Nicole Witherbee got support from other women when she needed it most—and now she’s paying it forward
There’s a big reason Nicole Witherbee feels so strongly about offering help to single mothers who are struggling—she knows firsthand what they’re going through.
One evening 21 years ago, she arrived home with her 19-month-old son to see her husband packing his belongings. He drained their bank accounts and went so far as to empty their son’s piggy bank.
Witherbee had $2.37, seven diapers, little food in the refrigerator—and no job.
Getting to the good place she is today—happily remarried with two more children and working as chief program officer for the John T. Gorman Foundation, which improves the lives of disadvantaged Mainers—was a long, exhausting, challenging journey.
“I had to figure out everything really quickly,” Witherbee says. “When you’re looking at this incredible little person who now depends on you, and only you, and you have no income, it’s the scariest thing in the world. But you have to just push through. I was able to do that because of some amazing women who believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself.”
She’s never stopped being grateful to those women, whose large and small kindnesses combined to see her through, and now she’s paying it forward.
Witherbee, 46, has started an organization called Women United. Its purpose is to create a community of support for single mothers so that they can improve their lives and reach goals.
“Women, in particular, have an ability to knit themselves together with others and provide a circle around somebody to lift them up. I know that made the difference for me,” she says. “My co-chair, Diane Garofalo, talks about giving our ‘time, talent and treasure’ to achieve our mission. Now that I have those things, I am determined to do for others what so many did for me. I recognize how fortunate I have been.”
While serving on the board of the United Way of Greater Portland, Witherbee learned about the organization’s “affinity groups” that get women around the world “thinking about their giving and volunteer activities.”
“I thought that it’d be a great thing to get started in Greater Portland,” she says. “I started talking with women who I thought would have an interest in helping other women, asking them to join and contribute at least $1,000. And then we just started fundraising. We went to member employers like Unum, and the JTG Foundation, and Maine Health and Dead River Company. And so on. We asked for donations, and these kick-ass, ‘let’s get it done’ women managed to quickly raise $120,000—all since our launch last February.”
The people involved—all women at this point—wanted to know where the most vulnerable families were living in Greater Portland. Analysis of data generated by the John T. Gorman Foundation and other sources identified Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood as the most needy area.
“About 65 people came out in a huge snowstorm last winter to get introduced to what we are trying to accomplish,” says Witherbee, “and we got to work. We did a walking tour of the neighborhood and held our first event—a Mother & Baby Shower, filling 100 bags full of diapers, children’s books, toothpaste, backpacks and other useful things. And we started trying to figure out how we can be smart about using the $120,000 in the best ways to support mothers and children.”
“Women, in particular, have an ability to knit themselves together with others and provide a circle around somebody to lift them up. I know that made the difference for me.”
That process is ongoing, and goals include expanding education and job opportunities and developing community partners. One of Women United’s first grant recipients is the Portland Housing Authority, which received $10,000 to fund community dinners where single mothers can learn about relevant topics and get to know one another.
“Having been a single mother before—and being raised by a single father—I understand the challenges, and it was clear that this kind of thing—especially building community—was needed.”
Hana Jama, a 30-year-old immigrant from Somalia who’s been in the United States for 12 years, has been attending these dinners for the past few months and says they’re a welcome addition to her life. She’s become friends with the other women who go.
“We talk about how life is going and about the things we each want to accomplish. We encourage one another and motivate each other,” says Jama, who lives in East Bayside with her three daughters, ages 10, 7 and 6. “It’s a good group because we’re helping each other now and because they’ve brought in people to talk about things that are important, like safety and violence. I’ve become close with a woman who has five kids. She doesn’t drive, so I help her out when I can, with just anything. I know what it is to be a single mom and not have help, and be struggling.”
Witherbee easily recalls those feelings.
When her first husband left, she was pursuing her undergraduate degree in sociology with a concentration in women’s studies at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. A professor she respected advised her to finish her degree at all cost. So Witherbee figured out how to do that (and has since earned a master’s and Ph.D.).
“When he first left, I sold whatever I could—jewelry, clothes, furniture, the TV. My sister sent me money for food, and my neighbor helped me learn to garden. Every evening, Nick and I would ‘go shopping’ in the garden, and I would take a ration of chicken from the freezer and two scoops of rice from the big bags I bought with my sister’s help. My father would help with child-care expenses when it worked, and when it didn’t, Nick came with me or stayed with a friend. I paid what I could for rent and then bartered with my amazing landlord for the rest (getting her children off to school and cleaning). I managed to get scholarships that covered tuition and books.
“One of my professors—one of the many kind women in my life—introduced me to members of the Lowell Hunger and Homeless Commission, where I worked while in school. These women were powerful women in their community, and they had faith in me. They ended up making sure I had diapers and food. One woman’s husband was a doctor who would see Nick when he was sick. Women who volunteered at the shelter would bring me casseroles without realizing I was completely out of food and worried about how I would feed my son. It made a huge difference.
“I learned that you can make a huge difference for someone, and it doesn’t take a lot. Sometimes it’s just having people around you who take the time to care. Having someone saying ‘I see you, you’re getting there’—that sense of community—is just extremely important.”
Jama agrees, saying that sense of community is invaluable.
“I have a place I can go and feel comfortable and supported,” she says. “I know I’m in a safe place.”
Patricia McCarthy is a longtime writer and editor. She has three daughters, lives in Cape Elizabeth, and also has a photography business (patriciamccarthy.com).