YWCA celebrates the steady growth of one of its biggest events - WBOY.com: Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

YWCA celebrates the steady growth of one of its biggest events

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It all started with a sort-of borrowed idea.

The High Hopes Committee of the YWCA Charleston, started in 1998 to help fund Hope House, the YWCA Resolve Family Abuse Program's shelter, looked to the Bluegrass State for fundraising ideas.

One of the High Hopes Committee's founding members, Sandy Graff, had a sister in Louisville who told her all about the series of summer parties hosted for fundraisers throughout the city. And when the idea was implemented in the Mountain State, Girls Night Out was born.

Honorary Girls Night Out Chairwoman Karen Farmer recounted the early years of the event, which has blossomed into not only one of Charleston's biggest social events each year, but also one of the YWCA's biggest fundraisers, bringing in close to $1 million since it began.

Both Farmer and YWCA Executive Director Debby Weinstein weave in and out of each other's sentences, listing the events that took place in the first few years – all in the homes of the committee's members. Everything from a pig roast to a gospel sing took place, with as many as 200 people in one home and all the furniture put out in the garage.

Even in the early years, Girls Night Out attracted the most people.

"I will never be able to adequately articulate my gratitude to Karen Farmer," Weinstein said.

Farmer said the party with a purpose has never forgotten its purpose: Women helping women through power, passion and purpose by raising funds and awareness to eliminate domestic violence.

The most recent event took place Aug. 1 at Yeager Airport, bringing in more than 1,200 women, and by all early counts exceeding the lofty $200,000 goal.

And Girls Night Out organizers know the party with a purpose has quite a reputation as a party, too. This year's event came together with the help and organization of 21 different committees.

Each year's  event has a different theme – settled on by a process Farmer said starts early by looking at trends on the horizon. Recent events have been branded "Girls in Pearls," "Luau on the Lawn" and "Pretty in Pink."

This year's theme, "Come Fly With Me," was a nod to the airplane hangar and the retro days of big bands and crooners.

After several years of hosting the event at Sunrise Mansion, the law offices of Farmer, Cline & Campbell PLLC, the ever-growing committee to plan Girls Night Out knew the event was outgrowing its home.

"That was always the obstacle," Farmer said. "How do you grow it without putting it in a gym, while keeping it personal and gracious at the same time?"

Farmer said the first year the event was at Sunrise Mansion, both attendees and cash flow doubled.

"It was in a residential area, and the fact that we had 1,000 vehicles, trolleys and buses coming and going was a real test of the community's support," explained YWCA Communications Director pk Khoury. "We didn't want to impose on that residential area."

Farmer said they take a look post-event at what went well and what can be improved for the next year.

"Last year is not enough for next year," she cheerfully explained.

But things went so well at Yeager Airport this year, next year's event is already scheduled to take place at the hangar. Farmer said Yeager officials made planning feel easy, and she was amazed by how the decorations transformed the space.

"Logistics can be somewhat overwhelming, but the airport and security – they understood us," she said. "And the photo opportunities were off the charts."

Weinstein stressed that safety is the top priority for the event, and Girls Night Out is definitely different from the typical bar scene.

"Women go to have a good time and feel safe," she said. "And we're very sensitive to women who are survivors who want to attend and to feel safe."

Farmer said they know Girls Night Out may be the only chance some women get to feel pampered, so the experience has the all-star treatment built in, from gentlemen holding open doors and serving drinks to a red carpet photo shoot.

A new corporate sponsor this year, Crestwood, signed on to sponsor the event, but it also jumped in with both feet after its vice president visited the Resolve shelter.

The Resolve Family Abuse Program serves Kanawha, Clay and Boone counties. Last year, the program provided 3,493 nights of short-term shelter safety at Hope House, responded to more than 2,700 crisis calls from the 24/7 hotline, provided 43 community presentations and 1,663 hours of counseling. The 24-hour crisis line is 1-800-681-8663.

Weinstein said Crestwood sent a crew to the shelter to paint and landscape then sponsored 10 domestic violence survivors and their experience at Girls Night Out, paying for each of their tickets and a day of pampering to get them ready for the event – everything from manicures to hair appointments.

"I was so moved," Weinstein said. "For these women to feel so honored and so beautiful is the exact opposite of what they had been told. They had been made to feel worthless and unattractive, and after years of hearing people beat that into your head, you start to believe them.

"When they called me with the news, I think we cried. Kudos to this company, and kudos to their leadership."

Weinstein said Crestwood also brought sponsorships from Antero Resources and Thrasher Engineering on board for the event.

"It's such a blessing, because it's really challenging to run programs the way you know our programs would be so successful, and it costs to do that," she said.

Girls Night Out has become so consistently successful, the YWCA has been able to build it into its budget. In the early years, funds were only used for operational costs. The funds are now embedded into the Resolve Family Abuse Program. The event's success is a blessing, Weinstein said, but it's also intimidating because it means every year has to be a success.

"It takes a village of women," Farmer said of the event's planning. "It's enormous."

But the balance of hosting a party with a purpose is not lost on anyone – even Farmer, who said she took a few minutes to get on the dance floor this year, something she hadn't done in about five years of event planning.

"So many people give so much, from cash to in-kind donations to volunteer hours," Khoury said. "And so many of them do it without any concern of being recognized for it."

The women are still tying up loose ends and counting the profits of this years event, hoping the ripple effect of raising awareness for the program continues in the months to come while they begin the plans for next year's Girls Night Out.