, the more people came to WISE for services. WISE has been good about promoting the success stories, and that has changed the dialogue to show that there is a way to talk about these issues as a community. It creates a virtuous cycle – the more you succeed, the more the community supports and comes to WISE as a leader.”  

WISE Staff in front of previous WISE office at 79 Bank Street, Lebanon. This was the site of WISE from 1991 until Program Center opened in 2008.

In the early 90s, WISE staff engaged with local hospitals to provide an advocate to speak in confidence with people who went to the hospital after experiencing trauma. This outreach served to elevate the public and institutional perceptions of the value of the services available at WISE. Board member and past President Jenny Williams says WISE has done pioneering work with police departments as well, and that collaborative relationships with community institutions have been a vital part of raising community awareness. “The organization has become very proactive – at least half of our job is prevention. We have the WISE training courses that anyone can apply to take part in. It helps explain why gender-based violence exists, and we can educate adult community members through the basic training course (a screening process applies). The next level of the training prepares volunteers to serve on the crisis hotline,” explains Jenny. WISE also has five ‘co-locations’ around the Upper Valley to expand accessibility to services.

Another shining example of a positive impact on community systems is the presence of WISE educators in grades K-12 in Upper Valley schools through the Prevention and Education Program. Explains Peggy, “We have had educators in the schools for three decades. We’re a small community, so you see young people who you worked with in middle school, and they tell a story about the educator helping them, a family member, or a friend who benefited from the experience.” High school students also report incorporating the learning into their peer group conversations, social groups, and communities. Lizann notes, “The program also teaches kids to understand the language and that helps them and others to navigate real-life situations. We have seen a shift in how boys and men are engaging in the conversation about gender-violence.” Jenny echoes the far-reaching success of the education program. “One of the beautiful things about the education program is how the students engage in asking tough questions. When I sat in on a class at Hanover High School, the topic was consent, and Kate (educator) gave the students a forum where they weren’t going to be criticized. I think this can be very powerful for girls and boys.”

What does the future hold for WISE? With the current reality of a solid organizational structure and financial stability, the team at WISE can take the time to focus on long-range planning. Both Jenny and Lizann, credit Peggy’s enduring leadership in allowing WISE to grow, change, and adapt, and in supporting a leadership team and board that remain committed to the cause. “In this line of work, there seems to be a lot of turnover, but many members of the board and leadership team at WISE have been there for a long time. Peggy has a rare combination of relational skills and being an organized and strategic thinker,” says Jenny.

The first WISE office on South Main Street in Hanover (now where Ledyard Bank is). WISE was on the second floor, in two offices.

Because WISE has continually adapted to the Upper Valley community’s needs and perceptions, the organization has developed a broad array of services to achieve its ambitious mission: “leading the Upper Valley to end gender-based violence through survivor-centered advocacy, prevention, education, and mobilization for social change.” 

“The work we’re doing is ongoing,” says Peggy. “We have to plan pretty far out for impact. We are still concerned with fundraising, but we have a strong foundation that gives us the ability to take some deep breaths and do important long-term planning. Twenty-five years from now I hope to see WISE continue to have successful leadership transitions both with the staff and the board.” 

And fortunately for the Upper Valley, the WISE team has the capacity and dedication to continue its commitment to progressive leadership in the challenging realm of gender-based violence prevention for at least the next 50 years. 

For more information about WISE and its programs, visit their website, http://www.wiseuv.org or call 603-448-5922. The crisis hotline number is 866-348-WISE available 24 hours a day.