After serving 5 1/2 years as executive director of WFCM (Western Fairfax Christian Ministries), Dorothy Fonow is stepping down. And if things work out the way her husband hopes they will, they'll be making their new home in Saudi Arabia.
On Monday, Oct. 1, former WFCM Executive Director Jan Welch, of Little Rocky Run, took the reins as interim director until a permanent one is found.
"I'm happy to help," she said. "This organization is really important and has always been right in my heart."
For the past two decades, WFCM and its now 36-member churches have helped families in crisis situations in Centreville, Chantilly, Clifton, Fair Oaks and Fairfax Station. They've given out food, clothing and financial assistance to keep so many people from becoming homeless.
BUT THIS SPRING, when its own expenses outpaced its income, WFCM had to make drastic changes. Its food, transportation, clothing and furniture ministries still exist, but not the emergency financial aid.
"We couldn't afford to keep doing it so, starting in June, we had to say no," said Fonow. "It was painful for us because we're used to serving the people in the area." Now, clients are directed to Fairfax County's Coordinated Services Planning division at 703-222-0880.
However, WFCM offers a residential-assistance program providing budgeting and life-skills counseling, plus job preparation. Attendees learn resumé-writing and interview skills, and they may use computers to look for jobs.
"We also have suits and nice clothes here so they can dress for job interviews," said Fonow. "The budgeting class is run by a CPA, and the job-skills class is run by someone with a masters in human-resources management. And these skills strengthen families." To sign up, call 703-988-9656, ext. 108, or see www.wfcmva.org.
Furthermore, on Wednesdays at 11 a.m., in conjunction with the Virginia Cooperative Extension, WFCM offers an expanded, food- and nutrition-education program.
"Keeping a nonprofit afloat is tough," said Fonow. "We just have to move on and do what we can with what we have. We still need counseling staff, and we're writing grants for that. We need to regroup and see where WFCM is going from here."
But she said people with finance and management grant-writing skills and professional qualifications have asked what they can do to help. "It's been amazing to see how people have stepped forward and helped," said Fonow. "People have a vested interest in WFCM and want to see it survive."
And now that it's stopped giving financial help, she said, "We've stabilized. We know the need is still there, but we'll just have to work toward it, steady and slowly." Currently, WFCM gives out 2,100 bags of food per month and helps some 300 families each month.
When asked about her biggest challenge, Fonow replied, "I have loved every minute I've been here." Then she recalled the first week in June and couldn't help but be sad.
"THE TOUGHEST thing was letting my staff go," she said. "As I let these dedicated people go, I knew I was getting rid of services that were vitally needed. But we couldn't afford to do it, anymore. And everybody loved working here. They were very committed to the work we're doing."
Even then, the only paid positions were part time. The rest of the help comes from about 3,000 volunteers — including some 300 who work regularly in WFCM's food pantry and thrift store.
"I loved the energy and enthusiasm that exists here," said Fonow. "A lot of goodhearted people are doing their best to help people less fortunate. It was always a pleasure to come to work, every day. We never had enough staff, so we always pitched in and did each others' jobs."
She said WFCM staff becomes connected to those they serve. "You get to know the people, their stories and what they're going through, and they become like family. There's a strong sense of community."
And actually, said Fonow, "I don't feel like I'm moving; when I'm back in the country, I'll come in and volunteer." But for now, she plans to join her husband Robert — who's been in Baghdad a year — on his next assignment.
An international, telecommunications expert, he's also worked in China, Russia and Japan. "He's a turn-around manager," explained Fonow. "He takes companies in trouble — predominantly ones in telecommunications — and fixes them. He's self-employed, but is currently under contract to the State Department, fixing their telecommunications in Iraq's 'green zone.'"
However, Robert is currently interviewing for a position with a U.S. company in Saudi Arabia. Said Fonow: "He's excited because it's setting up networks and he loves to do stuff like that."
They have two children and, in the past, she's always stayed home with them. But son Jay, 24, is teaching English as a Second Language in Beijing, China, and daughter Nia, 28, is a special-ed teacher at Mosby Woods Elementary and recently married.
"About a year ago, what jarred us was that going to Baghdad was kind of scary," explained Fonow. "So we decided, the next assignment, I'd be going with him." Besides that, she added, "In the Middle East, I'm only eight hours from China, so I can go visit my son."
HER HUSBAND also writes technical books, and is working on his memoirs, so she'll help him find publishers and will also help administer his business. "He'll find something for me to do," she said. "And wherever we end up, I'll learn the language — probably Arabic. I'm even brushing up on my French, in case we go to Paris."
Fonow's especially looking forward to spending time with Robert since she hasn't seen him since Nia's wedding in early August. Still, she'll "really miss WFCM because it's been so much a part of my life. And it's really not a job, it's a vocation."
However, she added, "I'm really glad Jan is the interim director; it makes me feel better about moving on. Even through the bad times, good things were happening and volunteers came forward. And it's a fabulous time for someone to take on WFCM because it's in good shape and is ready to be built back up."