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Program gives victims of abuse a fresh start

Sharon Morgan didn't just overcome domestic violence, she became a counselor and then an advocate. Now. the Amherst resident has been applying that mix of determination and preserverance to getting her online jewelry business off the ground.

And through a new entrepreneurial training and coaching program for domestic violence survivors, she's getting some help.

"I can create a product but I didn't know how to market it or run or small business," she said. "But they've mentored me or have linked me to services, so I'm confident about getting out there now."

Project Fresh Start, funded by a $100,000 grant from the Verizon Foundation and operated by Everywoman Opportunity Center, was highlighted during a news conference Monday at the center.

Morgan, 51, is the survivor of child sex abuse and two domestic violence relationships. She has a degree in health and human services and worked as a domestic violence counselor at the YWCA. Morgan is currently a domestic violence advocate at the Erie County's sheriff's department.

She also has a talent for making one-of-kind jewelry and accessories. She's worked on her craft the past 20 years and launched Lunar Light Studio, her web business, two years ago.

But she sold only five pieces in all that time. So she enrolled in Project Fresh Start in March and is now preparing to apply for a start-up grant from Verizon.

"They teach you how to best utilize your skills and you learn business skills, so you're prepared to run a business," she said. She's learned the ins and outs of e-commerce, including how to better market her products and increase traffic to her site. Plus, she has a career coach.

Domestic violence survivors have personal skills that can transfer to the business world, but when they leave abusive partners, they are often without financial resources, said John F. O'Malley, Verizon Wireless' public relations manager for the Upstate New York Region.

"Once they escape the cycle of violence, they also, in many cases, need to regain their financial independence," he said. "A lot of times the abuser has cut off access or control their finances, and now they're in a situation where they need to find a way to have an income."

Morgan is one of 16 women currently enrolled in the program, which includes courses covering financial literacy, taxes, legal issues, time management and conflict/problem resolution. Project Fresh Start is accepting participants. The Family Justice Center, Score and the Small Business Development Center are also involved with the program.

"Everywoman's staff members are not experts on starting small businesses, but we know people who are," said Myrna F. Young, the center's executive director. "So we put them in touch with individuals and businesses who know all the finer points."

The Verizon Foundation awarded $100,000 grants to five agencies across the state, including Everywoman, to start the training programs.

When Project Fresh Start students have grasped the necessary skills and completed a business plan, they can apply for the Verizon Wireless Domestic Violence Entrepreneur Grant. The program, which gives grants of up to $5,000, began two years ago and has awarded 14 grants across the state.

Between the grant and the education, participants will have the skills and funds to launch their start-ups, O'Malley said. Along with business training, Project Fresh Start also addresses self-esteem issues, which are common among domestic violence survivors. The program's scheduling is flexible, allowing participants to start the program and attend workshops and classes at times suited for their situations.

"We've got the resources. We've got the program that fits with their schedule and the support they need to get through it," O'Malley said.

Upon completion, graduates will continue to receive support from the program through coaching and mentoring, Young said.

"We hope to follow these individuals for at least five years because that's kind of the cut off that says success or failure, and we want them to succeed," she said.

email: esapong@buffnews.com