Tiffany Sondergaard froze when she overheard the screaming next door to her hotel room in Spain many years ago. The yelling resonated through the thin walls of the room where she and her son slept.
She was sure this was an episode of domestic violence. When the police arrived at the scene later, Sondergaard found herself regretting not taking action sooner.
“Domestic violence is one of those well-kept secrets, in theory, in the U.S. and all over the world, but it happens,” Sondergaard said. “You find out that it’s not rare.”
Reflecting upon her reaction then, Sondergaard said women who escape their abuse still face obstacles in order to feel empowered to take action.
In 2019, Sondergaard found the perfect opportunity to guide women toward gaining control over their lives: a nonprofit called Business Women Networking Involving Charity and Education, otherwise known as BW NICE.
BW NICE, Inc. was founded in New Jersey in 2009 and has since expanded to areas such as Florida, California and the Lehigh Valley. It provides resources, support and education to empower women with networking experience and professional skills, while engaging in charitable outreach.
President and founder of BW NICE, Diane Simovich, said the mission for her organization is to be a listening ear and show women they are not alone in their experiences.
“We give women a voice,” Simovich said. “We want to do that for others that are out there that may feel alone. You can come to our meetings, we’re nonjudgmental, we’re there to support and you can say whatever you want. You can share, you don’t have to share, but whatever you feel, we want to give you that platform.”
Simovich’s goal in forming BW NICE was to create a women’s networking empowerment organization with a slightly different business model. Her grassroots organization prioritizes charitable outreach. Simovich said each BW NICE chapter supports a local domestic violence agency or related agency, raising awareness and critical funds for domestic violence and sexual abuse.
“(Domestic violence) affects women, men and children. But it is truly a woman’s issue,” Simovich said. “What we have learned in the course of time is this is an epidemic, it impacts all of our communities. There’s still a stigma around domestic violence, which we need to break. And I think the women of BW NICE are the conduit to help do that.”
BW NICE launched a podcast a few years ago focused on women empowerment. Simovich said the podcast has gained tremendous feedback from its listeners and is about to begin its third season, centering its content on the three pillars of BW NICE: networking, education and charity.
“It just gives us another platform, again, to share our mission, but also educate,” Simovich said.
Simovich said BW NICE also offers a mentor program and student internships. Each chapter has an executive team and the boards are open for college students to join and earn three credits through the program.
Sondergaard, event planning strategist for BW NICE, said there is a personal level to her involvement in BW NICE. She experienced domestic violence within her family and wants to help others who experience similar trauma.
To help women prepare for the professional realm, Sondergaard said BW NICE focuses on offering a comfortable space for business and entrepreneurial networking, professional development and camaraderie.
“It’s all about empowering women to take back their self-esteem,” Sondergaard said. “Giving women the tools, the knowledge, and the support system, inspiration and motivation to be the champions of their lives to take back anything that’s been taken from them.”
Each chapter of BW NICE across the country holds an annual “Red Shoe” event and luncheon in the fall. It is a major fundraising event for each branch’s charity partner, and includes a fashion show component.
The event includes a celebrity endorsement, an award for “Businesswoman of the Year,” and an impact speaker who is a domestic violence survivor. Former track and field champion and Olympian Joetta Clark Diggs, the keynote speaker at the BW NICE second Annual Empowerment Conference in March, spoke of the importance of becoming the “Champion of Your Life,” to a crowd of attentive women.
Sondergaard said the local BW NICE has strong, supportive sponsors for their events, including Fulton Bank and the Lehigh Valley Health Network.
BW NICE Lehigh Valley’s focus in 2021 was to attract more “sister organizations,” Sondergaard said. She said this is intended to combine the missions of different nonprofits to help women heal.
BW NICE continues to broaden its network, Sondergaard said. The charity partner for 2022 is Third Street Alliance for Women and Children, an Easton organization that primarily provides shelter and child care services.
“(The organizations) all kind of intertwine and help each other,” Sondergaard said.
Bloom for Women is a 24-hour emergency shelter in Bethlehem created in 2021 when two nonprofits — Bloom Bangor and Truth for Women — joined forces. The faith-based nonprofit Bloom for Women also prioritizes the empowerment of women, with a focus on survivors of sex trafficking in the Lehigh Valley.
Carol Andersen, CEO of Bloom for Women, said she once assumed the exploitation of women was something that happened a great distance away, however, soon realized it occurs closer to home.
“It’s something we don’t think about or don’t think can happen,” Andersen said. “I didn’t realize what it meant or how women are exploited on a regular basis.”
Andersen’s inspiration for the original organization, Bloom Bangor, came from her personal experience. Andersen said she and her family spent years caring for children when their mothers could not, as many of the women were addicts.
As she learned more about the lives of the children, she found that some of their mothers were prostituting locally as a way to earn money and survive. One child’s mother was a trafficking victim.
“At that point in time, I didn’t even know that it was trafficking because I thought it was prostitution,” Andersen said. “While it was the act of prostitution, she was not in control of her life, she was controlled by a trafficker in Easton. And that to me — I couldn’t even believe it.”
This realization caused Andersen to research local agencies helping women who experienced sexual violence, such as Turning Point Lehigh Valley and Women’s Resources of Monroe County.
Andersen said she admired the ability of these organizations to support victims of intimate partner violence and sexual assault. However, she noticed there was an unmet need for one specific issue: female survivors without children who experienced trafficking and exploitation and need time to rebuild their lives.
In 2014, Andersen learned about a program in Nashville called the Thistle Farms model that gave women a two-year residential opportunity to restart their life. She visited to explore the model and joined their national network. About a year and a half later, Andersen brought the program to Bangor, Pennsylvania, inspired by what she saw in Nashville: a promise of two years of free housing and support for survivors.
Andersen said her nonprofit provides an outlet for women to find their voice and start making choices that can help her gain an independent life.
“It’s learning a new skill, it’s acquiring a job and then establishing a work history so that you can get a better job and hopefully earn enough money to live on your own,” Andersen said. “Working with this unique population — they suffered unique trauma and many of them were addicts — giving them the opportunity to overcome their addiction and rebuild their life at the same time was very important to me.”
Bloom for Women provides a two-year residential program as well as independent living housing. Andersen said she finds providing emergency response and residence is critical for these women. She said it allows them space to learn about Bloom for Women and what it can do for them.
“I think that women survivors of trafficking and sexual exploitation, because of having to rely on themselves and rely on trading their body to survive, there’s a great amount of distrust in authority,” Andersen said. “Emergency stabilization gives us that opportunity to begin rebuilding that relationship of trust.”