Women of Worth — a nonprofit devoted to helping victims of domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual assault — won national recognition when its founder, Sandy Escobar-Schmidt, was honored by Traditional Home magazine’s “Classic Woman Awards 2013.”
Escobar-Schmidt flew to New York a few weeks ago for the gala event that honored her and the other four women chosen for the award.
But dissension simmering behind the scenes led to a split that ended with the resignation of three board members, the manager of the organization’s thrift store and the contracted bookkeeper, all within the last few days.
Much behind the mass exodus is in dispute, with Escobar-Schmidt and Women of Worth attorney Barry Pruett maintaining that two of the resigning board members — Paul and Lori Byerly — were not legal board members at all.
Escobar-Schmidt is characterizing the split as stemming from a vendetta sparked by her pending divorce.
But those who resigned insist the organization is in trouble and that they tried to rectify the situation.
“Our hope was to make Women of Worth better, not necessarily to create a stir in the community,” outgoing board member Steve Miller said. “As a last resort, we resigned as a group, (hoping) maybe someone would notice.”
Escobar-Schmidt called her opponents “disgruntled” and pledged not to be side-tracked.
“I am saddened,” she said. “But I refuse to let this take away from my focus and our mission.”
According to its website, Women of Worth provides short-term assistance for families in crisis, short-term shelter and long-term transitional housing and programs to enable women and children to escape domestic violence safely.
Escobar-Schmidt cited the recent nationwide publicity that she said has drawn a lot of attention to Women of Worth, saying, “people will become jealous.”
She also alluded to her personal life.
“It comes down to me — it’s me and my divorce and being a single mom,” she said.
According to Pruett, Miller was “on a jihad” because he did not approve of the divorce. Pruett alleged that Miller was disrupting the operations of Women of Worth, and that Escobar-Schmidt and Joyce Peterman — the two remaining board members — “decided it was time to make a change, to bring some stability back.”
Miller declined to respond to the accusation, calling it “pointless.”
According to Miller, the board members were looking for a way to resolve some internal issues.
In his letter of resignation, Miller wrote, “To those in the community who look at Women of Worth as a great organization, I wish they knew what is hidden from them. On the outside, we look really good. We talk the talk and on the surface we walk the walk. ... But when you get involved on the day-to-day workings of the organization, you find that it isn’t so.
“There is supposed to be a sacred trust between us and the community,” he continued. “I take that sacred trust very seriously and when I see that trust being abused, then I am obligated to either try and change it or enlist the help of others if I’m not able to affect change. That is what several of the directors have tried to do. However, ... we have not been successful.”
Paul and Lori Byerly, who live in Washington, met Schmidt in Texas a decade ago and say they are founding board members of Women of Worth.
“I started having concerns in June,” Paul Byerly said. “I wasn’t getting answers to my questions regarding documents — basic documents regarding bylaws and the current registration with the Secretary of State. Maybe it’s bad record-keeping, or maybe there’s intent to hide something.”
Byerly said he felt Women of Worth was not serving the community in the way it was intended to, but that he was still trying to gather more information.
“The three of us had been trying to come up with a solution,” he said. “It was obvious we were being out-maneuvered and we couldn’t fix it from within ... We decided to give up, essentially.”
Pruett said the Byerlys had only honorary titles, adding, “They were never elected.” Both Paul Byerly and Miller disputed that assertion.
“The Byerlys had been acting as board members, making motions, seconding and voting with no protest from Sandy,” Miller said. “Lori was the secretary of the board at one time.”
Everything came to a head when Escobar-Schmidt and the dissenting trio called separate board meetings.
“On Sept. 26, I sent a notice for the annual meeting, to be held (Wednesday),” Pruett said. “They sent a notice for a meeting for Tuesday — the notices crossed in the mail.”
But, Pruett said, meetings can only be called by two directors or the chair (Escobar-Schmidt) — and the Byerlys were not directors.
“I suggested they come to our meeting,” he said. “I got an email back saying (Byerly) is a director. I asked them to show me anywhere where he was elected director. The next email I got back was a resignation.
“I gave them every opportunity to voice their concerns,” Pruett added. “Nobody was trying to shut anybody out.”
At the annual meeting Wednesday, Peterman and Escobar-Schmidt were re-elected to the board and Verona MacDonell was voted in as the required third member, Pruett said.
Miller said he chose not to attend because he preferred to resign rather than be voted off the board.
“It has been such an emotional drain,” he said. “You have to look at where your efforts have the best benefit ... Our intent has always been to serve the community.”
For her part, Escobar-Schmidt called the chain of events a “bump in the road,” saying that volunteers have stepped in to fill the gaps.
“We are going to get through this and come out stronger and better,” she said.
Pruett and Escobar-Schmidt have agreed to meet with The Union to go over Women of Worth’s finances and address allegations made against the organization.
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4229.