Category: Empowering Women (Page 1 of 2)

Empowering Women, Strengthening Families Life Coaches Help Women Find Purpose

Meet Life Coaches Cindy Hank Stark and Sue Casey

After earning her undergraduate degree at Notre Dame and her MBA at Northwestern, Cindy Hank Stark ran her own business. But she soon realized how many financial, mental health, and relationship challenges people face, and even though she was well-educated, she wanted to enhance her skills in order to help her staff and clients tackle some of these issues.

“Even though I had an MBA, I wanted to add some tools to my skill set to help empower others,” says Cindy, who alongside her husband, Paul, has been a Holt adoptive parent for the past 25 years. For 24 years, Cindy and Paul volunteered as temporary caregivers, providing short-term care and full-time love to newborns waiting to be placed into their adoptive homes by Holt.

Sue Casey, a mother of three and grandmother to three, is Cindy’s longtime friend. She has been a teacher for 25 years and currently teaches special education at an elementary school in the Chicago Public School system.

“Sue and I decided together to get a life-coaching certification where we learned how to help others identify their strengths and weaknesses, and create a plan for their life,” says Cindy.

As trained life coaches, Sue and Cindy now lead monthly workshops for the women in Holt’s Empowering Women, Strengthening Families (EWSF) program, where they work alongside program supervisor Beth Ilnyckyi and social worker Loann Tan.

The comprehensive EWSF program provides case management support for eligible pregnant and parenting parents who seek to strengthen their family and are willing to work towards the goal of self-sufficiency.

The idea for the life-coaching workshop series came about a couple years ago during a brainstorming session between Holt Domestic Adoption & Birth Parent Services director Nancy Crouch, Loann, and Cindy.

“It was Nancy’s vision that got this going,” says Cindy.

In-person workshop prior to COVID

As they talked about what types of skills they wanted women to learn — such as self-esteem, budgeting, and healthy relationships — Cindy soon realized their ideas aligned with what she and Sue do as life coaches.

Sue recognized a skills-based workshop program would utilize both her life coaching and teaching strengths, and she came on board as the second facilitator alongside Cindy.

“We started working on this project and it became a passion,” says Cindy. “Even though we’re the facilitators, every time we do this, we learn something new.”

Tools to Create A Purposeful Life

Together, the EWSF team organized the life skills into eight modules and developed educational content such as worksheets and group exercises—all built around a tool called a “life wheel” that Cindy and Sue use as life coaches.

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A life wheel is a tool that allows a person to rate key areas of their life, such as family, spiritual, and career, with 1 being the lowest score and 10 the highest.

In the first of eight modules, a woman in the program creates her initial life wheel, which sets the foundation for the remaining workshops. Seeing these areas mapped out gives EWSF clients a clearer, visual snapshot of the areas of their life, so they can focus on specific areas of improvement.

”Hopefully we can help others through asking open-ended questions, finding their passion and purpose in their life, and [help them] become more confident in their daily living skills by putting more tools in their toolbox,” Cindy says.

SMART goals are another key concept of the workshops. Through this framework, women in the EWSF program develop specific, measurable goals, then work with Loann to take steps to meet those goals.

“Helping clients set SMART goals makes it easier for them to focus on being productive and motivates them, giving them a better chance of being successful,” says Loann. “It’s a thrill when they finally achieve their goals.”

Setting Women Up for Long-Term Success

After running a full session of in-person workshops last year, the team was able to reflect on the content presented and soon realized a comprehensive workbook would be an ideal tool to complement the workshops and organize the modules. The workbook would allow the women to refer back to the lessons and worksheets as they work on their goals, even after graduating from the program.

The team was thrilled with how the workbook turned out. “It’s a very thoughtful process,” Cindy reflects. “We begin in the perfect place, and we end in the perfect place, and everything in between has meaning.”

Transitioning to Virtual Workshops: “Our biggest fear was that nobody would participate.”

When COVID-19 hit last spring, and the workshops shifted to a virtual format, Sue was concerned they would lose some of the interaction and camaraderie the attendees experience in person. To keep the women engaged, she and Cindy spent extra time preparing the first module, modifying content and slides to present virtually.

While holding the workshops remotely eliminated health fears and issues like transportation, it did create new challenges such as technical glitches. Still, they persevered. The participants were committed to and engaged in the workshops.

“They asked superb questions.” Cindy says.

Sue recalls asking if anyone needed help with a section and one woman, Kiana, spoke right up and said she was struggling and needed help. “That allowed all the other women to be open,” adds Cindy.

With no end to COVID-19 in the near future, Cindy and Sue will continue to adapt the modules to present virtually and are also working on a facilitator’s guide to accompany the workbook and workshops.

When Nancy asked them what their number one hope is for women in the program, Sue said, “To be the best version of themselves as possible.”

