By Dan Cullinane
In April 2020, Olivia Stelter and Hannah Dunn, friends since high school, saw a need, secured funding, and got to work. Women of Mountain City, the group they founded, operated out of their homes and the trunks of their cars, providing menstrual supplies to women and girls who could not afford them.
Suddenly, the term “period poverty” was on everyone’s mind, and supportive Johnson County residents waved and honked their horns as they drove by the parking lot pop-up dispensaries Women of MC promoted through social media to reach their clients. In the 17 months since its inception, Women of MC has reportedly saved Johnson County Schools and employers almost 5,000 hours of lost education and work due to period poverty, and everyone loved the new non-profit. Or so it seemed.
“A constant battle” is how co-founder Olivia Stelter described it, however. “Every step of the way, we’ve had to tear down barriers.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, given how closely every issue is examined through prisms of politics and religion, but it took the founders of the new organization aback all the same. Both Stelter and Dunn grew up in Johnson County, were educated here, and experienced hardship and trauma, so they would naturally engage in conversation with their clients. The more they engaged and listened, the more they became concerned about county agencies’ ability to help its at-risk population. For Stelter, the push-back initially felt like a combination of ageism and sexism.
“Suddenly, we weren’t cute anymore,” she said. “Women weren’t supposed to questions procedures or policies, and especially we weren’t supposed to question men.”
Stelter especially felt that her questions were seen as accusatory. “When I asked agencies or churches how they handled this, that, or the other thing, I wasn’t trying to find flaws,” she said. “I was trying to find gaps in getting women what they need and help to fill them.”
The road ahead for the young group reached a much different terrain. Stelter’s clients spoke of systemic issues like mental illness, sexual assault, or drug addiction that often underlie poverty, and she worked to connect women with appropriate agencies or non-profits, which she says revealed something much more concerning.
“We began to realize that our clients didn’t feel safe talking to the very people who claim to be trying to help them.”
Stelter says she found that pharmacists routinely shared personal information in violation of HIPAA. She says she found that taxpayer-supported agencies conducted “moral background checks” and aggressively and judgmentally questioned clients, who routinely reported feeling worse about themselves after seeking help, even for mental health.
The same seemed true while seeking help within religious institutions.
“I was told that if you’re not teaching them the true love of Jesus, you’re not equipping them to handle life. You’re not helping them.”
But, Stelter holds fast to her goal and mission. “I believe that Women of MC is doing God’s work,” she said. “Treating others with empathy, listening, giving them a safe space to express themselves, and helping them get back on their feet in a judgment-free zone.”
She says she felt that she was being seen as the fragile, damaged teenager she had once been, not the person who had struggled to heal herself from trauma, who had a master’s degree in political science, and who was trying to do something positive for her hometown. Things thus began to shift for the organization. By the summer of 2021, Stelter had left her church, and Hannah Dunn had left Women of MC. Stelter’s team pushed forward, but feeling adrift; she contemplated shutting the doors.
Unexpected support, however, appeared, sometimes from sources wishing to remain anonymous due to the same social constraints Stelter says “attempted to silence her.” A significant change occurred when the reinvigorated, young woman rebranded the organization as Women of MC Empowerment and Resource Center to reflect how it had expanded beyond just one issue.
“It was a humbling experience but important,” she reflected. “People hold to their institutions because it feels like safety for them. It’s not about you though. It’s about what you are doing. I’ve had to learn to love them through it. And I’ve learned that it’s Women of MC, not Olivia of MC.”
Stelter, both Christian and conservative, says she has learned that serving women and talking about women’s issues is still controversial even in this day and age. And frankly, she doesn’t care. She’s going to keep doing it. So on Saturday, October 9, you’ll find her behind the Women of MC table, selling art to raise funds, ready to continue forward with her vision crystal clear.
“We will enrich the lives of women in our community, no matter how the community sees it. That’s the mission. Providing that access, that safe space, that education. Being a voice for people who don’t have one, empowering women. That’s it. We’re going to do whatever we have to, by whatever means possible. No constraints this time.”
Volunteers are always welcome, as are donations. Call (423) 491-5048 or visit womenofmountaincity.com.