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.

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

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.

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.

It was just the boost the woman needed to start taking steps toward self-sufficiency. And it was just the inspiration Crawford needed to get organized.

Crawford, whose warm smile softens an otherwise no-nonsense appearance, is the kind of woman who follows through once something seizes her imagination.

By September 2004, using her own funds, Web of Benefit was legally recognized as a nonprofit group. By February 2005 it had given out its first grant.

In 2009, Web of Benefit expanded to include organizations in Chicago. Today, Web of Benefit has awarded 945 self-sufficiency grants by working with 58 collaborating organizations in Boston and 22 in Chicago.

By focusing on small grants Web of Benefit is able to respond to requests for help within 24 hours, avoiding the red tape that can slow the process in government-run or -aided organizations.

Crawford interviews each applicant herself.

"Jo's best contribution is her ability to speak to these women from her heart to their hearts and create an immediate one-on-one connection," says Liz Caton, who serves on the board of Web of Benefit and has been a friend of Crawford's for about 25 years. "She has a very good ability to open up and let these women trust and let them know that things are going to be all right."

Crawford says each woman she meets needs to be reminded that she deserves the best. "The grant is only the vehicle in which I get to talk to and mentor these women," says Crawford, who does not ask them for any specifics surrounding their cases of abuse.

Instead, she gauges if an applicant is ready to see herself as a "survivor" – not a victim – of domestic violence. In addition to being free from an abuser, all applicants must be free from substance abuse for at least six months. If a woman doesn't seem ready to leave a relationship, or able to take steps toward self-sufficiency, Crawford will postpone awarding her a grant.

Beyond offering temporary financial assistance, Web of Benefit also seeks to create a community of women who help one another.

"I believe the most powerful thing in the world is being able to help someone else," Crawford says.

In an act of "paying it forward," each recipient of help must in turn help three other women who have been abused. By assisting other women – e.g., baby-sitting, driving another woman to an appointment, donating old clothes – the abused women realize that they, too, can make a difference.

Rose (not her real name) was living at Transition House when Crawford handed her a Dream Proposal card to fill out. It was the last thing Rose wanted to do. She barely spoke English. All she wanted was a little financial help so that she could take an English language class.

Back home in Algeria, Rose had completed a bachelor's degree in business management. Rose moved to the US to join her husband, a banker.

But not long after she became pregnant with her son, her husband became abusive, and she had no choice but to flee from him. Finding refuge at Transition House seemed the best thing she could do. The next step would be to learn English.

An independent life seemed out of her reach. Her husband had confiscated her green card, and she had no funds of her own. Fulfilling her dream of becoming a graphic designer seemed nothing short of impossible.

"Everything that I have achieved so far is possible because of what Jo gave," says Rose in now near-perfect English, adding that she was lost and confused before she met Crawford. "[Web of Benefit] has given me the opportunity to study English and the financial help opened the path."

An initial grant of $375 paid for her replacement green card. Another grant paid for a monthly subway pass so she could attend English classes across town. And finally another $100 was used toward the purchase of a desktop computer.

Rose is now a graphic designer and a math tutor and is completing her studies at a local community college. Her next goal is to earn an MBA.

"I cannot wait to finish my education and give back to my community," says Rose, who has full custody of her 4-year-old son. "Any community that needs my help, I will help them."

Crawford continues to expand her own dreams. "When I started I thought, 'Wow, if I could help 100 women, that would be amazing," she says. Today she's given out nearly 1,000 grants – and counting.

"Now I want it to be a national organization," she says. "Every city needs us."

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