For more information about the Empowering Women, Strengthening Families program eligibility, please contact Loann Tan at or 630-754-4510.

From Trauma to Triumph: A Single Mom’s Story of Empowerment

When you look at Nina, you see a woman who has her life together. She’s a single mom to three thriving kids: Gemarion, Geniah and Gemir. She lives in a decent apartment in a quiet Chicago neighborhood. Her family always has food on the table, and her kids go to school. Moreover, she runs her own events planning business, fully incorporated and with its own office. And she has plans for the future of her business.

You wouldn’t think that a mere couple of years ago, Nina was jobless, near-homeless and desperate. She was so desperate that she found herself on the verge of placing all three of her kids for adoption.

Escaping a violent neighborhood

Having lived most of her life in one of Chicago’s inner-city neighborhoods, Nina was no stranger to violence. She lost a brother in a shooting incident. She herself was shot in the leg while just sitting in a parked car. Gun violence has become such a deep part of her life that she taught her kids a gun drill just in case a shooting happened.

Her turning point happened one morning a couple of years ago. Her cousin, who she considered more like a brother, was shot right on her porch. Inside the house, Nina was preparing breakfast for her babies. In that moment, she decided she couldn’t raise her family in a dangerous neighborhood. A short time after that, they moved to a neighborhood in the Chicago suburbs.

Hitting rock bottom

In moving to a quiet suburb, Nina and her children were safer. But in uprooting her family, she also pulled herself away from her source of income and her support system. She had been running a party planning business, and most of her clients came from the neighborhood she left behind. She was away from her family and friends, and she was pregnant with her third child.

Life for Nina became a struggle. She barely had the money to feed her family, much less pay her rent. She felt helpless and alone. Things got so bad that she couldn’t take care of herself, let alone the children who depended on her.

“After my third child was born,” Nina said, “I was in the hospital and I was talking to this nurse. I was telling her that, you know, ‘I’m kinda depressed. I’m feeling like I don’t want to do this, that I can’t do this. I don’t have nobody to help me.’”

Turning her life around

The nurse that took care of Nina at the hospital told her about Holt-Sunny Ridge. Holt-Sunny Ridge is a branch of Holt International and provides adoption services in Illinois and Wisconsin. Nina got in touch with the organization with a view towards placing her three children for adoption. What she didn’t know at the time was that Holt-Sunny Ridge had a new program in the works called “Empowering Women, Strengthening Families” (EWSF).

At Holt-Sunny Ridge, Nina was introduced to Loann Tan, one of Holt-Sunny Ridge’s case workers. Upon meeting Nina, Loann immediately saw that the bond between Nina and her kids was strong. She didn’t really want to place her kids for adoption.

“We have to do something about this,” Loann recalled thinking on the day she first met Nina. “I just feel you can have options, that you don’t have to feel that regret.”

With Loann’s help, Nina joined the EWSF program. Through the program, she received counseling and medical care, which helped her address her struggle with anxiety and depression. EWSF also gave her the tools she needed to get her life together. These included access to training on nutrition, personal finance, career development and many other areas that would help her build stronger life skills. She even received funds from the program to help with her rent, groceries and clothing for her kids. Loann was with her every step of the way.

From desperation to inspiration

Nina said that she enjoyed attending EWSF’s workshops and looked forward to them every month. She considered these meetings a much-needed break from the grind of everyday life. And she didn’t just receive training and resources at the workshop. She also got in touch with other women in similar situations as hers.

Soon enough, Nina regained her energy and drive through the program. She learned to manage her business, to set goals for herself and her kids, and to manage her day-to-day affairs by preparing ahead. Nina has restarted her business, formalizing it with incorporation papers, a physical office space, and employees. She has plans for expanding her business and having her own events venue. She also intends to go back to school and earn her business management degree. Most importantly, she is independently providing for her children, and able to give them the loving, devoted attention that all three of them deserve. She is a very hands-on mom.

“Nina has grown so much. It’s just amazing to see that. And I think that’s a blessing for me to feel that I’m a part of that,” Loann said.

Nina actively grows her business on Facebook. When she shares her story there, she often gets surprise reactions. People who heard her story couldn’t believe she was homeless, and people who know her couldn’t believe she’s running her own business.

“I’m not ashamed of my story, so I didn’t mind doing this,” said Nina. “I wanted to do it because I wanted people to see my strength, and I wanted people to know I’m not perfect.”

Nina also wants to inspire other women who find themselves in situations like hers. As a graduate of the EWSF program, she is now returning as a resource for other women in the program. She wants these women to see for themselves that, with support and tools, it’s possible for them to turn their lives around.

“I want them to remember to be strong,” Nina said. “And I want them to reach whatever it is in life that they’re trying to do. Don’t let anything hold you back from doing it and just step out on faith. And have a good support system if you can. Reach out to Holt-Sunny Ridge because they can definitely help.”

