Grant boosts UWA’s efforts to be ‘part of the solution’ with sexual-assault awareness

Megan’s Fund award will bring more speakers, workshops to campus

Story and photo: Phillip Tutor 

When Byron Thetford added the role of Title IX coordinator to his duties this year at the University of West Alabama, he already knew the value of concentrating on students’ well-being and their campus experiences. Serving seven years as UWA’s director of student life and support had taught him that much. 

To that end, one of his initial goals was to increase the frequency of sexual-assault and domestic-abuse prevention events offered to UWA students. But those activities are typically expensive, particularly for a regional public university in Alabama’s Black Belt.   

You can imagine Thetford’s glee, then, when the Birmingham-based Megan Montgomery Domestic Violence Prevention Fund presented UWA in August with a $10,000 grant for the 2022-23 academic year, which the university will match.

“Grants like this are pivotal to small to mid-size universities that work to bring in a more diversified programming for their students,” said Thetford, who hopes to host the first event in early October. “Obviously, larger universities are using student funds to bring in these type of programs and features. Grants like this are really programmatic-driven to be able to bring our students the same experience they’re going to be able to get at larger universities.” 

Thetford applied for the grant on behalf of Tiger P.A.W. (Prevention, Awareness, Well-Being), a newly installed comprehensive sexual-assault prevention effort at UWA coordinated by the Office of Student Life with assistance from the Department of Athletics and the Department of Public Safety. UWA’s 600-acre campus in Livingston has been recognized as the safest campus in Alabama. 

In his grant application, Thetford told Megan’s Fund administrators that the program “will look to educate the UWA family on how to become engaged and be a part of the solution” by hosting a series of educational speakers and workshops “so that our students have the confidence and knowledge to look out for their friends, speak up about sexual violence, and take steps to increase personal safety.” The Tiger P.A.W. program is also designed to help the UWA community gain a wider understanding of sexual assault and how best to support those affected by abuse. 

“Grants like this are pivotal to small to mid-size universities that work to bring in a more diversified programming for their students.”

 Byron Thetford, UWA’s Title IX coordinator

Providing students with in-person events instead of the virtual programs required during the height of the pandemic is an added bonus, Thetford said.  

“From a sexual-assault awareness standpoint, hearing it from staff here on campus is great, but when you bring in professional speakers that are doing this as their job, a lot of their stories hit harder because it’s first-person testimonials,” he said. “The plan is to use these funds to get students back in front of actual speakers so that they are connecting with people on a personal level for prevention purposes. That’s our vision for it.” 

Susann Montgomery-Clark and Rod Clark created Megan’s Fund after their 31-year-old daughter, Megan Montgomery, was killed Dec. 1, 2019, by her estranged husband. Through grants to nonprofits, high schools, colleges and universities, the fund aims to educate young adults about healthy relationships and recognize signs of abuse before they happen. Since March 2021, Megan’s Fund, through the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, has awarded six grants and has a seventh pending. 

One of the goals is for Megan’s Fund advocacy to reach every college and university campus in Alabama by 2031, said Montgomery-Clark, a longtime fund-raiser and consultant for nonprofits in Alabama. Megan Montgomery worked as a writer for the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Nursing. 

“When Megan died, I called my nonprofit clients and I said, ‘I have to fire you. I can’t work for you anymore. I have to work for Megan’s mission from now on,’” she said. “All I knew was I couldn’t work for anybody else and raise money for them when we need to raise money ourselves. We didn’t know what that would be at that moment, but we knew we had to do something to memorialize Megan and make her memory permanent.” 

Recipients are chosen through a process that directs applications to the fund’s three-person advisory board comprised of Megan’s parents and sister, Meredith Montgomery-Price. That trio gives recommendations to the Community Foundation, which makes the final decision and administers the grants. 

“We don’t tell the schools what kind of services they need to provide,” Montgomery-Clark said. “We don’t dictate what the curriculum needs to be because we know the school knows the culture of its students better than we do. We’re not the federal government. We’re simply a funder.” 

At UWA, Thetford’s plans will rely heavily on the services and resources of three national organizations: RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization; the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators’ Culture of Respect initiative; and PAVE (Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment), a nonprofit that works to prevent sexual assault, assist survivors and educate students about consent. 

“Consent is what I want to focus on with students because it’s just one of the things I try to hit hard with our Title IX discussions,” Thetford said. “Only yes means yes; no always means no. Consent doesn’t travel from day to day, much less from week to week. Just because somebody, male or female, said yes today, that does not mean yes in perpetuity. Getting that information out there and making sure 18-year-olds understand what consent actually is, that’s important.”