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A "Safe and Sane" Place

A local resource for victims of domestic violence.

For victims of sexual assault or domestic violence, one-stop emergency help is available. One call to the YWCA of South Hampton Roads and they can get the medical, protective, and legal help they need, thanks to the YWCA’s partnership with the Norfolk Family Justice Center, which coordinates assistance with local police, medical personnel, commonwealth attorneys, and human services.

“This center allows you to come to a safe and sane place,” said Michelle Ellis Young, chief executive officer at the YWCA. “You tell your incident one time, and you get the services you need. No need to find your way to a sterile ER or commonwealth attorney’s office. We are there for you, every step of the way.”

Protecting Abuse Victims

Teaching Courtesy, Dignity, and Respect

The YWCA of South Hampton Roads started in 1906 when two black women, Laura Titus and Ida Bagnall, encouraged the Ladies Auxiliary of the YMCA to file for membership in the newly formed National YWCA. The Norfolk Phyllis Wheatley YWCA was officially accepted as a charter member in 1908. Phyllis Wheatley was a black poet who traveled and often sought overnight shelter at YWCAs.

Funded through federal, regional, and local grants, as well as donations from agencies like the United Way and benefactors, such as philanthropist Susan Goode, the YWCA focuses on crisis counseling and youth services.

Michelle came to the YWCA in May, after serving as the executive director for the American Red Cross of Coastal Virginia in Norfolk. Before that, she was director of the Retail Alliance Foundation in Norfolk and earlier served as associate manager of Community Health Strategies at the American Diabetes Association in Chesapeake.

Today Michelle, the mother of four daughters ages 19, 22, 26 and 29, is proud to be leading an agency known for programs that empower women and eliminate racism. Nothing is more important to her than the safety and well-being of all women, especially those starting their independent lives at colleges.

In fact, one of her college-age daughters went through a traumatic experience with assault and received much-needed help and guidance from the YWCA. “It’s a big reason why I am here today,” said Michelle. “I felt called.”

Michelle is also the ordained minister at Mount Lebanon Baptist Church in Norfolk. She wants to help bring back civility and respect among people from all walks of life. She believes civility and respect are possible when you treat others with CDR—Courtesy, Dignity, and Respect.

“There is a hymn, ‘Brighten the Corner Where You Are,’” she said. “I can’t take on the world issues—that’s exhausting. But I can be the best person I can be in my community.”

“If we hold fast, brightening the corner where we are, and we treat people with CDR, if we model that behavior, that becomes the community’s ripple effect for change,” she continued. “We start to see something happen, and that something can be special and change the course of behavior. I can’t control your behavior, but I can control my response.”

YWCA Helps All Ages & Genders

Strengthening Racial Equity

There is no typical profile of the person who calls the YWCA looking for help. All ages and genders experience assault and domestic abuse, Michelle said. During the pandemic, there is been an increase in services for the elderly. Also, students at home instead of school have been in volatile and traumatic situations and have needed assistance.

“While each city has its own domestic violence service provider, we work across regions,” Michelle said. “We are located in Norfolk, but we serve Surry, Franklin, and Isle of Wight. Our secondary market is the Peninsula, but we would not turn anyone away.”

The YWCA plans to hire a chief innovation and impact officer to pursue racial justice work in the community, according to Michelle, who is determined to strengthen the organization’s core work toward racial equity.

In June, the YWCA will sponsor its first conference on racial equity called Racial Equity and Social Transformation, or R.E.S.T. It will feature workshops, speakers, and a gala event honoring honor local people who work toward racial equity.

“We used to have a Women of Distinction event that honored women excelling in professional realms,” Michelle said. “We are refocusing our stance on those who are change agents with award categories that allow us to see ourselves differently—eliminating racism.”

Other changes ahead for the YWCA include retooling its fall Walk-a-Mile in Her Shoes fundraiser into a spring event. Plans are also in the works to expand its 20-room shelter and counseling and advocacy services, especially in light of the increasing calls for help. Last but not least, the YWCA plans to do more outreach education with middle school-age boys, teaching them about healthy masculinity, so they can experience better relationships with girls and women.

YWCA Volunteers Welcome

Collaboration and Care

The YWCA operates with a paid staff of 68, and there are hourly positions open, according to Michelle. “If you have a heart for people and service, we need help in our shelter, and our crisis hotline that never goes silent,” said Michelle.

But it’s volunteers like Hunter Newland, 22, who help accomplish the extras. Last year, 7,100 volunteer hours allowed the YWCA to do 1,600 community trainings on sexual assault, racial justice, and domestic violence, Michelle said.

A recent University of Virginia graduate with a degree in biomedical engineering and anthropology, Hunter volunteered at the university’s women’s center. She’s now doing graduate work in public health at Virginia Commonwealth University.

In her volunteer administration work at the YWCA, she answers a lot of incoming calls, often from women saying “I’m scared” or “I feel unsafe” or “I’m being hit at home.” She’s learned the importance and value of listening and having empathy, not sympathy, for their situations.

“I feel like every day I go in, I learn something new,” said Hunter, who went through orientation and advance training before her volunteer work started. “Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy. I’ve really grown in my appreciation for strangers. By the time we have a conversation on the phone, I have been connecting with them to better serve them. It’s been challenging and fulfilling.”

What’s pleasantly surprised her at the YWCA? How collaborative and caring everyone is, she said.

“I’ve worked at a lot of offices in my life but never experienced people who genuinely care about one another in an office setting,” she added. “They care about each other and about every person they talk to and every person who comes through the door.”

Kathy Van Mullekom

Kathy Van Mullekom is a retired journalist, whose beats included gardening, women’s issues, restaurant trends, and fashion. Formerly a York County resident and master gardener, she now lives in southeastern Virginia Beach, where her leisure hours are spent golfing with husband Ken and exploring parks with her two grandkids, Mattie, 9, and Grady, 7.

Website: https://www.facebook.com/kathyhoganvanmullekom

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