Learn more about Nina’s story in this video.


originally published by Linda Wilson, December 17, 2019

Empowering Women: The Key to Strengthening Families

For many women, impending motherhood is a momentous event, often filled with laughter, joy, baby showers, nursery decorating, and bright hopes for the future.

But for women going through tough times who don’t have family or friends to support them, being a mother can be incredibly overwhelming — just to get through each day. They don’t think they can take care of themselves, much less their children. And sometimes, to give both their child and themselves the best chance to survive and thrive, they make the decision to place one or more of their children for adoption — even if they don’t really want to.

Over her 30 years’ of experience in social services, eight of them with Holt International, Nancy Crouch has seen more than her share of heartbroken mothers, sitting in her office in tears, facing this same dilemma. And as the director for domestic adoption and birth parents services at Holt-Sunny Ridge, Holt International’s Illinois and Wisconsin branch, Nancy is in the position to help empower these women and change their lives.

Holt-Sunny Ridge aims to change women’s lives through empowerment

“Providing hope to others has really become my life’s work,” Nancy says, “starting with empowering women — helping them learn the tools to become self-sufficient and to keep their family together. Giving them hope that things will improve in their lives, that they will have more self-esteem and feel capable of taking care of themselves and their children.”

Through her work, Nancy helps mothers who want to place their children for adoption to find peace in their decision. She also helps them cope with the grief and loss associated with adoption. But mostly, she tries to help women see that adoption isn’t the only option they have — that they can learn to take care of themselves and their children on their own.

This idea is the seed behind Holt-Sunny Ridge’s “Empowering Women, Strengthening Families” (EWSF) Program. According to Nancy, mothers who came to us who were considering adoption for their children are in crisis mode. They’re often out of work, homeless and alone. They don’t have family or friends or any form of support in place to help them.

Through a generous foundation grant, Nancy and her team were able to start EWSF. The fund is used to help struggling mothers and their children by providing everything from housing, food and transportation to childcare and clothing until they can get on their feet.

More importantly, the EWSF fund helps women become self-sufficient and able to independently parent their children through a range of programs. These programs include therapy and counseling, as well as workshops covering a wide array of topics, from career development to personal finance, from nutrition and healthy lifestyles to developing healthy relationships. The program takes a holistic approach to empowering women and paving a way for them to find success in their lives.

The EWSF program has provided services to mothers in crisis for over two years, with plans to grow as new partnerships form — providing additional funding and support through volunteerism. Nancy said there are many ways that corporations and organizations can get involved. One way involves teaching EWSF participants the nitty-gritty details of personal finance.

“Mainly, we teach our moms basic budgeting and opening a checking and savings account,” shares Nancy. “But some of our moms are ready for a higher level. They really want to analyze and build their credit, so they need more one-on-one support. They may want to learn about different types of savings programs and other ways to gain financial progress. We’re hoping to have volunteers with expertise in this area to be able to help them one on one with learning about different ways to manage finances.”

Empowering women does change lives

Nancy emphasizes that the EWSF program is structured to teach participants the life skills they need to have long-term success, not just offer short-term solutions. And through the program, Nancy has seen many women’s lives change for the better.

Nina, a single mom to three children, joined the EWSF program in March, 2018. Nina had a traumatic past, losing her mom at birth and growing up in a dangerous downtown Chicago neighborhood. Despite her difficulties growing up and having to raise two kids on her own, Nina managed to graduate high school and start her own party-planning business.

Things came to a breaking point shortly after she gave birth to her third child. Her cousin was shot and killed right on her front porch, forcing Nina to move her family to a quieter suburban neighborhood. However, the move put a stop to her business and took her away from her family. The pressures of having to provide for her children and herself without any income or family support made Nina desperate. It came to the point where she considered placing all three of her kids for adoption.

That’s when she learned about Holt-Sunny Ridge and the EWSF program. Through EWSF and the consistent help of a Holt-Sunny Ridge social worker, Nina saw that her situation wasn’t hopeless. With counseling and guidance, she slowly got back on her feet. The program helped cover childcare and provided tools she needed. By the time she graduated from the program in September, 2018, Nina had more self-esteem as a woman and as a parent, and she returned to her business with more skills to help her succeed.

As of this writing, Nina has a growing events-planning business, with her own office space and employees. She’s renting an apartment, has her own car, and is taking college courses. More importantly, she’s emotionally stable and feels more capable of successfully parenting and providing for her kids. Additionally, Nina gives back to Holt-Sunny Ridge by volunteering as a mentor for other moms in the EWSF program.

“What we’re trying to do is to remove all the barriers so that women can succeed,” says Nancy. “We’re looking to give women long-term solutions and tools to continue with their success.”

To learn about EWSF eligibility or to make a referral to the program, please contact Loann at



Originally published by Linda Wilson on Nov 12, 2019



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