Aana Lisa Whatley, 73, of Matthews began her philanthropic journey after taking on the North Carolina state legislature in 1995 to change domestic law.
Whatley, an accountant, is the mother of four grown children.
During a divorce after 30 years of marriage, Whatley experienced the challenges of domestic law that she saw as lopsided and unfair to women.
"I had one hearing and it took me three years to get into court," said Whatley, who formed Women for Domestic Justice with several other women to lobby for improvements to monetary support, decreased hearing delays due to repeated continuances and more equitable property allocation.
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Ruth Easterling, a Democratic member of the North Carolina House of Representatives, invited Whatley to serve as a lay person on a family issues legislative committee in Raleigh.
During the first meeting, Whatley told her story about how she was being kept from her money, her job and a business she helped build even though it was a no-fault divorce.
The group was able to get on the agenda for the state House on May 11, the last day of legislative hearings before crossover legislation would go to the state Senate.
As a result, four laws were changed October 1, 1995, said Whatley.
Post-separation support law changed so that alimony could be awarded to the dependent spouse without that spouse having to prove fault on behalf of the other spouse.
Another law was revised to prevent attorneys or clients from purposefully and prejudicially delaying divorce hearings through repeated and unnecessary continuances.
Interim allocation of assets was revised so money could be distributed during a separation without having to identify specific originating accounts.
Also, real estate law was changed so that a second wife could have no marital interest in the property of the first wife, so second wives could not prevent first wives from receiving their allocated property, said Whatley.
During her divorce, Whatley reached out to a woman in need in a divorce support group they both attended. She invited the woman and her young son to live with her. Through this year-and-a-half arrangement, Whatley saw the need for safe child care for single parents.
Around that time, the church Whatley attended, Matthews United Methodist, put its property and buildings on West John Street up for sale.
The women in Whatley's Bible study group prayed for God's will for the property.
"One morning, I felt impressed that I was supposed to buy this property," said Whatley. "I didn't have enough money to buy it at the time and I'm a very logical person, so this made no sense to me, but I just couldn't get away from it."
Whatley talked to her pastor and made a down payment. Over a two-year period, during which the church finished building its new facilities on Trade Street, Whatley saw that the old Sunday school classrooms and fellowship hall could serve as a child care facility for single parents.
After remodeling, Whatley opened the Christ Our Shepherd Ministries child care center in 1996. Fifty percent of the center's children receive scholarships and are from single-parent homes, said Whatley.
In 1998, Whatley had the old church sanctuary remodeled as a Christian library. There are now 25,000 volumes of current, family-friendly reading and research materials, including adult and children's sections. Approximately 400 local residents are members of the library.
Also in 1998, Whatley expanded Christ Our Shepherd Ministries to include a preschool and family resource center. Participants in the single-parent program are required to take two six-week classes per year in budgeting, nutrition, cooking, parenting or Bible study. A food pantry and clothing closet are also available. Children's offerings include an after-school program, tutoring and an eight-week summer camp.
Whatley now serves on the Christ Our Shepherd Ministries Board of Directors. She donated the property and helps fund operations through her Grace and Hope Foundation.
Whatley founded Grace and Hope in 1996 and serves as the foundation's board chairwoman. Through the foundation, Whatley also funds and awards grants to other nonprofits.
"I want my legacy to my children to be the gift of giving," said Whatley.
Whatley then drew upon her experiences with domestic law to found the McDowell Street Center for Family Law, a nonprofit law firm in uptown Charlotte, in January 2000.
"God told me, 'Don't waste your suffering,'" said Whatley.
The center provides legal assistance to impoverished clients representing themselves in court. Two attorneys and a small legal staff offer help with paperwork and pleadings in cases of divorce, child custody, visitation and child support, for nominal fees.
"I wanted to be able to give legal advice to people who have no resources," said Whatley. "People need the opportunity to learn to help themselves."
The center also offers clients referrals to non-legal services such as food stamps, food banks, job resources, clothing closets, housing, child care, counseling and churches.
The law center helped more than 1,100 people in 2010.