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Difference Maker

Johanna Crawford helps survivors of domestic abuse – and urges them to do the same

Johanna Crawford founded Web of Benefit to help women escape domestic violence and build new lives.

By Staff writer / December 12, 2011

Johanna Crawford once volunteered at a women’s shelter. Then she launched her own nonprofit, Web of Benefit.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Needham, Mass.

Johanna Crawford says the night she witnessed her father almost kill her mother is only one of two things that motivates her each day to help survivors of domestic violence.

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The second came four decades later when she handed a woman at an emergency shelter two $20 bills from her wallet – and gave the woman hope.

"As I was driving home [that day] … I thought, 'I can do this. I can change someone's life for $40.' And then I thought, 'I have to do this,' " Ms. Crawford says.

Within one year, she went from being a volunteer at a shelter for abused women to establishing her own nonprofit organization, Web of Benefit, designed to empower survivors of domestic violence with financial aid using a unique mentoring approach.

By awarding small grants for such things as housing, education, and transportation, Web of Benefit offers a crucial leg up to women trying to push past the fear of abuse. Perhaps more important, Crawford asks that those she helps "dream big."

Her grant applications include a "Dream Proposal" with three questions: What is your biggest dream? What are the steps and goals to reach your dream? What is the estimated cost of the first step of your dream?

It may sound simple, but for women trying to navigate the emotional and physical pain surrounding domestic violence, imagining a better life can seem impossible.

"Most of the women who are survivors have kind of a turned-off light; they don't dream or visualize what their life could be," says Jessica Estrada, who runs a financial literacy program for Family Rescue in Chicago and collaborates with Web of Benefit. "When they are in an abusive relationship, they are dominated by the abuser's lifestyle. They are not living the life they wanted to be living."

The amount of domestic violence taking place in the United States is hard to measure. A quarter to a third of American women will be touched by domestic violence in some way, according to some estimates.

It isn't just physical abuse. The US Department of Justice's definition includes physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological domination. All of it de-livers a burden of shame that can prevent a woman from reporting incidents or moving to a safe environment.

Crawford herself has lived through the pain of domestic violence. As a teenager she watched as a dispute between her parents escalated until her father's hands grabbed her mother's neck in a crushing grip. Crawford and her older brother intervened by pushing their father out of the house.

His violent physical attack was never mentioned in the family again.

"The words 'domestic violence' were not used when I was growing up" in the 1950s, Crawford says. "And there were certainly no laws against it."

After her two daughters had grown, Crawford realized she wanted to do something to help women who had suffered from domestic violence. She signed up to work as a volunteer answering the hot line at Transition House in Cambridge, Mass., an emergency women's shelter.

On a fall day in 2003 a call came in from a woman fleeing an abusive relationship. She had just arrived in Boston on a bus from Chicago.

"I went to meet her. It was a mother and two young children and two black trash bags with all of their possessions," Crawford recalls. "She had just gotten on the first bus out of town" and ended up on the East Coast.

Back at the shelter the woman pulled Crawford aside to say she had left town so fast she didn't have anyone's birth certificates and needed $40 to send to City Hall in Chicago to get the documents. Could Crawford help?

"She said to me, 'I don't even have 40 cents,' " Crawford recalls.

Even though Transition House forbids volunteers from giving money to clients, Crawford found herself slipping the woman all that she had in her purse – $40 for the document fees and then another $20 for shipping expenses – anything left over could be used to treat the children to a meal at McDonald's.

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