BRADENTON -- Colleen Collins, Christina Flinn and Eleanor Lee had not met before Tuesday, but found they had much in common.
Especially where it involved the assistance of the Women's Resource Center in dealing with life's abrupt changes.
In Collins's case, it was the death of her husband.
In Flinn's, a divorce.
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In Lee's, a career
"What has the Women's Resource Center meant to me? Everything," Lee told a rapt audience of 200 during the WRC's Founders Luncheon at Renaissance on 9th.
The trio were among 3,300 women who participated in the WRC's counseling, educational, employment and personal development programs this year.
Their poignant stories struck a chord with many, including Ashley Brown, the WRC's executive director.
"As women we always think we can do it all and we don't need any help or support and we need to be perfect," she said. "But the time comes inevitably when we're flat on our butts, something has knocked us down and that's when we need to connect to our support systems -- like the Women's Resource Center."
For Collins, that time was 2006.
She and husband, Jim, retired here in 1999 and savored their new Florida lifestyle.
"Our biggest decisions were where should we take boat today? What restaurant should we try tonight? We were enjoying our newfound freedom from alarm clocks and responsibilities," said the Delran, N.J., native.
They had just returned from a cruise and were dining at home when Jim Collins suffered a massive coronary and died.
"It completely broke my heart and spirit," his widow said. "For months I was nothing more than a broken empty shell."
Collins struggled for 10 months, affecting family and friends, too.
"Finally, I started hearing Jim telling me, that's enough. It's time for you to get up and figure out what you're going to do with the rest of your life," she said.
So Collins, remembering her husband mentioning the WRC years before, drove there for help.
"What I found there was compassion, connection and courage," she said. "I was a widow with too much time on my hands -- and what could I do to help? They put me on the front desk and before I knew it, I was signed up for this committee and that event and this fundraiser. It was good because I needed to stay busy."
Collins utilized the WRC's counseling and career programs and eventually found a job in interior decorating, a much happier woman.
"I'm still a work in progress, but I've come a long way," she said. "The WRC has been and will continue to be a big part of that."
Christina Flinn's time was 2008 when she divorced after 16 years of what she described as a "very dysfunctional, unhealthy marriage.
"I knew I needed to make a change in my life and I went to the Women's Resource Center first," said the owner of Palmetto's Nail Nook. "I didn't go to my friends and I didn't go to my family because I knew I would blame them if it did not go as planned."
The WRC, she said, "gave me the steps I needed to do, gave me the strength and also told me how I was going to tell my kids. Week after week I went to the Women's Resource Center for counseling and they helped me and gave me tools to get through this and it was amazing. I felt stronger, I felt brave.
"I realized it did not make me weak to ask for help," Flinn said. "That's what friends are for and that's what WRC is for -- to help women. We can't do it on our own."
Eleanor Lee discovered that a decade ago. She'd been self-employed most of her life, but sought permanency.
"I needed some more stability, not entrepreneurship. It's scary, yet I knew I had to do it," Lee said. "But how to go about that? I felt lost."
Spotting a WRC ad, she followed up and, "it was like manna from above," she said. "I felt so welcomed by everybody there. They were so interested, so kind, so accepting."
Lee learned how to prepare a resume, how to interview, how to look for a job and what would fit her best.
"I knew I wanted to work with people," she said. "I did not want to sit behind a desk."
Lee would become a sales counselor at Freedom Village and is its top salesperson.
"I'd been primary caregiver for my parents," she said. "I knew this was it."
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix