Fresno nonprofit Helping One Woman honors, supports women experiencing devastating circumstances in their life

When Wendy Manzo battled cancer in 2010, a Fresno women’s nonprofit organization offered support, honoring her at a dinner and taking up a financial collection to help with her medical bills.

Manzo’s cancer, thyoma, which affects the immune system, took her right lung. The cancer went into remission, but it has returned — and the same nonprofit is helping again.

Helping One Woman, which seeks to provide comfort and support to people when they need hope restored to their life, will honor Manzo at a dinner in January and take up another collection for her. Manzo is grateful to twice receive help.

“I honestly couldn’t believe it,” says Manzo, who is taking time off from her job as a first-grade teacher at River Bluff Elementary School in Central Unified School District. “I put my hands over my face, and I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It’s incredible. It is such a blessing.”

HOW is designed for women to come together to demonstrate their support to help one woman at a time move forward on her journey through times of devastating trouble and loss. The organization believes when it helps one woman, it is helping one family and through that family, it is helping the community.

“We want them to know they are not alone — that there are other women in the community who support them,” says Tara Guentz, leader of the Fresno HOW chapter

The idea for Helping One Woman started with Charlotte Bavaro and Brenda Critzer. They met regularly, and their conversations always turned to serious discussions about women going through difficult circumstances, such as cancer, other diseases, divorce and injuries. Finally, they agreed: Let’s do something to help them.

And, in 2008, Helping One Woman was born.

The organization honors a woman each month over dinner at a restaurant. She must live in the community and have suffered an “irreparable loss” in the past 12 months. At the dinner, organizers present the woman’s story, and she speaks about her circumstances.

Organizers also tell those in attendance that people going through devastating experiences often have mounting bills, especially medical ones. They also share the HOW motto: “One woman giving $10 can buy another woman’s lunch. Ten women giving $10 can buy another woman’s groceries. One hundred women giving $10 can make a real difference in another woman’s life.”

A collection is taken for the woman. Although everyone is asked to donate $10 each, many put in more money. At the end of the event, the collection is presented to the woman. At the November dinner, 125 people in attendance contributed $2,768.

“There are no strings attached with the money,” Guentz says. “We don’t care if a person has insurance. There also is that co-payment.

“The money is a tangible thing. But it’s at the dinner, where we can say, ‘We’re here for you.’ ”

Those in attendance also submit names of women in need that the organization can honor at the next gathering. The names and their stories are dropped into a bowl. And a name is randomly drawn. Organizers quickly assess the need to ensure the nominee meets the criteria and is worthy. The name is then announced to the crowd, so people can make plans to attend.

Guentz has been with HOW since its second meeting. It wasn’t until 2012 that she began organizing the monthly events. She formerly worked in fundraising/philanthropy at University of California at Santa Barbara. She believes in supporting local businesses.

She began selecting a different restaurant in the area for the dinners. She asks the restaurant to “comp” the dinner for the honoree. She also began inviting local businesses to sell products at the event. She asks each to donate a portion of sales to the woman.

Guentz’s efforts have given a sense of newness to the organization, where everyone volunteers their services. Bavaro and Critzer remain on the five-member board.

“Charlotte and Brenda had a great idea,” Guentz said. “It’s done effortlessly. ... For me, volunteers make the world go around.”

Attendees are encouraged to bring new guests to future meetings. Sometimes, the guests are from out of town. With new people always attending, organizers explain the organization’s purpose and functions at every meeting.

“Sometimes, someone attends with a family member and says, ‘We should do this back home,’ ” Guentz says.

And they do. The Fresno chapter has helped women launch other chapters, including in Visalia, Porterville, Bakersfield and Clovis as well as in cities in Georgia and Utah.

“We’re small but mighty,” Guentz says. “When a woman gets in a situation, they don’t know how to ask for help. With HOW, it’s, ‘We’re honoring you.’ ”

In November, Julie Shafer, a Central Unified guidance instruction adviser at Harvest Elementary School, was honored. She gave birth to twins in 2013. Daughter Naomi was born healthy. But son Elliot was born blind and, in three days, developed kidney failure. The twins now are 13 months old. Elliot remains on dialysis. Shafer was nominated by Molly Keeslar.

“When they first approached us about doing this, my first inclination was to say, ‘Thank you, but no thank you,’ ” Shafer says. “I felt there are so many others who need help. But I had friends say, ‘No, we want to do this.’ ”

Shafer says she was emotionally touched by the support she received at the dinner, including women she didn’t know. “It is an outpouring of love and support. It is humbling to see how many people in the community are there to support you.”

Shafer says she has hope for Elliot. She wants to put him on a kidney transplant list, but he must meet the requirement to weigh at least 25 pounds. (He’s at 17 1/2.)

“We’re hoping for summer,” she says. “Helping One Woman was definitely a blessing for us.”