Stepping Up

Wine Women & Shoes Benefits Family Scholar House

Story by Graham Pilotte

Photos by Ryan Noltemeyer

Family Court Judge Candidate Emily Digenis and Kendall Merrick.

If you’re ready to have the world at your feet this spring, one upcoming event will be sure to delight. “Wine Women & Shoes is a fashionable, festive evening filled with – you guessed it! – wine, women and shoes,” explains organizer Kendall Merrick with a laugh. “It’s officially the best girls’ night in the city.”

Wine Women & Shoes is a playful fundraising series committed to raising money for nonprofits across the country. In Louisville, the partnership is arranged with the amazing local organization Family Scholar House.

“Family Scholar House is a community-based nonprofit that serves single parents and their children,” explains Emily Digenis, legal advocate and volunteer. “We provide the housing necessary for the families to focus on their goals, complete a college education and be empowered to break the cycle of poverty.”

Emily Digenis is a longtime volunteer of Family Scholar House, advocating for the families and children who benefit from their work, and Kendall Merrick has passionately organized Wine Women & Shoes this spring. Whether you want to help make an impact on the community or you’re intrigued by the best girls’ night in town – or, perhaps, are a little of both – we encourage you to learn more.

The Cause

“Family Scholar House’s motto is ‘changing lives, families and communities through education,’” Digenis explains. “Their mission is to end the cycle of poverty by empowering families and youth to succeed in education, and to achieve lifelong self-sufficiency.” The organization started with the name “Project Women,” and has grown immensely since then. In 1995, six orders of religious women joined together to help Louisville-area women and children in crisis. “They rented apartments that single mothers could use,” Digenis explains, “so that the families had a safe place to live while the mothers completed their college degrees.”

Family Scholar House now works directly with over 1,000 families in Louisville, and the organization reaches a much wider range of people. “I remember meeting one of the first male residents to enter the program,” Digenis recalls. “Channing’s wife had left him and their three little girls, all of them under the age of nine. He knew he wanted to create a better life for his daughters.” The family had been moving from place to place, staying with friends and family, until Channing was accepted to one of Family Scholar House’s locations. “After graduating with his associate’s degree, he was selected to build a Habitat for Humanity house just a few blocks away from where he lived in Parkland Scholar House,” Digenis remembers. “He continues to give back to the community as a youth minister, pursuing his next degree and being the best father he can be to three incredible little girls.” People like Channing inspire Digenis to continue working with Family Scholar House. “When you hear stories like Channing’s,” she says, “you realize that this program empowers individuals to reach beyond what life has served them and achieve amazing things.”

While the organization is Louisville-based, its impact is far-reaching. “Currently, there are 849 families in the pre-residential program,” Digenis says. “They receive services like academic advising, case management, peer support and connection to other resources, all while they wait for housing to become available. In addition to families on the waiting list, Family Scholar House currently serves 215 single-parent families residentially at four Louisville-area locations.

Family Scholar House offers assistance to families in many ways, from safe housing to academic advising to peer support. However, Digenis knows that experiences are universal. “I love the candy-cane making scheduled every Christmas for the residents and their children,” she says. “They get to roll and shape and laugh and get covered in flour. You come away from the experience feeling great about the connections we all share as parents, and absorb all the joy that a happy child brings.”

Digenis takes great pride in the work that Family Scholar House does for the Louisville community. “I care deeply about how children are affected – not only by adverse circumstances, but how their impression of the world will shape their trajectory in life,” Digenis explains. “It’s the reason I’m running for Family Court Judge; I care deeply for families and children, and I’m passionate about community organizations like Family Scholar House because they serve our community in impactful ways.”

The safety, encouragement and opportunities that Family Scholar House offers to Louisville families are priceless, and Digenis encourages others to get involved. From a happy kid making a candy cane to a safe bed at night, the organization gives families a new start. “It’s a program that works; it’s a program that empowers,” Digenis says. “It’s a program that brings hope.”

The Event

Wine Women & Shoes has a great reputation in Louisville for a reason – it’s the ultimate girls’ night. “Imagine a night out with your best female friends who are committed to making the Louisville community a better place,” Merrick says. “We have flavorful wines to taste and the best fashion on display, from the runway to the guests. And as the name would suggest, shoes are a focal point, with an award given to the guests who are wearing the best statement-making, head-turning shoes of the evening.”

Merrick was looking for a way to get involved in Louisville’s philanthropic efforts when she found this event. “I’ve always been active in the communities in which I’ve lived. I strive to be a citizen, not just a resident,” she explains. “When I first moved to Louisville, I met a member of the Family Scholar House staff and could see the passion and commitment she had for the organization.” When she learned more, she realized she had to get involved in some way. “The organization is highly successful, and the participant stories really pulled at my heartstrings,” Merrick says. “I’ve most enjoyed being able to meet the participants and hear their journeys of triumph.”

Merrick soon began to help fundraise for Family Scholar House through Wine Women & Shoes. “I love the overall event vibe; it’s the perfect combination of elegance, festivity and fun,” she explains. “Wine Women & Shoes opens with socializing at the MarketPlace with vendors and wine tastings and a silent auction. We transition into the ballroom for a live auction, more wine and a fundraising experience – then we conclude with a fashion show.”

This year’s event, taking place on March 2 at The Henry Clay, will be presented by GE. Guests can look forward to the shoe-themed event for many of the aforementioned reasons, but they may particularly enjoy it because of the famous Shoe Guys. “The Shoe Guys are the charming, gregarious and one might say brave volunteers of the event,” Merrick teases. “They greet guests, serve beverages and carry gorgeous designer goodies on silver platters. Overall, they make the women feel special, attend to any needs or wants and generally add to the merriment of the evening.” The outgoing, entertaining Shoe Guys help make the night truly one-of-a-kind. “They dance, too,” Merrick says with a smile. “One event highlight last year was the choreographed dance they presented, which brought all the ladies to their feet.”

Although the 2018 Wine Women & Shoes is sold out, Merrick urges Louisvillians to get involved. “Another way to take part in the event is to buy a ‘Key-to-the-Closet,’” Merrick says. “Whether you’re able to attend or not, you can purchase online one of 200 chances to win a $10,000 shopping spree to Von Maur, sponsored by Churchill Downs.”

Whether attending in 2018, entering the raffle online or learning more about Family Scholar House, Louisville residents can take pride in events like Wine Women & Shoes. Merrick takes genuine delight in the end result. “Most importantly, it supports a great organization – Family Scholar House,” she says. “It truly is the best girls’ night in the city, and I look forward to it every year.” VT