20 Questions on the Coast with Michelle Jannazo

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An Interview with Sharon Vaughn, CEO and Founder of Emerald Coast Women, Inc.

How long have you lived in Florida?

I’ve been in Florida since 2012, and in this area since 2015. I also lived in the area briefly in 2008-2009 as well.

What do you like best about living here in the Panhandle?

I love being outdoors. The natural environment is beautiful and therapeutic. Things like the tall pines and dune lakes remind me what a spectacular place we call home!

You’re a professional in the tourism and hospitality industry, right?

Yes, I’m currently the associate director of sales at Hotel Effie in Sandestin. I have been in the industry for more than 19 years.

You’re also the founders of a local non-profit organization, Emerald Coast Women.

What is Emerald Coast Women?

Emerald Coast Women (EmCoWo) was founded with the mission of helping women and girls from all backgrounds and at all life stages, thrive and live fulfilling lives by cultivating connection, sharing information, and offering advocacy and resources.

That’s a powerful mission. What inspired you to start EmCoWo?

It’s a personal mission for me. There have been times in life when I’ve had to start over or rely on others to make it through. I landed here on the Emerald Coast to find peace, be with my sister and best friend, and start a new life with zero dollars in the bank. I received encouragement and support from some family and even some strangers. Through counseling and reflection, it became clear that starting fresh takes on many different forms. After my own life stabilized, I committed to helping women. Even those who appear strong on the outside often have trouble asking for it. I wanted to create a space where a woman or girl looking around not knowing what in the world to do next, or how to survive the situation she is in, could find a thread that will lead her toward a better life and know for certain that she is not alone.

How does being a single mother inform your work with EmCoWo?

Being a single mom is a huge driving force for me. It can be overwhelming when you are solely accountable for the well-being of children. Single mother households are six times more likely to live in poverty than other households. This makes them at higher risk for homelessness and domestic violence and puts children at higher risk for abuse. EmCoWo will serve as a lifeline. Many women suffer silently feeling like they cannot ask for help. Sometimes one contact or resource can change their situation for the better. Sometimes just knowing you’re not alone can give you room to breathe.

ECW addresses women’s health and education. Are there other areas of interest?

Workforce development and training, money and finance are also key.

How does the EmCoWo podcast connect to your mission?

The podcast was the first seedling of EmCoWo’s mission. We have already received impactful feedback from women who have listened and heard stories of other women facing a multitude of life challenges. The interviews have inspired women to reach out and bravely share their own stories in hopes it will help someone.

What comes next?

We’ll hold a quarterly community forum where we’ll gather women to share resources and knowledge and identify areas of need. EmCoWo hopes to engage high school girls to promote and instill a culture of connection over competition among women. Students can pack care kits for our partner organizations while writing personal notes of encouragement.
What’s the long-term vision for the organization?

In the long term, EmCoWo will work to create a residential community to house, educate and provide workforce training and experience for single mothers in need of a supportive environment. This residence will embody the “village” mindset that is so often referenced when it comes to mothering, though it is not always visible.

How will EmCoWo reach women in Walton County?

Through social media and grassroots marketing campaigns as well as through the schools, daycare facilities, mental health and women’s health centers and establishments frequented by women. We’re going to lean into the businesses and organizations that share similar goals and want to make a positive impact in women’s lives.

What organizations or agencies will you work with?

EmCoWo will grow relationships with strategic partners including Department of Health, Walton County Schools, Department of Corrections, social service agencies and other community groups.

Will women and girls be matched with mentors?

EmCoWo will work with women in need to match them with partners who will help them plan and reach their goals. This is not a traditional mentorship since it’s not solely focused on career goals. One woman may want to write a book and we will partner her with another woman who can show her the resources needed to do that. Another woman may simply want to learn how to create a budget for her family and we will find the right partner for her too.

How can people get involved?

There are volunteer opportunities for people with any schedule availability or level of interest, including event planning, blog content creation, and podcast participation.

Sharon can be reached at sharon@emcowo.com or by messaging the EmCoWo on Facebook or Instagram @EmeraldCoastWomen.

20 Questions on the Coast is an interview series with Michelle Jannazo showcasing leadership in communities across the Panhandle. Michelle is a local writer, educator and community volunteer.