The faith-based nonprofit agency hopes to fill a variety of community needs, from food, clothing, and fitness to entrepreneurship, financial literacy, and life after incarceration or domestic abuse.
By Matt Skoufalos | March 29, 2023
Nearly a decade ago, when Mel Padin found herself struggling in a difficult stretch of her marriage, it was a group of like-minded women at her Pentecostal church who helped support her through it.
“I felt like I can’t be the only woman going through this,” Padin said.
“I came to find out I wasn’t.”
Week after week, as she continued to reach out, Padin connected with women who, like her, “needed community and needed love,” and began to build a holistic wellness program that would gather and strengthen them.
“That’s all we realized women really wanted,” she said. “No matter what we do, what programming it is, our whole hope is to offer them love and a place to call home and build community.
Over time, “we built this community of women, and then families,” Padin said.
Her small groups bloomed to regular gatherings of 20 and 30 in Padin’s Cherry Hill home, until one day, fellow parishioner, Noelle Lentz, approached Padin about the notion of scaling up.
“She was pretty much running a nonprofit through her house,” Lentz said. “I could see how charismatic she was. We decided to partner together to make this dream that had been planted in her heart a reality.”
With Lentz’s help, their collaboration was officially incorporated in 2021 as the WOW Center, a faith-based, nonprofit agency named for the testimonials from women participating in its programs.
“When you hear about a woman’s challenges, what she’s been through, you always hear ‘Wow,’” Padin said.
For the past nine years, Padin and Lentz have been working to deliver an array of necessary community services to women throughout South Jersey.
Now the duo are going to see what the agency can achieve with 2,800 square-feet of real estate behind it.
On Thursday, the center cuts the ribbon on its permanent home in the Merchantville downtown, at 44 West Chestnut Avenue.
In addition to fitness and wellness classes, the WOW Center offers programming in financial literacy and entrepreneurship.
It houses a food pantry connected to the Food Bank of South Jersey, and a curated, by-appointment professional clothing boutique for women entering the workplace.
The center also provides a job development program in partnership with the Hispanic Family Center, offers supports for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and delivers re-entry counseling for women leaving New Jersey’s only women’s prison, the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility.
Some courses are offered virtually in partnership with other organizations throughout the state, but all of them are free to access. The WOW Center is funded by donations, grants, and fundraising initiatives, as well as partnerships with some state grantee organizations.
Padin and Lentz have taken pains to assure that the environment in which they offer these services is as welcoming and comfortable as the smaller spaces in which they originated.
A lounge area in the front of the building features comfortable chairs and couches, greenery, and a beverage center. Women waiting for their appointments in the onsite boutique can rest in a softly lit, private seating area just outside the room. Groups and classes are led by female facilitators “with real, lived experience,” Lentz said.
“A lot of times, when you go to access social services, places feel cold and sterile,” she said.
“We want people to feel welcome.
“Certain programs are a way for people to take off the mask, and be real, and be vulnerable about the programs and services that they want to take advantage of,” Lentz said.
Ultimately, Padin said she would like to replicate the services offered at the WOW Center in other locations across New Jersey, or maybe even beyond.
“Community needs at times can shift,” Padin said. “We’re big on asking our community, ‘What do you need? Where are you in life?’
“As long as we can be flexible, and shift as we need to, we can accomplish much and serve many,” she said.
Lentz said the WOW Center will track both quantitative and qualitative outputs, from the numbers of women it serves, to their successes after availing themselves of classes, and even longer-term outcomes, like life changes.
“We never want to be a place that’s focused transactionally,” she said. “We want it to be transformative. Set a goal, and work with partners to make yourself accountable.”
The WOW Center is located at 44 West Chestnut Avenue in Merchantville, and operates Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. Hours are variable depending upon programming. For more information, call 856-589-0444, e-mail email@example.com, or visit thewowcenternj.org.
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