Johanna Crawford volunteered for a domestic violence shelter in 2003 when she answered a hotline call she will never forget.
On the other end of the line was a petrified woman who had just arrived in town after fleeing her husband. She said he physically and emotionally abused her for years.
The woman had her two young children with her, as well as two garbage bags containing all her belongings.
“They got on the first bus out of town and here they were,” Crawford said. “They didn’t know anyone. And we had a bed (at the shelter), we had a room. So I picked them up.”
The woman didn’t have a dollar in her name. And because she left so quickly, she had neither ID nor her children’s birth certificates – things she would need to start her new life.
“It didn’t exist legally,” Crawford said. “She couldn’t get food stamps. She couldn’t get welfare. She could not register for health care. She couldn’t get any advice. And (she had) no hope of ever getting housing.”
The woman needed $40 to get the required documents. Crawford decided to help.
“It is totally forbidden for employees or volunteers to give money to customers. But I was never very good with rules, so … I gave her the two $20 bills,” she said.
Crawford gave her $20 for shipping and told the woman to treat her kids to the leftovers at McDonald’s.
“She was blown away,” Crawford said. “And I was like, ‘I just changed a life – maybe three lives and many generations of lives – with $40.’ And it felt great.”
Some women use the subsidy for a deposit for an apartment. Others buy a computer to access online training and job postings. Grants also help fund child care, transportation, or materials to start small businesses.
“These women[need]to know that they deserve their dream and have the power to achieve it,” said Crawford, 65.
According to the Mary Kay Foundation, 74% of female victims of domestic violence in the United States have stayed with an abuser for economic reasons.
“It’s a reality that women return to abusers because … the financial hardship is terrible,” Crawford said. “What remains for them are shattered dreams. … It (takes) about six months to have the stability and emotional and psychological wellbeing to take the next step toward the rest of their lives.”
Such was the case with Suzie, who, after months of sexual and physical abuse after immigrating, filed for a protection order and later for a divorce from her husband.
“I couldn’t speak English,” said Suzie, whose real name is being kept secret to protect her identity. “I was just lost. I had no money. I had nothing. I couldn’t see the future.
“When I met Johanna I was so happy. She said she would help me buy materials and the sewing machine I needed to create a little platform for myself, which made me so grateful.”
Women are referred to Crawford’s group by attorneys at dozens of shelters and agencies that serve the survivors’ community. This ensures that the first and most stringent granting requirements are met: that the applicant has been free from her abuser and any substance abuse for at least six months.
Proposers and their advocates complete what Crawford calls a “dream proposal,” which is the description of the survivor’s ideal life. Crawford then meets with each applicant to help her map out the plan of how to reach this life and identifies each of the steps required.
Crawford personally oversees each grant and passes the money directly to the payee item, program, school, hospital or landlord. Overall, she has awarded more than 1,000 grants totaling more than $600,000 to women in Boston, where Web of Benefit is based, and Chicago, where the nonprofit is expanding.
Most of the group’s funding comes from private individuals and foundations. Crawford has also invested a lot of his own money.
As a child, she experienced domestic violence in her own home, and she says she once witnessed her father nearly kill her mother. She and her older brother managed to stop the attack and the family was able to part with him.
“[My mother]was lucky that she was doing well financially because there were no shelters at the time,” Crawford said. “If he had thrown us out of the house, we would have been homeless.”
Web of Benefit grantees must do three good works to support other survivors like themselves. Recipients help each other with things like childcare, job training, careers advice, and transportation, allowing the Web of Benefits community to grow exponentially.
Suzie has already taught another survivor how to sew, a skill that has helped her to build her thriving tailoring business.
“Seeing Johana,” Suzie said, “made me realize that I should be a person who not only gets help, but also someone who can give it to others. A person who helps others in need, like I needed Johanna.”
Crawford says she hopes her efforts to empower women can eventually help break the cycle of violence.
“One woman can make a difference,” she said. “But women working together can change the world.”