When Carole King wrote the 1971 song “You’ve Got a Friend,” she may not have known that 46 years later she’d be honoring women who speak those same supportive words to help other women.

King was among the celebrity presenters on June 19 at the 7th Annual Elly Awards Luncheon benefiting The Education Fund of the Women’s Forum at The Plaza Hotel in New York City. The best-selling author, activist, and member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was part of a notable lineup of entertainment industry professionals and political figures who strive to help disenfranchised women achieve their goals.

The awards, which honor outstanding women leaders, are named for Elinor Guggenheimer, founder of the Women’s Forum, which was created in 1974. The Education Fund was formed in 1987, and over these 30 years has helped more than 200 women over the age of 35 whose lives have been affected by adversity complete their college degrees. It has thus far provided more than $1.25 million to help its recipients, who are often economically struggling single parents. Through the fund, however, more than 90 percent have successfully earned college degrees, with many going on to achieve Master’s degrees.

Ilene Wachs, president of The Education Fund of the Women’s Forum, told Women’s eNews, “It’s exciting to be giving people control of their lives.” Wachs noted how the recipients benefit from having their struggles and their unwavering drive acknowledged. “The other thing that is heartwarming is that the fellows tell us that having a prestigious organization supporting them tells them that they can do it.” Women go on to engage in a variety of career paths and,“What’s amazing is that our alumnae become everything from doctors to dancers!” she noted.

Anyone who has tried to move her life forward, however, knows that it doesn’t just come down to the educational fees. Wachs spoke to Women’s eNews about why these grants aren’t just for education, but for anything that is necessary. “We understand that getting an education may not only be about tuition.  Sometimes it’s about tuition, sometimes it’s rent, or books, or transportation or child care. Our unrestricted grants enable the fellow awardee to use the dollars for whatever helps her just stay in school and earn her college degree.”

To qualify for the fund, a woman must be 35 or older and a resident of New York City. She must also have begun her college education but had it disrupted by extreme adversity. She is further required to attend a college in New York City, be willing to give back to the community, and have the potential to influence future generations to go to college.

Additionally, the Fund currently offers a Conversations for Success program, which provides mentoring and exposure for its alumnae Fellows. The program holds six sessions annually and provides speakers who are Women’s Forum representatives at each get-together.  “We find that Fellows are most interested in learning about the struggles that these highly successful women have endured and how they overcame them,” Wachs said.

Wachs also told Women’s eNews that the Fund is implementing new programs to ramp up its drive to improve the lives of women in need including the Enhance College Outreach program, which was finalized earlier in 2017 and will begin later this summer. The program will reach out to a select group of schools that send a significant number of applicants to learn how they are effective in getting the word out to the targeted demographic, as well as the schools’ techniques for assuring that those who seek the grants are qualified.

Currently, the only fundraising vehicle is through personal donations of Women’s Forum members or through revenue resulting from the sponsorships and tickets sold in connection with the Elly Awards. The Fund is therefore developing a new program in order to attract more funding, perhaps through corporate or private foundations.  “We have a Foundation Funding initiative to enable the Education Fund to expand our reach,” Wachs said.  She also noted that the objective is to position the Fund this year to receive its first foundation funding in 2018.

The organization is also in the midst of creating an Ed Fund Alumnae Group to be launched in 2018, which will enable fellows to network with and learn from each other. This will include a directory of all Ed Fund Fellows.  “Ultimately, we would like to see our alumnae give back monetarily to the Ed Fund even in a small way, because this will then become part of our story,” Wachs noted.

And the 15 Fellows of 2016 selected for funding in 2017 are a testament to what a great story this is. Marie Telfort of Long Island University emigrated from Haiti with her two sons. She had always wanted to be a surgeon and help people. When she came to the U.S., she had tried to connect newly emigrated Haitians with job opportunities and resources to help them learn English. Over a 10-year period, Telfort rose from housekeeper to EKG Technician for New York Presbyterian Hospital. She wants to move up to department manager, which requires a college degree. She is now on track, and after earning her Bachelor’s in Health Science, she plans to earn a Master’s in Public Health. Kaisa Ajaye of the City University of New York is another example of a shining star. Thirty-four years after entering Pennsylvania State University, Ajaye is now moving forward. She dropped out of Penn State when her mom died, and she eventually was homeless, unemployed, and suffering from medical issues. She credits her mom with teaching her how to read and write, of which she derives a certain comfort. She has competed as a track and field athlete, and has written screenplays, nonfiction, and fiction. She also created a humor blog on her flip phone while living in a shelter. Her goal is to promote literacy at an early age, to write, and to eventually teach creative writing at the university level. “In 2017 the Fund is awarding 18 grants of $10,000 each to highly qualified women, enabling women like these to achieve their dreams of getting a college education,” Wachs said.

Carole King presented the ELLY Awards, along with president of HBO Documentary Films Sheila Nevins and Tony-winning producer and President of Jujamcyn Theaters Jordan Roth. The recipients of the Awards included U.S. Representative for New York’s 12th congressional district Carolyn B. Maloney, a champion for domestic and international women’s issues who  authored and passed legislation targeting the demand side of sex trafficking and increasing funding to process DNA rape kits; 10-time Tony-winning play producer Daryl Roth, a leader in innovative theater who has produced more than 100 shows on and off Broadway; and Emmy-winning actress and founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation Mariska Hargitay. The Joyful Heart Foundation is a national organization working to transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse and to support survivors’ healing—with the ultimate goal of ending this violence forever. After the awards presentation, award-winning NY1 anchor and author Cheryl Wills moderated a conversation with the honorees on leadership.

Ultimately, women coming together to help other women is a tremendous way to make a difference, and the women applying for these awards and not letting the hardships of life defeat them are true testaments to the strength we each have inside us.  To quote a Forum colleague, former presidential candidate, former secretary of state, and former senator Hillary Clinton, “Let’s keep going until every one of the 161 million women and girls across America has the opportunity she deserves to have.”

Click here to learn more about the Education Fund of the Women’s Forum of New York and to view the videos recounting the inspiring stories of the Fellows.

The Women’s Forum of New York advances women’s leadership through the Education Fund, as well as via its core programming, which provides members with personal and professional enrichment, and the Corporate Board Initiative, which expands the contribution of women leaders through participation on corporate and civic boards.