Tuesday, November 13, 2001

If ever anyone transformed a painful embarrassment into a positive endeavor, it’s Gail Berendzen, president and founder of Women of Washington.
Instead of hiding in humiliation, Mrs. Berendzen will be honored tomorrow night at a gala celebrating a decade of women helping women, many of whom helped her through some tough times.
Mrs. Berendzen’s husband, Richard, was president of American University. In the early ‘90s, he was charged with, and ultimately pleaded guilty to, making obscene phone calls. It prompted intense media coverage. After disclosure that Mr. Berendzen suffered severe abuse as a child, he was given two suspended 30-day jail sentences and ordered to undergo therapy.
Countless female friends rallied around the gracious Gail Berendzen, who had taken on the often-unappreciated role of “the professional wife of” or “PWO” like an armored warrior.
Out of that Sistagirls camaraderie and at her husband’s suggestion was born Women of Washington, “the networking and nurturing” organization that seeks to bridge the divide among a multitude of women. “I realized how important it was for women to have a forum to connect to one another, and what was more important was to have a whole range of women so we can all broaden our outreach,” she said.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan WW’s stated purpose is “to provide opportunities for women of all ages, professions, races and interests to meet and support one another professionally and personally. Through an array of programs organized by WW, women gain insights about critical issues from prominent speakers.”
Beverly Silverberg, of Silverberg Communications and a WW board member, likens Mrs. Berendzen’s 10-year accomplishments to “Venus coming full blown out of the water.”
“It’s a gift to the city and it all popped out of Gail’s head,” she said of WW, which was “an idea that came out of pain as women rallied around [Mrs. Berendzen] at a time she needed it.”
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Gail ask a circle of women gathered around a breakfast or luncheon table: “What is your passion?” “When was your last mentoring moment?” “What have you done as you walked this earth?” “What kind of legacy do you want to leave?”
You can come to socialize at a WW function, but you’d better be engaged in a worthy business or community project if you want to be taken seriously by the hundreds of women who are involved in an array of volunteer and professional activities.
In a city where people often ask “What do you do?” almost before they ask your name, the welcoming WW women want to know your first name first, and then: “What have you done to make a difference in your life, the life of your family or the life of your community lately?”
Don’t know where to start? Through the group’s Non-Profit Alliance, for example, service providers and luncheon guests are presented with a wish list of ideas detailing exactly how to assist the featured organization.
Women of Washington is just the kind of multifaceted organization that’s vital to fostering cross-cultural exchanges. Here in this city with its disparate international, national and local orbits, most women would never find the opportunity to interact with those circling outside their own orbit were it not for a group like WW.
“It’s opening up your mind to meeting people you may or may not like or agree with,” Mrs. Berendzen said.
Besides Mrs. Berendzen, those “who, by their individual talents, abilities and unique accomplishments have paved the way for other women” will be honored at the 10th anniversary gala at the Four Seasons hotel. They include Queen Noor of Jordan; Dr. Bernadine Healy, outgoing president of the American Red Cross; Dorothy Height, president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women; actress Mary Tyler Moore; Deborah Szekely, founder of Eureka Communities, and broadcasters Diane Rehm and Judy Woodruff.
“I want to continue the programs and keep them at a high quality so women can walk away learning something new,” Mrs. Berendzen said. WW “has done far more than I ever dreamed possible.”

For more information about Women of Washington, call 202/296-5922.

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