September 2018 Alum of the Month: Elizabeth H. Irvin '93
Hotchkiss Alum of the Month, September 2018 | Elizabeth H. Irvin '93

Elizabeth H. Irvin '93 is the Executive Director of The Women's Initiative, a non-profit in Charlottesville, Virginia, that provides mental health, social support, and education services to women, with a specific focus on healing trauma through culturally responsive care.

Irvin came to Hotchkiss as a lower mid from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "I feel so privileged and fortunate that my parents encouraged me to go to Hotchkiss. I had many great teachers there, including 'the Nancys' (Nancy Bird and Nancy Gaynor), who taught a Women in Development course, where we read works by Barbara Kingsolver and had wonderful discussions; Pat Jones, who taught creative writing; and Tim Katzman, whose course on the history of South Africa was just incredible. I also had a very strong relationship with a guidance counselor at the school I attended before coming to Hotchkiss, so I came to Lakeville already knowing that I wanted to pursue a career as a therapist of some kind."

Between upper mid and senior year, Irvin spent a summer in Barcelona, where she worked as an au pair. "I didn't speak Spanish and the child didn't speak English, and that firsthand experience of the language barrier made it clear how important learning the language would be if I wanted to truly connect." After Hotchkiss, she lived in Bolivia and Argentina and began working with the Latinx communities in the United States.

Irvin went on to double-major in psychology and Spanish at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She then moved to Telluride, Colorado, where she took a job at the San Miguel Resource Center, a domestic violence and sexual assault crisis agency; she has been working with survivors of trauma ever since. She returned to Chapel Hill for a dual degree in Law and Social Work, then moved to Asheville, NC, to work with an alternative sentencing program for incarcerated women. There, she started her family, which consists of her husband, Tom, and her two boys, Patrick and Jason.

In 2009, Irvin moved to Charlottesville, joining The Women's Initiative as the agency's first Spanish-speaking therapist. There, she founded the Bienestar program, specifically designed to "create a safe space for Latina women to heal and grow within a culturally responsive framework."

Four years later, Irvin became Executive Director of The Women's Initiative, and under her leadership, the agency has become the second-largest provider of mental health care in the Charlottesville area. The organization is a leader in trauma-informed, culturally responsive care, offering walk-in clinics, individual counseling, groups and social support, and education and outreach programs. "We are an agency that partners extensively within the community in order to break down barriers, such as cost, stigma, language, culture, and transportation," says Irvin. More than 90 percent of the agency's clients are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, or other forms of violence. Irvin says she is saddened to learn about the years of abuse that took place at Hotchkiss, but commends the School for coming forward publicly to acknowledge and apologize for the assaults.

The events in Charlottesville in August 2017 brought many issues to The Women's Initiative's doorstep, according to Irvin. "We were on the front line of emergency response, and, because we have specific providers and programs for vulnerable populations, we were a trusted resource for our community."

And while current immigration policies are preventing some women from asking for help, The Women's Initiative already has existing relationships with many women and is able to provide a safe haven for many disenfranchised immigrants in the community. Escalating health care costs have also impacted the agency, and they see many more clients with insufficient health insurance. In her role as Executive Director, Irvin spends about half her time fundraising. "We have a great development team, and very generous supporters, but like most non-profits, we find that getting funding is challenging." The agency has a sliding scale and offers some free services, such as counseling. Fortunately, a Federal grant supports a portion of the agency's work.

For Irvin, the most rewarding part of her job happens when "I get to bear witness to a woman's courage to heal and regain her strength. I am honored to come to work every day." As for Hotchkiss, Irvin says, "I am really appreciative of my time at Hotchkiss, and I recognize the privilege of this education, which taught me to think critically and globally. I am also grateful because it gave me some of the greatest friendships and best memories of my life."

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