One day after visiting a Veterans Affairs clinic in Allentown in 2016, combat veteran Jenny Pacanowski realized there were no established veteran support groups for women in the Lehigh Valley.
Eager to change this, Pacanowski took action by founding non-profit organization Women Veterans Empowered & Thriving.
The organization provides the opportunity, expertise and training for veterans to share their stories through workshops and performances in the Lehigh Valley and surrounding areas.
The organization was solely writing based in its first year, taking the form of writing workshops led by Pacanowski. However, in 2017, she and her team implemented what they call an empowerment model, using workshops that feature breathing exercises, free writing activities and reinforcements about life practices that can help them thrive.
Pacanowski said members are also encouraged to use artistic expression, and many of them engage in art-making outside of the organization.
The organization curated some of its members’ artwork for the exhibit, “We are Empowered: Women Veteran Art Exhibit & Ritual Storytelling.” The exhibit debuted at the Banana Factory Arts Center on Jan. 21, where it is being held until March 19.
The exhibit showcases pieces of artwork that depict different women’s stories and experiences. Pacanowski said the idea behind the exhibit is to empower their members by showcasing their art and allowing them to speak about their lives and their creations at the accompanying ceremonies.
Pacanowski said she selected the featured artists and chose The Banana Factory to host the exhibit to allow for a place for ritual storytelling.
Zina Bethea-Dawson, one of the exhibited artists, joined the organization after meeting a fellow member on a van ride.
“We were just talking because there is familiarity when you see a female veteran,” Bethea-Dawson said.
“Mamma’s Hands” is one of her pieces showcased in the exhibit. While creating the piece, which takes the medium of a quilt, she said she drew inspiration from her family members, tracing their hands and including a poem her brother wrote.
Melissa Cantara, one of the organization’s facilitators, said she draws inspiration for her art from her trauma. All of her pieces are self-portraits.
“Just talking about when we experience trauma, nobody really wants to talk about it, it makes it really difficult to speak about stuff,” Cantara said.
Sharon Wallace is another artist featured in the exhibit, who discovered the organization through a flier. She attends classes at The Baum School of Art, where veterans are offered free classes.
Wallace said she enjoys art making because not only does it allow for an outlet to express herself, but it is therapeutic.
Wallace said participants who attend workshops at the organization have the freedom to write about anything they choose and share their work, as long as they abide by an agreement that what is shared must stay within the group.
Pacanowski said all of their workshops are practiced using community agreements, including asking questions, setting boundaries and practicing kindness, empathy and self-love.
“We call ourselves a tribe,” Wallace said. “Everybody supports everybody. Jenny Pacanowski changed my life.”
Wallace said COVID-19 helped raise awareness for the organization by increasing attendance through the ability to communicate online. Women Veterans Empowered & Thriving became widespread and is now a national organization.
However, even with their increased reach, Wallace said it is difficult to spread awareness of their programs due to a lack of funding for the small organization.
Wallace said she wishes there was more community awareness and responses to the exhibit.
Bethea-Dawson said many of her family members came to the opening ceremony, who were unaware of her challenges as a veteran. She said her family members treated her as a regular person because they felt that her veteran life was separate from her family life. She said her brother, who is also a veteran, was the only one who understood how she felt.
Cantara said people who have never experienced what a veteran has gone through can get a glimpse of their lives by visiting the exhibit.
Pacanowski said the community has responded with gratitude and appreciation for being able to understand the veteran experience.
“Everyone has stories of struggle and triumph,” Pacanowski said. “These aren’t necessarily veteran stories, these are human stories.”
Pacanowski encourages the community to engage with the exhibit on March 18 for their closing reception, which will include performances and appearances by some of the featured artists.