Women are praised for being pillars of strength in their families and communities, but this same strength might lead them to be overlooked when designing services to meet the needs of a community. Women also need therapeutic activities that help them heal from and guide others through traumatic experiences and systematic oppression, and they need opportunities to enjoy positive social interactions with other women. Stephanie Cockrell of Urbana has built an organization to address these needs so that women can continue to provide the strength their communities need.
The Well Experience (T.W.E.) is a non-profit, multifaceted organization located in Urbana that provides services directed toward the growth and development of girls and women. It serves the community by providing healing-centered engagement, assistance in connecting with resources, and therapeutic activities that help families develop the tools and skills they need to be their best. Its services, support, and advocacy explicitly seek to dismantle racial disparities and systemic oppression.
Stephanie Cockrell, the director and CEO, has 15 years of experience in family services and 10 years in education. Her mission to bring racial equity to her community shines through in the many programs, workshops, classes, and events she has organized. Programs such as Group and Family Therapy, Financial Literacy, Career Development, Teen Moms, Girls to Life, Family Game Night, HERE for the Girl, The S.E.T. (Sisters Engaging Together), and more illustrate her focus on serving women and girls.
Cockrell hopes to reverse the perception that strong women don’t need support. T.W.E. challenges that norm with interactive workshops, like The S.E.T., where women come together to ask questions often unvoiced in their lives. This starts real and sometimes hard conversations, giving perspective to ideas or struggles that have been begging to come to light.
T.W.E. began with a focus on youth. It hosts a remote learning hub for K–12 students that runs Monday through Friday. As Youth Development Leader, I have seen for myself the needs students have, not just for academic help, but for a safe space for learning and socializing. Each day students come voluntarily to our building to attend class remotely. We also do arts and crafts and science experiments, and teach life skills. The hub is a safe space for the students to learn, be social with their peers, and learn to deal with any life experiences they may be going through.
Working with girls led to the realization that their mothers also wanted opportunities for growth. T.W.E. became a teaching space for women, with classes like Financial Literacy, where women with different levels of financial knowledge learn and teach each other to save, budget, and spend wisely. Another class, Career Development, focuses on resume building, dealing with on-the-job stress, and the steps to take to win promotions.
I took the time to interview Cockrell about T.W.E., and she had some interesting things to say.
When T.W.E. was first put in your heart, what was your initial vision compared to how it later evolved? Did you imagine being where you are now in 2021?
“My vision was to provide holistic support for women and girls. As a girl who grew up without a lot of support, the experiences I had produced trauma that is still being healed. My passion for women, girls, and families pushes me to research the best ways to connect and encourage the success of our clients.”
What program are you most connected to and passionate about, and why?
“This is a hard one! I am connected to different programs at T.W.E. for different reasons. Girls to Life is important to me because we are building Black girls and equipping them with the skills they need to be successful. The outcomes have been so powerful. I believe starting this work with Black children at a young age has helped to change their success in school and their community.
“The Well Teen Moms Club is precious to me because I was a teen mom who wished for support. Having the services we provide to teens would have been invaluable to me. I want teen moms to see us as a lifeline to reach out for when they need it.”
Did you have a place like T.W.E., or people in your life who worked with and inspired you, the way you do now in your community?
“No, I did not. This kind of program did not exist when I was young. Racial healing groups were not happening in my neighborhood. I am thankful for the women who came my way and offered me support when they could. When someone is in your corner and helping you to become stronger, you start to feel like you can do anything. I want T.W.E. to be that place for families.”
What is one of your biggest challenges running a program like this during a pandemic?
“My biggest challenge has been overcoming the fears I have for Black families who were already struggling and living below the poverty line before the pandemic. COVID-19 made us aware of the racial and systemic oppression that has been working against families for a very long time. This challenge made me work harder to help families achieve a bit of normalcy during this time. We have developed services and supports that will continue for years to come.”
Has being the director and a part of the T.W.E. team changed you?
“No, not at all. I bring my passion and love. I love families and look forward to learning how to serve them best.”
Seeing how Cockrell turned her difficult past experiences into an organization to teach women to avoid the same is a stroke of genius. Instead of perpetuating that pain, she channeled it into an organization that continues to bear good fruit. The community of southeast Urbana is in need of so much support and encouragement as it suffers from job loss, homelessness, domestic violence, gun violence, and more. Trauma has been widespread in the Urbana–Champaign area. This organization is specifically here to help teach the tools for surviving those traumas and to continuing to thrive because we try to make every experience a well experience.
Stewart is a writer, vocalist, and art ambassador for the C-U area. Her mission is to cultivate unity in all mediums and to use the lessons she has learned to help others.