Focused on the future


JoAnn Wilkes, president of the Gainesville Area Women's Network, poses at the group's monthly luncheon at Sweetwater Branch Inn. The Gainesville Area Women's Network is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, May 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 2, 2006 at 10:32 a.m.

Ten years ago JoAnn Wilkes had to reorient her life. A former high school social studies and civics teacher, she moved here with her husband and worked with him out of their home.

Facts

JOANN WILKES

- PERSONAL: Single, no children

- BEST BOOK SHE'S READ: “The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom” by Don Miguel
Ruiz

- BEST MOVIE SHE'S EVER SEEN: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” with Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

- BEST ADVICE SHE'S EVER SEEN: Every day be sure you’ve made life easier for someone.

- PARTNER SHE WOULD CHOOSE TO SHARE A MOVIE/LUNCH/WHATEVER WITH: Eleanore Roosevelt

- CD THAT IS IN HER CAR: Queen Latifah

Then Donald Wilkes died.

JoAnn, in her late 40s, found herself without the safety and security of a married relationship, “and suddenly, I thought, I've got to get out and get a job.”

She was introduced to Focus on the Future, the Displaced Homemaker Program at Santa Fe Community College that helps women re-enter the work force, giving them resources to earn employable skills — or to discover they had those skills all along.

Wilkes successfully navigated the three-week program and found employment at Shands. After a short period of time SFCC program director Nancy Griffin called her to ask if she would like to come back, but as an instructor this time.

She did and since then, she has helped hundreds of women make that transition from unsure and insecure to confident and self reliant. She teaches life management, employability and basic computer skills. And her perspective helps a lot. “I knew what it was like to be completely derailed and unfocused, and what steps you have to take from there to get your life back on track.”

In 1998, she joined Gainesville Area Women's Network (GAWN), an organization supporting women in business and encouraging their professional and personal advancement. GAWN provided a wealth of information, not to mention numerous opportunities for displaced homemakers to get a job.

The interactions have continued to flourish. “This is a tremendous group of women who had started their own businesses, exchanging information, calling on each other, asking questions. There is a huge amount of support among the group,” Wilkes said.

Two years ago she was elected president. This week GAWN celebrates its 25th anniversary.

GAWN membership now numbers about 80, with a good half attending monthly luncheons at which there is either an educational or motivational speaker. Before, during and after there are exchanges of business cards, introductions, announcements and success stories. Since the organization is a member of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, GAWN members also attend chamber events to expand their network.

Members’ careers and business ventures run the gamut: massage therapists, certified public accountants, business coaches and dollmakers.

“This is a very friendly group,” Wilkes said. “Newcomers feel very welcome.”

The Displaced Homemaker program is likewise a friendly group, she said, and there continues to be a need for the training. “We pretty much have a full enrolment. I can never narrow down the demographics. Sometimes there are a lot of older women, and then there are a lot of younger women, those who don't even have their GED (General Education Development degree). Our first priority is getting them through that. I fear there will be a sub-economy of people who do service jobs because they can't do anything else.”

Computer skills are key to the curriculum, because many businesses require applications online.

About 150 women a year go through the program, and without fail, find gainful employment and, more importantly self esteem. “It’s an incredible program. There are just so many women it has empowered and helped. We should have a secret handshake, there are just so many of us out there in the community.”

Focus on the Future is funded, in part, by fees generated by marriage licenses and divorce decrees. There are 16 similar programs in the state. Twice a year, SFCC organizes a reunion of graduates and current participants. “It's good. They need to know there is something on the other side,” Wilkes said.

When she is not working Wilkes said she loves to go to the movies, and her “Chick Flicks” reviews are published on the GAWN Web site (www.gawn.org). She also loves to travel. When her husband was alive, they drove all over the continent, from Mexico to Prince Edward Island. She now flies to destinations, and hopes to visit a grammar school friend who lives in Montana — “Big city girls out in the wilderness,” she describes it.

She is also involved in a number of community causes: She is an officer of the board of directors of Peaceful Paths, the Domestic Abuse Network, serves on the Gainesville Commission on the Status of Women, and was recently elected to the Democratic Executive Committee for Alachua County.

“I like to stay busy.”

Marina Blomberg can be reached at (352) 374-5025 or business@gvillesun.com.

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