Power of Human Resilience
By Sherman Tabor
“Human resilience is astounding,” says Elizabeth Irvin, Executive Director of The Women’s Initiative in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Women’s Initiative (TWI) is the second largest provider of mental health care in the Charlottesville area, and its work is crucial to the lives of women who often have nowhere else to go; since opening their doors in 2007, TWI has served over 15,000 people.
Throughout her impressive and inspiring career, Mrs. Irvin has fostered safety and community for women who otherwise had none. She has been a light for those who have felt surrounded by darkness. Mrs. Irvin works from a “strengths-based perspective.” She explains it this way: "Strengths-based means starting with the belief that people have what they need to heal. Often, therapy is helping rediscover those strengths and a person’s hope for the future. There’s so much hardship in this world, and yet someone can come out the other side and make a new life for themselves and trust and love again after they’ve been so abused. That to me is amazing strength."
Mrs. Irvin felt called to social work from a young age. When a friend attempted suicide in the eighth grade, the response of a particular guidance counselor who provided support inspired her to want to be able to help others in the same way.
She has a joint degree in law and social justice from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. During her time there, Mrs. Irvin split her time between therapeutic work and the courtroom, where she worked as a victim advocate. These two areas of expertise complemented one another, creating a stronger foundation for her work. “I feel like they gave me different strengths to keep on going,” she says.
Even before earning this degree, Mrs. Irvin knew that she was called to help women who face barriers to accessing the care that they need. Her first job out of college was with a sexual assault and domestic abuse agency in Colorado, where she started the organization’s outreach efforts for the Latino community. “It’s a passion for me that everyone has the same opportunity,” she said. “We are a nation of immigrants who took land away from folks who were not immigrants, and I wish we all were humble enough to remember that.”
This passion for helping women in-need eventually drew Mrs. Irvin to South America. There she spent time—primarily in Argentina— exploring existing support systems for victims of domestic violence and immersing herself in a new culture and the Spanish language. Mrs. Irvin expressed gratitude for the opportunity to travel. “Your heart learns to open up to other people and other cultures when you really walk around on their streets and smell the smells and eat the food and realize that we don’t own the only way to do things,” she says.
When her family moved to Charlottesville, Mrs. Irvin was immediately drawn to the mission of The Women’s Initiative, which is to help women “transform life challenges into positive change and growth.” She saw that this mission could be married with her own to help the young organization grow: "I knocked on their door when they were two years old and said, “what are you doing for Spanish-speaking people.” They recognized the need and found space and funding for me to begin working just five hours a week. So, I guess that is one piece of advice I would offer to others: if you have a passion, just keep knocking on doors, be willing to start small, and keep at it. Others will see your passion and respond to it."
Mrs. Irvin, who is currently in her eighth year with TWI and now serves as Executive Director, began her work by founding the Bienestar Program. TWI’s counseling, education, and social support program for Latina Women, Bienestar started with just Mrs. Irvin’s five hours per week and in eight years has grown to include five bilingual staff and volunteers and reaches more than 350 people per year. This program is also the basis for TWI’s growing work with other immigrant and refugee communities, such as the Bhutanese.
Because TWI is often the only place where women from these communities feel safe and welcome, Mrs. Irvin has made sure that the program “is about building trust, and knowing that people aren’t always ready, but hoping that the door is open for them when they are.”
Mrs. Irvin notes the difficulty of distancing herself from the personal stories she hears: “We’re all human, and there are times you take someone home with you, and you dream about them, and then really the next step is then to wake up and get support for yourself.” When asked how she maintains a positive outlook and helps her clients do the same, she explained that TWI works hard to ensure that its staff and volunteers are taking care of themselves.
She also talked about the importance of perspective: "You have to find your role and then check yourself with humility—understanding that there is an immense amount of suffering in this world and you will only be able to play a small part in improving the human condition, yet remembering that every little bit of healing matters. As Everett Hale famously said, “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something.”
Even as she shared stories of hardship and fear, her words carry an unyielding sense of hope. She is proud to have dedicated her life to being an agent of that hope: “It’s the greatest gift and privilege to watch someone remove the layers of pain and past history to, kind of, shine again.”
Mrs. Irvin is a light in the lives of many who feel surrounded by darkness, creating community where before there was none. Her mission of compassion and hope has saved lives over the world.
If you are inspired by Elizabeth Irwin, please donate below to help The Women's Initiative serve more people.