Women's center looks for a home
by Sue Maney
"What do you say to someone who has
just given you $25,000?" asked Nikki
Van Hightower. She was speaking to
Ralph Waite, star of the TV series The
Waltons, who had just announced that he
was giving this large gift in memory of
his sister, the late Joan Waite Hanlon, to
help fund a women's center in Houston.
"God, it was a lucky break," Van
Hightower said. She is the executive
director of the center. Waite called from
Hollywood last spring and wanted to
meet Joan's closest friends and coworkers. Waite simply said he wanted to
talk about a way to carry on Joan's work
in the women's movement, cut short by
her unexpected death last January (see
Breakthrough, February 1979).
The group met in a conference room
at the University of Houston in April.
When Waite walked in, he settled back
in his chair and gave his full attention to
the group. Each took a turn talking about
Joan and the many projects they shared
together. Some spoke of their work with
her in volunteerism, some recalled struggles they faced together in graduate
school, some reminisced about Joan's
Waite finally asked them to name one
program that could not get funding from
traditional sources. After proposing and
discussing many worthwhile projects,
they all agreed a women's center was
needed—an actual building, a community
center for women in Houston.
"Okay, then," he said, "that's what
we'll do. I'll send you $25,000 for capital
It was an emotional meeting. The
women shared memories of Joan that
brought both tears and laughter. Waite
smiled, obviously touched by the occasion. "I hope that whatever comes in the
future will be done so that Joan's name
will be remembered for generations to
come," one friend said. "She was a role-
model for us all, she set a fast pace for
us to keep, and she left a spirit that must
With some humor, Waite replied, "I
can see you all won't be happy until
Joan's name is up in neon lights in front
of the center."
funds since its inception in 1977 is
Center director Nikki Van Hightower
has pulled together many organizations,
working toward the same goal. Results
like the shelter for abused women, now
beginning its second year, have clearly
shown the effectiveness and purpose
of the center. But there are limitations.
Too many women and their children
have to be turned away from the shelter
each day. The current women's center,
which is to represent all the women of
this large city, is housed in a small office
in the UT School of Public Health.
One telephone line, usually jammed
with calls, is the only access the women
of Houston have to their center. The
Houston Area Women's Center desperately needs more space, a large facility
made up of offices, meeting rooms and
some residential space.
The purpose of the center and the
energy behind it is personified by the
purpose and energy of the woman-Joan
Joan Waite Hanlon was a political and
social-change activist whose concerns
touched all facets of life - women's rights,
political participation, the rights of
To her family, she was someone who
spent many years as a suburban home-
maker and mother of five children, then §
went back to school at age 40, graduat- =
ing with a M. S. W. magna cum laude, to \
begin a new life. To her brother, Ralph ~
Waite, she was "young and dynamic." £
To her friends she was energetic, generous
to a fault, and possessed a sense of humor
that would make light of the many trying
times they faced together. "But she
wasn't a saint," a friend cautioned. "Joan
wouldn't want you to think she was a
saint," she insisted, smiling.
"What she was, thoughj" commented
a close friend, "was a renewed person."
She had been a suburban homemaker for
many years who knew she had moved
beyond that role. She needed more for
Her reentry into what her friend
called "the outside world" began with an
American Association of University
* 'It became clear to me that a women's center
would really be in the spirit of Joan's life."
No neon lights, perhaps, but the group
which became the board of directors of
the Joan Waite Hanlon Foundation decided to raise capital funds for the
Houston Area Women's Center and to
name the center after Hanlon. The board,
of which Waite is a special member, is
called the Joan Waite Hanlon Houston
Area Women's Center Foundation.
With this substantial contribution,
the search for a women's center facility began. An abused women's shelter
already exists, but in a private location,
for the safety of its occupants.
The history of the Houston Area
Women's Center may be short, but the
work it has accomplished with limited
Women (AAUW) workshop called Project
Reentry. There she met other women
starting a new life, a new career, women
like herself, "retreads" as she called
And that workshop—a meeting place
for women at all stages in life-is the idea
behind the women's center. "It is very
important that the women of Houston
have a place to go, to meet, to grow and
develop," Waite said of the center. The
gift, he said, is to women like his sister
Joan. "When Joan went back to school
1 saw this incredible development of a
human being from age 40 on," he said.
"It was beautiful! It became clear to me,"
he said, "that a center would really be in
the spirit of Joan's life."
While spirits are high, fund-raising for
the center's facility is just beginning.
Additional donations have upped the
working figure to over $50,000, which is
not a large amount when applied towards
the purchase of what may turn out to be
a $1 million facility.
"Friends of Joan's have come forth
with generous donations, waiting for an
opportunity to do something in her
The center will also provide office and
meeting space for other organizations.
"I think the whole spirit, purpose and
excitement of the center will come to life
once we have a facility, a place to pull
together all the information and activity
going on with all the women's groups in
Houston," said Adelyn Bernstein, president of the board of the Houston Area
Women's Center. She has worked closely
with WIRES,(Women's Information and
Houston Area Women's Center president ADELYN BERNSTEIN (1) confers with
executive director NIKKI VAN HIGHTOWER (r) in the center's one-room office.
memory," said Hattie Thurlow, chair ot
the foundation and a close friend of
Joan's. "Our goal is $1 million. Once the
campaign plan is under way, the next
step is selling the women's center to the
community to make it truly what it is
intended to be—a community center, a
Foundation board members have spent
the summer in weekly brainstorming sessions for fund-raising ideas. Several
projects are already developing: an
August celebration in honor of Ralph
Waite; fall workshops offered by women's
organizations and women's businesses;
a women's fair and a benefit concert for
the center with Willie Nelson and his
"Nobody argues against fund-raising
for a shelter for battered women," said
Van Hightower. "At the same time, many
of those who are supportive of a shelter
for battered women aren't supportive of
a women's center."
Thurlow said: "Why do women need
a place to meet together? I am asked this
question often." She shook her head, a
little weary. But her enthusiasm is
infectious and the people she talks to find
it easy to understand.
She tells them that the women's center
will be a comfortable place to share problems, to learn, to discuss ideas and solutions, and to make contact with other
women. "I see it as a place for women to
come and share struggles and successes—
whether they are in a strong place in their
lives or in a crisis situation. I talked to a
woman the other day who had no preconceptions of what a women's center
should be. She told me that in her experience, when women share their problems, their problems lessen; when they
share their joys, those joys grow."
Referral Service,) and Women in Action.
"The other organizations can always use
more space," she said.
Phyllis Tucker, coordinator of the
Women's Rights Coordinating Council,
which is made up of 32 women's organizations, stated, "There are so many
things going on with the different organizations but not enough direct communication flowing among them. In order to
be more productive, we've got to become
a more unified, organized force,and
this would be possible with one women's center. My God, there are so
many needs out there, so many things
to be done."
"Now the foundation faces a serious
job," said Thurlow. "We hope it will be
a continuing endeavor to give financial
support to a women's center. We finally
have a substantial gift to start us off and
we must not let the dream die. We hope
to have a center and continue to expand
to include workshops, lectures, musical
events and art exhibits. We also hope to
fund scholarships for women like Joan,"
In closing, Thurlow suggested that readers who believe in building a women's
center and would like to invest their
money or time in such a goal, should
contact the foundation. "We need the
cooperation and support of all sectors of
the community," she said. "We would
like to hear from you."
Sue Maney is a journalism student from
Ohio State University interning with The
Ford Bend Mirror.