The Amazing Beginning of a
In 1987 Jane Stephenson, wife of then-president of Berea College, John Stephenson, founded the New Opportunity School for Women (NOSW) to empower Appalachian women of Kentucky to overcome barriers in their day-to-day lives. Jane calls NOSW a “miracle program” that started with two phone calls.
The first was from her friend Gurney Norman, a well-known Kentucky writer. He had a friend in eastern Kentucky who had unexpectedly become divorced, had never worked, had two small children and needed help getting her life back together. He called Jane because Berea College was known for its outreach to the Appalachian mountain community.
Jane and John Stephenson were very aware of the plight of Appalachian women who had never had the opportunity to get an education or job skills. They saw the benefits of creating a program to help women who needed a chance to make a better life for themselves and their families. But how to pay for it? The women who needed help could not afford to pay to attend such a program.
The second call came to John from a California-based foundation that had funded an earlier experimental program at Berea College. Impressed with the outcome of that program, they were inquiring about other possible innovative programs to fund. John called Jane, who wrote the proposal for what would become the New Opportunity School for Women within the week. Just before Christmas in 1986 John received another call. The foundation would fund the project for two years in the amount requested.
An office for NOSW was set up in a small room of the President’s House on the Berea College campus, where Jane and John resided. It was a small room on the first floor that was just large enough for a desk, computer, and a couple of chairs, so most of the work was done at the kitchen table. This space soon became too small and the office moved to the Bond House on the edge of campus.
The first program, a three-week residential program for 14 women, was held in the summer of 1987. When applications exceeded expectations and capacity, the Ford Foundation awarded a grant of $50,000 to add a winter session, which began in 1989.
NOSW continued to thrive and became well-known throughout the region. A big boost to the organization came when Jane was invited onto the Oprah Winfrey Show. She was awarded Oprah’s Use Your Life Award, became one of her “angels,” and was presented with a check for $100,000.
So, after nine years of operating under the auspices of Berea College, NOSW took a leap and separated from the College. In 1996 the New Opportunity School for Women was incorporated as an independent nonprofit organization and received Internal Revenue Service confirmation of its tax exempt status as a 501(c) (3) August 14, 2014. Jane served as its first Executive Director.
Expansion and the NOSW Foundation
Because the New Opportunity School for Women could be beneficial to more than just the women of Kentucky, the first expansion school opened in 2005 in Banner Elk, NC at Lees-McRae College with a grant from the Kellogg Foundation. Referred to on this website as NOSW-LMC, this school continues to operate on a much smaller scale than the original NOSW based in Berea. NOSW-LMC is not separately incorporated as a nonprofit and continues to operate under the auspices of Lees-McRae College.*
Over the next several years, NOSW received inquiries from other colleges about how they might start a school at their location. With funds from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, a consultant was hired to develop plans for expansion. Eventually, this led to establishing the New Opportunity School for Women Foundation, Inc. This new, independent organization received its 501(c)(3) status in January 2011.
After the successful expansion to Lees-McRae, a second expansion opened in 2013 in Bluefield, VA, at Bluefield College. Like NOSW-LMC, this expansion continues to operate under the auspices of its college host and on a much smaller scale than the original NOSW.
Arson Fire: Potential Tragedy
In December 2011, the house in Berea which housed the New Opportunity School for Women was robbed and set ablaze. The structure, all of the equipment, and all NOSW records were destroyed.
But the NOSW board, staff and supporters didn’t let that stop their pursuit of the mission. Instead, with the financial assistance of an insurance settlement, NOSW began rising from the ashes like a phoenix, ready to start again.
Rebuilding, New Programming
NOSW resumed regular programming in June 2012. By 2017, it had become clear that many women who could benefit from the NOSW residential program could not spend three weeks away from their families.
So in 2018 NOSW changed its residential program from three weeks to two weeks, adding an internship component in the women’s home communities.
In addition, in the summer of 2017 NOSW began offering one-week non-residential community-based programs in collaboration with partners throughout Appalachia. This later became the three-day community-based programming that continues today.
During these years, graduation ceremonies and annual retreats for graduates continued to strengthen the bonds between women. Today, NOSW describes this ongoing network of support as “the Sisterhood.”
When the 2020 pandemic forced the cancellation of all in-person programming, NOSW staff began developing creative online opportunities for isolated women to experience support from the Sisterhood through online gatherings on health and wellness, book discussions, and whatever the women wanted to talk about.
In 2021 these early online experiments morphed into specific workshops on various topics.
Today, women participating in NOSW’s residential program can receive support from the NOSW Foundation through Foundation Scholarships, as well as scholarships from NOSW-Berea. In addition, the Foundation provides some funding to address the medical, dental and vision needs of those participating in our two-week residential program. The NOSW Foundation and the Berea-based New Opportunity School for Women, however, remain completely separate organizations.