Jennifer Williams and her band of sisters
Photo: Mackenzie Stroh
You can read about something unimaginably vicious—say, the rape epidemic in the Congo. You can feel horrified, helpless. Or, like Jennifer Williams, you can leverage your emotions, time, and talent, gather your friends...and surprise even yourself with how much good a determined group of women can do.
Jennifer Williams was thrilled the Sunday morning her husband said he would take care of their 3-year-old and 4-month-old sons so she could have some quiet time to herself. She sat down on the sofa with a mug of coffee and The New York Times. But her giddiness quickly disappeared when she read a front-page story about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where, as a result of a civil war that has ravaged the country since 1998, soldiers from foreign militias and the Congolese army have been raping, torturing, and mutilating tens of thousands of women and girls every year. Many of the victims are so brutally attacked that their digestive and reproductive systems are left beyond repair. "It got me," she says. "I couldn't move on. I think having just had a baby made me feel this was intolerable—and people needed to say so."

She e-mailed the reporter, Jeffrey Gettleman, asking what she could do to help. Then she e-mailed old friends from college, new friends from the neighborhood, and former colleagues from work to draw their attention to the story. Within a few days, Gettleman wrote back with the name of Panzi, a local hospital that Jen could send money to, and the contact information for two aid workers familiar with its needs. Jen e-mailed the aid workers and forwarded Gettleman's e-mail to her friends. Wasn't it awesome to have heard back from him, she asked, and what were their thoughts on trying to help?

A conversation was started. It continued by e-mail, telephone, at stolen moments during school drop-off, pick-up, and playdates: Let's send money to the hospital. Let's throw a party to raise money for the hospital. But wait, we can't ask people to wire money to an African bank account. Better to help the hospital through an established charity.

One of the aid workers wrote back suggesting Jen contact Avocats Sans Frontières, a group of lawyers and legal professionals working to end impunity for rapists in the Congo, as well as V-Day, the global movement started by playwright Eve Ensler to stop violence against women and girls. Jeffrey Gettleman added the name of a United Nations officer in Africa who was closely following the issue. Jen contacted everyone, and was slightly stunned when they all replied. She had worked on Wall Street for 13 years before quitting her job to take care of her son. "When I used to make calls from work, I would say, 'Hi, this is Jen from Morgan Stanley' or 'Hi, this is Jen from Barclays.' Now I was just Jen," she says.

But she was passionate and impressed people with her eagerness to learn. "She did not pretend to be an expert on the Congo," says Kate Burns, senior policy officer for gender equality at the United Nations. "She asked a lot of questions. Getting the UN to open its doors is not easy, but Jen was very enthusiastic, and I think people like her—regular citizens, not involved in political organizations—have a special role to play in getting others to open their hearts and pockets." The UN agreed to co-host a fundraising event. So did V-Day. Eve Ensler agreed to speak. The filmmaker Lisa F. Jackson volunteered to show a clip from her Sundance Award–winning film, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo.

With support growing, it was time for a meeting. Husbands babysat while their wives gathered in Jen's living room for wine, cheese, and brainstorming. After more phone calls, e-mails, and meetings, a plan was finalized: They would hold a fundraiser at Cipriani in New York City for 300 to 500 people. The evening would include a silent auction, an art show, and a performance by an African jazz vocalist. The goal was to raise $100,000 for Avocats Sans Frontières and the City of Joy, a center for recovering rape victims being built by V-Day and UNICEF in partnership with Panzi, the hospital Jeffrey Gettleman had mentioned.

Though no one can recall Jen exuding anything but confidence at every step of the planning process, the troops admit they began to feel nervous. They had never done anything like this before. They were afraid of looking like amateurs. "I was worried we'd have a great space, great speakers, but we wouldn't be able to put bodies in the room," says Sarah LeBuhn, a mother of two who knew Jen from preschool. But Jen refused to entertain negative thoughts, and with her encouragement each woman eventually gravitated to a job she felt comfortable with. Sarah, an actress, felt she'd be terrible at asking people for money but took on the role of producing the event. Kelli O'Donnell, a mother of three who also felt she needed a behind-the-scenes job, became known as the "database queen." Stacey Breckling, a college friend of Jen's, took charge of the finances because this was a job she could do at night when her children were asleep. Catherine Kelley, executive editor of O, wrote press releases and website pages. Tanya Scholl, Jen's sister who works on Wall Street and couldn't make it to meetings, solicited donations from her friends in finance. Everyone made calls to almost everywhere she had ever shopped, eaten, vacationed, or gotten a facial to ask for silent auction donations. Some, like Jennifer Crossland, a psychologist and mother of two, found this difficult. "I am not a natural salesperson, so I had to focus my calls on a few places that I knew well," she says. Others, like Tara Taylor, who came up with the idea of asking art students to create work to sell, discovered a talent for fundraising they never knew they had. "The key is to feel great about the reason you're calling," she says. "You have to believe in your heart that if this was your money, you'd give it too. People pick that up from you."

As the party got closer ("Five weeks!!" "Four weeks!!" read the subject lines of Jen's e-mails in a running countdown), the jobs intensified. Husbands came home early from work so wives could attend last-minute meetings. Meals got simpler—"definitely lots of chicken nuggets," says Stacey Breckling—and laundry baskets overflowed. But if the women found it hard to juggle fundraising with the demands of toddlers, babies, and full- and part-time jobs, no one complained. Steeped in stories of girls attacked until they became incontinent, women gang-raped as their children were forced to watch, 70-year-old women abused by groups of boys young enough to be their grandchildren, who could complain? "You read so many horrible stories in the newspaper it can feel overwhelming, like there's nothing you can do," says Jane Nadasi, who worked on communications for the event. "This experience taught me you just have to put that feeling aside. You can do something; everyone can do something—it's just a matter of being brave, of not being afraid to make those calls."

It also felt good to know that they were teaching their children an important lesson. "All of us have to be the people we want our kids to be," says Jen. "When my husband came home from work, my 4-year-old said, 'Mommy worked on her Congo party today.' My husband asked, 'Do you know why Mommy is making a Congo party?' And my son said, 'Because the people there are crying.'"

As it turned out, Mommy's Congo party was a greater success than even Mommy, with her boundless optimism, could have predicted. The elegant Manhattan ballroom was pulsing with African music, waiters serving drinks on silver trays, guests bidding on silent auction items, art students proudly explaining the meaning of the works they had created in honor of the event. More than $150,000 was raised and at least 400 people attended, including Jeffrey Gettleman and representatives from the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and the New York mayor's office.

Looking gorgeous in a navy blue dress, Jen worked the room with a masterful mix of focus and charm, paying particularly close attention to her notable guests. It clearly meant a lot to her to have "VIPs" in the room, as if their presence confirmed the importance of the event and also, perhaps, the seriousness of the stay-at-home mom who, in her words, "spent the last year and a half building Legos." What she didn't seem to realize as she fussed over her important people was that they were making an even greater fuss over her. "I got 150 e-mails about my story," says Jeffrey Gettleman. "But nobody picked up the ball and ran with it like Jen. There are lots of starters in the world, people who start things but then lose steam. Jen followed through."

"She followed her gut," says Eve Ensler. "All these women did. They heard the call. They responded. That's what we all need to do. Follow your instincts. Rise to what is inside you. That's how to change the world."

Lisa Wolfe is a writer in New York City.


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