When a Chantilly woman's 12-year marriage broke up and she "reached bottom," she went to the Women's Center for help.

An Arlington woman experiencing emotional problems and depression sought assistance at the nonprofit center in Vienna, too. It also was a resource for a D.C. woman looking for a new career and needing help with a resume and interviewing skills.

For 25 years, the Women's Center has been helping thousands of women and families--and men, too--across the Washington area, providing counseling for personal problems as well as career and financial advice. It offers seminars on such practical matters as the legal aspects of divorce, and nuts-and-bolts education such as car and home repair. And now its influence is being felt outside the U.S. borders.

Judith Mueller, the center's executive director, who has been on board since the beginning, has witnessed the evolution of women's roles and of the Women's Center itself.

The goal, she said, was "to create an interdisciplinary mix of legal, psychological, financial and professional development. That's what I felt women needed: practical solutions. You can't just talk about how bad you feel."

Now, she said, "we're trying to move from what we were in 1974, on the cusp of the women's movement, to be responsive to the changing condition of women in the local and global community."

That means that in addition to the traditional function of providing education and counseling to area residents, with fees based on their ability to pay, the center is reaching out to immigrants and is hosting representatives from other countries so they can start similar organizations at home. In contrast to some other cultures, "we teach women to take care of themselves," Mueller said.

Carol Schrier Polak, a Northern Virginia divorce lawyer, said the center provides "excellent educational programs" and "really good counseling." Polak said her clients find the center helpful, as it "meets an important need" at a low cost.

"People don't know where to go," she said. At the center, "they really focus on the practical stuff. It's difficult for women who haven't been in the work force, whose life is shaken up."

Linda Lookadoo, a former Chantilly resident who now lives in Sterling, was struggling through the breakup of her marriage when she started going to the Women's Center for counseling on a friend's recommendation five years ago.

"I had reached a place where my confidence was totally destroyed. I was pretty depleted," said Lookadoo, 44, who saw a counselor every week during the troubled time. Her daughter, then 10, also received counseling.

The assistance Lookadoo found at the Women's Center "helped tremendously," she said. "I was very despondent. I'd been a full-time homemaker for 10 years. I had totally lost my identity, being someone's wife.

"I've gone on, gotten a great job that I like, bought my own house. . . . It was important for [my daughter] to see me turn that corner, for me to live from a base of strength instead of fear."

Another client, Jannette, 42, an Arlington County resident who asked that her last name not be used, said she had been troubled for years by depression and a history of abuse. When she was a child in Venezuela, she was abandoned by her biological parents and her adoptive parents, she said. Then she entered into two marriages to abusive men.

"I was looking for a counselor [for] about 20 years and couldn't find a good one," Jannette said. She found out about the Women's Center from a handout at a county clinic and in May began seeing a multilingual counselor.

"This lady has changed my life," Jannette said. "She is a good listener, a good counselor. We can talk about issues I couldn't talk to anyone else about."

Diana, 39, another Arlington resident who asked that her full name not be used, goes to the Women's Center each week for what she calls grief counseling, to cope with the slaying of a close friend. The native of Peru sees a multilingual counselor, finds it "very helpful" and said she takes what she learns home to help her three children.

"After I talk to [the counselor], she gives me a lot of ideas to use during the week," including encouraging Diana to write down what she is feeling. Diana said it helps her understand "why I feel so sad, why I don't understand what happened. . . . It's a good exercise, good therapy." Her son and husband also receive counseling at the Women's Center.

Kimberly Ball, a Women's Center spokeswoman, said that fees for counseling are set on a case-by-case basis and that insurance is accepted. The costs range from no charge to $95 a session, taking into account a client's financial circumstances and income. Grants cover some counseling, she said; the center is also supported by memberships, charitable donations and fund-raising events.

A woman who received a different kind of help from the center is Gunilla Kettis, the wife of a retired Swedish diplomat who lives in Georgetown and who wanted to get into the work force after being abroad for many years. She made use of the center's Information and Career Advisory Network, in which established professionals advise women who are interested in job or career changes.

"I used some of their services, working on my resume, getting it spiffy," Kettis said. "They went an extra mile for me, suggesting people to see, setting up appointments. It's almost impossible to get someone on the phone in Washington. . . .

"All the meetings I had in the previous year prepared me for the interview I had that led to where I am today," said Kettis, who is president of the George C. Marshall International Center in Leesburg, an organization founded to acquire and restore the statesman's home.

Eloise Prendergast, 38, of Lorton, who went to the Women's Center for counseling during her divorce, takes advantage of the annual Leadership Conference featuring prominent women. (The 15th such conference will be held in March.)

"The women are so fascinating. There are so many careers there," said Prendergast, a former Army captain who is now a civilian Army employee and a major in the Army Reserve.

She also said that going to programs at the Women's Center, "listening to other women, getting feedback from group leaders, getting the support and inspiration of other women gets you back up on your feet and going."

After her divorce, she said, "I just felt down. I didn't want drugs; I just wanted to talk to someone. . . I'm not going to let myself go down. Some people can do that and some can't. That's why we need a Women's Center."

The Women's Center is at 133 Park St. NE, Vienna, Va. 22180. For more information, call 703-281-2657 or visit the Web site, www.thewomenscenter.org.

CAPTION: A close-up of a bird house getting its first coat of paint at the Women's Center workshop at Vienna Baptist.

CAPTION: GUNILLA KETTIS. . . "they went an extra mile"

CAPTION: Kathleen O'Connell leads a workshop on home maintenance for Women's Center participants. It was held at Vienna Baptist Church.

CAPTION: Gunilla Kettis, left, with Judith Mueller, executive director of the Women's Center, received career help from the agency. She runs the George C. Marshall International Center.

CAPTION: Laura L. Lewis, left, and Billie W. Johnson practice painting their projects at the Women's Center's maintenance workshop, one of many services offered by the center.