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Woman Around Town: Charlotte Frank –
Networks for Women

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In 2000, faced with her imminent retirement after a challenging professional life, Charlotte Frank, in her sixties, wondered: what’s next? “What do you do with the rest of your life? How do you use a lifetime of knowledge and skills in post-retirement?” Instead of just talking about the problem, Frank co-founded, with fellow-retiree Christine Millen, The Transition Network (TTN), an organization of engaged, energetic women over 50 who actively support each other as they navigate their “transitions” from work to retirement, as well as through all the other “transitions” inherent to the second half of life. They include: changing careers, surviving relocation, embracing volunteer work, adapting to widowhood or divorce, or simply continuing to grow, learn, advocate and pursue new opportunities with a wide-range of other over-50 women from diverse racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Frank received a three-year Ashoka Fellowship, which supports social entrepreneurship, ($50,000 a year for three years), and used the monies to build TTN into a professionally-run non-profit organization.  It’s grown into a fabulous sisterhood.

What began with a handful of women in Manhattan is now a national organization, linked by a website (www.thetransitionnetwork.org), that reaches almost 5,500 women from coast to coast. There are TTN chapters in New York, Long Island, Westchester, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Houston, Philadelphia and Central Ohio. TTN has developed a signature social structure that fosters friendship, intimacy, community and advocacy—the Peer Group—comprised of  8 to 10 women who meet once a month to discuss issues or participate in events together. Today, in New York, there is a Peer Group for every activity and interest—book groups, walking groups, workforce groups, dining groups, singles groups, discussion groups, improvisational groups, technology and photography groups.  Anyone who has an idea and can find 8 to 10 women to share it, can launch a group to meet her interests and needs.

“Overall, TTN has been involved in community building,” says Frank, “which means that we have provided a home for people who are beginning to deal with the issue of — what happens after age 50. What we haven’t dealt with, until recently, is how we can as a community, intervene, develop models, have an impact. So the two major priorities TTN is now working on — health and work — are being developed as community action programs. We are piloting two major thrusts in New York and will then take them national.” It is in the health arena that Frank has had the biggest impact.

A Cutting-Edge Civic Model: The Caring Collaborative

A few years ago, Frank developed an illness which brought home to her the difficulties of navigating the healthcare system in New York City. True to form, instead of just complaining about it, she decided to do something about it. In the fall of 2007, under her direction, and competing against many other organizations, TTN won a two-year grant of almost $150,000 from the New York State Health Foundation to develop a low-cost pilot project—built on the principles of the barter system—which demonstrates that informal communities can play a positive role in health issues for those who are not frail but over 50.

“That’s an age when health problems begin to emerge,” says Frank, “but there are no formal programs for making sure they get the attention they need. This is particularly important in a city like New York where a number of single women reside.”  In 2008, The Caring Collaborative hired a manager and established a database so that TTN members can exchange health support services through a time bank, as well as share medical information and resources.

Today, TTN’s Caring Collaborative, organized by zip code, has more than 200 members in New York City who help escort each other to and from medical offices, volunteer to shop or cook for those recovering from an illness or operation, and/or share medical experience, knowledge and information. If a member has just been diagnosed with breast cancer, TTN will connect her with someone in the database with the same illness. If a member has to have a hip replacement, TTN will find someone to have her dog walked while she’s in recovery. If a member’s husband gets a diagnosis of prostate cancer, there will be another member’s husband who has gone through the same thing. As Frank points out, “It’s an inexpensive program whose major resource is the volunteer work done by community members. What you would ordinarily have to pay for, the community provides as a free service. You get help and are entitled to get help in return.”  The program has received glowing press coverage in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, as well as other media.

But Frank, an active single woman with a passion for travel and folk art, has even bigger dreams. TTN is planning a second pilot program to demonstrate that The Caring Collaborative can work in other locations and organizations, including a suburban setting, a faith-based institution, and a hospital. “These are all ideas that are being tossed around,” she says. “We have formed a Business Advisory Group that is going to take us beyond TTN to see where it can work. Ultimately we hope to roll it out nationally for all our members and myriad other organizations such as faith-based institutions, community centers, membership organizations and more.”

At the same time, as president of her condo building in mid-town Manhattan, Frank recently launched a “Neighbor to Neighbor” buddy system, which she hopes will eventually evolve into a mini-Caring Collaborative for tenants. Frank, a Johnny Appleseed of community building, has planted and spread her ideas to friends and fellow TTN members, many of whom are launching buddy systems in their own condos and co-ops.

Although Frank insists she will soon step back from her leadership role, it’s clear that nothing gives her greater pleasure than helping people help each other. She beams with pleasure when relating the thank-you call she received from a 97-year-old-woman in her building, saying how much safer she now feels with a buddy system in place. Charlotte Frank makes things happen. One wonders what new wonderful civic venture she will dream up next.

For more information on The Transition Network, go to www.thetransitionnetwork.org.

Woman Around Town’s Six Questions

Favorite Place to Shop: I am a sucker for TJ Maxx or Filene’s Basement and then I do the big splurge at the Outside Art Fair or the Lincoln Center Craft Fair.

Favorite Place to Eat: Why share a meal with a friend, unless you can talk. That means a quiet restaurant. Whym’s and O’Neal’s top the list.

Favorite New York Sight: Central Park those two weeks in the spring when everything is splashed with pastels. .

Favorite New York Moment: It was years ago, but unforgettable. A back-to-back presentation by the Public Theater of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses trilogy in Central Park, starting at 7PM and ending at 7AM with the Supreme’s singing Let the Sun Shine In.

What You Love About New York: The incredible diversity; the incredible energy.

What You Hate About New York: You are late. You hail a taxi. You get stuck in traffic. You are even later and poorer.

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