Setting the Captive Free

WORDS Liesel Schmidt
IMAGES courtesy Monarch 61 Project

While women have only in the last century received any kind of equality with men, there are still massive gaps, enormous inequities, and tremendous struggles surrounding womanhood. Women in so many countries face abuse and exploitation, subjugation, repression, and persecution; and even though the U.S. is considered to be on the right side of gender parity, there is still so much to be done for women in underserved communities and those who face abuse.

It is for these women that Monarch 61 Project was created, and since launching in August of 2020, the organization has been having tremendous impact. Founded by Nicole Walton, M61 has a mission to connect, mentor, and empower women through a creative hub of community, art, and wellness. Officially opening its doors in September 2021, the organization has seen over two hundred women attend various classes and trained fourteen mentors as well as forty volunteers.

Called Monarch 61 for the monarch butterfly, the analogy is an important one to the organization and its mission in helping women. “The name was inspired by the transformation that happens in the lifetime of a monarch butterfly,” Nicole says. “One of my favorite quotes is by Beau Taplan: ‘Perhaps the butterfly is proof that you can go through a great deal of darkness yet become something beautiful.’ The 61 in the name comes from Isaiah 61, which is a call to heal the broken hearted and set the captive free. M61’s ultimate vision is to see women nourished and thriving in relationships and opportunity.”

What makes M61 more than just a women’s advocacy center is its approach in bringing women to a place of wellness and empowerment. “Targeted programs are designed to connect women through shared trauma experiences, mentor women to rise above poverty and existing circumstances, and give control of mind and body back to survivors of abuse,” Nicole says. “We start by offering free art and wellness classes to any woman in the community during free-flow hours. We hope these women will find a safe community to engage and build relationships. Free-flow hours are an easy way to experience the space and ask questions, and we hope meeting women during this time gives us an opportunity to offer a deeper level of care when needed.”

All classes are offered free of charge so any woman can participate, regardless of socioeconomic status. Classes include RISE (Resilience, Identity, Strength, Empowerment), a four-week program for survivors of trauma and abuse in which they work to regain power over their lives through meditation, mindfulness, trauma-informed yoga, and self-defense instruction. During their time in RISE, women spend time each week in a range of activities designed to strengthen and empower themselves. “Dignity, identity, and self-esteem are restored as survivors take back the power over their lives that was once lost,” Nicole says. “It’s incredible to see and be a part of.”

A second program, MINT (Mentor, Illuminate, Nourish, Thrive) is a four-part mentoring program in which women learn to form friendships, increase their self-esteem, learn important life skills, and find their ability to lead. “Women in MINT are carefully matched with a mentor who will help them grow in areas of weakness, elevate their circumstances, and recognize their true beauty and worth. Mentors celebrate their mentees in very special ways as they achieve milestones along their six- to twelve-month journey,” Nicole says.

The space is a hub of creativity and community, with art classes, a café, and a wellness and care center. “Within the hub, women find various ways to connect, be creative, grow stronger, and find healing all under one roof,” says Nicole, an RN and sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE), which makes her uniquely qualified for her position as founder and executive director. “Every area of our hub is designed to celebrate our individual beauty and inspire growth and healing.”

The café provides a haven, offering a space to establish value, create a sense of community, and find self-worth as well as a place to exchange stories of healing and victory. “It’s a space where the women of M61 can introduce their art, ideas, or goods to be sold,” says Nicole.

Tapping into the healing power of art, the hub’s art studio provides a place to explore creativity and allows women to find their voice through art classes, groups, and individual exploration. “The art studio is a place that restores, a safe space for women to express themselves through various forms of art,” Nicole explains. “We offer a space to share your story.”

Growing stronger and taking steps towards a positive relationship with the body and mind is crucial, and the wellness studio focuses on attaining that strength and positivity. Offering mentor-led sessions, the wellness studio is a place to learn how to approach life and healing. “We understand that every woman has a unique story and a unique set of needs,” Nicole says. “Our hope is that we can give women any resource they may need to grow and thrive. The wellness studio provides a space to strengthen the body and empower victims. It’s a space where women take steps towards a positive relationship with their bodies and discover the power in movement as well as a space to discover gratitude, acceptance, and appreciation for themselves by letting go of shame and judgment that has kept them imprisoned.”

Building on that need to gain a sense of physical and emotional wellness, the M61 Care program offers a space to strengthen resolution and to establish new truths that are so crucial to creating a healthy future. “It’s a place for friendship and discipleship, and we have a network of mentors that can be matched to an individual’s personality and needs,” Nicole notes.

Clearly, M61 is focused on more than offering quick solutions that will take care of the initial problem but ignore the underlying one—the one that keeps so many women in the bondage of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and even generational poverty. “M61 recognizes all of these as existing issues for women in our community, and long-term aftercare and mentoring solutions are limited,” Nicole says. “We exist to bridge the gap for women and provide a safe space for community and healing in the long journey after the trauma has happened.”

As with all nonprofits, M61 faces the need for funding. Ultimately, the goal is to become a sustainable organization. Funding is received through their marketspace as well as from individual and business donations and their partnership program with monthly donors. “Being a new nonprofit competing for resources in a post-pandemic climate makes fundraising challenging,” Nicole admits.

Their biggest challenge, however, is in helping the women themselves. “The healing journey for a trauma victim is long and unique to the individual,” Nicole says. “Our biggest challenge will be to continually create a safe and trauma-informed space for community and creative healing that is flexible enough to encourage and celebrate each unique woman.”

Still, M61 is doing something that is incredibly important to the health of the community, both now and in the future. “We have a beautiful space; and when a woman walks in, we want her to know she is worthy of something beautiful and fun, and we have created that space for her. We expect women to find welcome, hope, refuge, friendship, and support. Women need to engage in both individual exploration and creative community, and our space allows them the freedom for both,” Nicole says. “The community has been so supportive of us and what we’re doing. We have a very generous community that has rallied behind us in this new project. Every day, we have someone bringing a friend to see the space, dropping off donations, or inviting a friend to a class. The community has stepped up to embrace and support our work in such an amazing way.”

Monarch 61 Project is located at 105 N 28th Street, Suite D, Van Buren, Arkansas. For more information, call 479.410.4225 or visit













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