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When Amy Brennan takes the Center for Women’s helm Sept. 9, those coming for its programs to empower women might ask: Just what does she know about women’s struggles?
Quite a bit, in fact.
For starters, she has long fought an enemy within: brain tumors that robbed her of some sight and taught her not to put dreams on hold.
She has known the agony of nearly losing a child.
She has forged her own path in faith and work, balancing passions with the pragmatic demands of raising children.
She has worked alongside military men, Episcopal women, the homeless and children serving their community.
She has lost a beloved parent and married a beloved man.
Now 49, she knows that no woman’s journey to personal empowerment or financial independence, the Center for Women’s key goals, comes without hurdles large and small.
Jane Perdue, the center’s board chairwoman, noted that its programs will continue to advance these issues.
“But we need to talk about why,” Perdue says. “Amy’s experience is such a beautiful picture of why. She has demonstrated courage, resilience, all the things women need to step into advocating for themselves.”
Life and death
A college swim captain, the Kentucky native majored in communications and moved to Atlanta to work at an international architectural firm.
While visiting family in Georgetown, she met her future husband, Brian.
A high school math teacher, he too was forging his way — in a predominantly women’s field, one where he would become Georgetown County’s first male Teacher of the Year.
They married in Charleston. Brennan moved to Georgetown and started her own graphic design business.
In 1993, she gave birth to their daughter, Kayla.
Then 13 months later, she gave birth to their son, Kyle. But when a nurse returned to get blood from her, Brennan knew something was wrong.
Kyle was not breathing on his own. From Georgetown, he was flown to MUSC and put on a machine that draws out the body’s blood, oxygenates it and pumps it back in. A ventilator breathed for him.
The couple couldn’t hold their newborn or feed him.
On day 12, Kyle’s doctor took him off the blood-circulating machine. He survived.
But it was a temporary calm.
A year later, Brennan noticed vision problems in her left eye. Her doctor ordered an MRI.
“It’s either MS or a brain tumor,” her doctor warned. It was Dec. 22, 1995.
The family agonized through Christmas until getting the results several days later.
Three benign tumors were growing in her brain, pressing against the optic nerve to her left eye, and threatening her right. They could be fatal if they continued to grow.
In January 1996, she underwent her first brain surgery. She was 32 years old with two young children at home.
She endured additional surgeries in 2000 and 2006, when she also underwent radiation.
Today, she is blind in her left eye, and her neurosurgeon at MUSC, Dr. Sunil Patel, has become like family.
The tumors have stabilized. Yet, she still undergoes scans every six months and never knows what the future holds.
“I don’t plan on anything,” she says.
As she fought for her health, she became active in her Episcopal parish as a lay reader, a delegate to its convention and with the Episcopal Women. In 2000, she earned a certificate in Education for Ministry from Sewanee Theological Seminary.
She considered going into the ordained ministry.
Then one day, a bishop’s wife asked her why she felt called down that path.
“I want to help people,” Brennan responded. Facing her mortality and raising children led her to see beyond her own life and needs.
“You can do that without going into the ministry,” the woman said.
Instead, Brennan leaped into the nonprofit world.
Through church, she met a philanthropist, the Rev. Alan Houghton, who helped her start a nonprofit called Service Over Self that connected students with local volunteer needs. It began in 1997 in her living room, a flexible way to serve her community, pursue her passions and raise children. SOS grew to 600 volunteers and won state and national awards. “The kids were just so amazing,” she recalls.
Meanwhile, she and Houghton looked at the needs of Georgetown’s homeless population. She soon headed up Friendship Place, which provides meals, shelter and other resources.
“Helping others gave me gratitude,” she recalls. “What I’ve been through isn’t so bad when I look into the soul of someone else who is struggling.”
Then, the former college swimmer heard of a new opportunity. Would she lead the creation of a YMCA in Georgetown?
At first, it sounded too difficult to take on.
But she loved the idea of increasing kids’ access to swimming lessons and other programs. In 2004, she accepted the job.
Brennan hired and managed more than 80 full- and part-time staff and oversaw the management of 2,000 members. She also raised $6 million in the smallish town.
“People dug deep and committed,” she recalls. “This was a huge community effort.”
The doors opened in 2009.
“It’s something I am very proud of,” she says.
As her resume grew, so did their children. Both studied at the prestigious South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics in Hartsville. Today, both attend Clemson University.
With an empty nest, she and Brian looked at each other.
“Let’s do something else for the next 20 years,” she said.
But where? They loved Charleston and visited often.
“I thought I might do something a little different for a while that still built on my strengths,” she says.
She just never imagined it would be at a military college whose Corps of Cadets was forcibly opened to women less than two decades ago.
She accepted a development director post at The Citadel Foundation.
The couple moved to James Island, and Brian began teaching calculus at West Ashley High School and coaching.
And at The Citadel, Brennan said she found its president focused on embracing diversity to create effective military leaders. “It was really admirable,” she says. “But it’s a traditional institute, so it’s going to take a little longer.”
A year later, she heard the Center for Women was looking for a new executive director. She mentioned it to Brian. “I’ve got to tell you about this job. It’s so me ...”
On Sunday, Brennan attended her first official function in her new role, the “Be Brave Bash!” held to honor the date when women’s voting rights became part of the U.S. Constitution.
There she met Jennet Alterman, the Center for Women’s longtime director whom she is replacing. Under Alterman, the 23-year-old center embarked on a range of programs to empower women.
“I have great respect for the things she accomplished while she was here,” Brennan said.
Once she officially takes over Sept. 9, Brennan plans to meet with the staff and study how the nonprofit center is fulfilling its mission. Until then, she’s hesitant to specify changes she might make.
“I don’t have any agenda coming into it,” she says. “We’ll see what is in the tool bag.”
Perdue noted the center hopes to add programs, partner with other organizations to hold leadership conferences and segment programs to address women at different stages of leadership, among other things.
The center also added two men to its board in January. It reflects something Brennan has learned in life: Empowering women must involve men. She imagines her son marrying.
“He needs to encourage and empower (his wife) like my husband has empowered me — and vice versa,” she says. “If we are polarized on one side, the other side won’t hear us.”
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.
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