Guest commentary | The Shelter for Abused Women & Children
First of two parts
Twenty-five years ago, a group of concerned citizens recognized a critical need to offer protection and support for victims of abuse and their families here in Collier County. This extraordinary group of volunteers organized a simple fundraiser with the hope of raising enough money to open a domestic violence shelter. Before this time, the nearest shelter was in Fort Myers, leaving many victims of violence, especially those with children and pets, to take their chances and remain in harm’s way.
Having raised a modest down payment, the volunteers braved resistance from neighbors and converted a fourplex in East Naples into Collier’s first domestic violence shelter. The Shelter for Abused Women & Children opened its doors in June 1989, after being granted one year by the County Commission to prove that its presence would not pose a threat to residents in the surrounding neighborhood. In its first seven months, the shelter provided 1,035 nights of safe shelter to 45 women and 50 children, and received more than 3,000 calls to its crisis hotline.
By 1999, the shelter had outgrown its existing space and was turning away more families than it was serving. Fortunately, the shelter had made some very special friends over its first decade, among them professional golfer and analyst, Ken Venturi, whose late beloved wife, Beau, had been a faithful volunteer and board member. Venturi set out to host a once-in-a-lifetime golf tournament that was ultimately attended by the likes of Greg Norman, Ernie Els, Nick Price and Gene Sarazen. Close to $1 million in seed money was generated for what would become the Beau Venturi Home, a state-of-the-art, 60-bed, secure facility, complete with on-site kennel and extensive support services.
After its completion, community support for the shelter’s efforts continued to soar, and the shelter flourished. Programs were expanded in Naples, Immokalee and Bonita Springs to include Gentle’men Against Domestic Violence, Elder Abuse Response, the Women of Means Initiative and Human Trafficking Services and Support. In addition, the shelter began the design and development of four transitional living cottages to offer qualified women a safe place for an extended stay on their road to self-sufficiency.
In 2007, the shelter ushered in a new era when I, as incoming CEO, led the charge to develop a three-year strategic plan, shifting the shelter’s focus from emergency intervention to cutting-edge prevention. Under the plan, educational programs were designed to effect real, measurable change in the lives of victims of domestic violence, and to stop domestic violence from occurring before it can begin.
One such effort led by the shelter was the establishment of the Domestic Violence Task Force, which was created to identify the most effective ways for our community to respond to domestic violence, and to work to change the social norms that allow this global problem to exist in the first place. This synergistic team of community members, which includes law enforcement, prosecutors, school officials, Emergency Medical Services, local hospitals, Legal Aid, as well as numerous other social service organizations, has created a comprehensive plan and coordinated community response to domestic violence in Collier County.
Having laid the groundwork for significant change in the community’s approach toward domestic violence, the shelter strives continuously to improve upon its past efforts, working to strengthen and formalize many of these partnerships to ensure that effective systems are in place that enhance safety for victims and their children, all while holding perpetrators accountable for their crimes. For example, the improved communication and collaboration from the DV Task Force led Collier County court administration recently to adopt a best practices program for enforcing court orders — enforcement and accountability that show perpetrators of domestic violence that our courts are serious about protecting victims from further abuse.
Today, about 57 full- and part-time staff members, who are joined by hundreds of dedicated volunteers, work to provide services for victims of domestic violence and human trafficking throughout Collier County through our 24-hour crisis hotline, our 60-bed emergency shelter, outreach and counseling services in Naples, Immokalee and Bonita Springs, and community education, which together have touched the lives of more than 65,000 individuals in these last 25 years.
As the shelter moves into the next 25 years, its staff and supporters seek nothing short of the end of domestic violence in our community.
In the words of the late Ken Venturi, “My favorite sight would be a sign out front: ‘All rooms available.’”