Cover Stories

The Ladies at Eighty

GTW120513As its 80th anniversary approaches, the esteemed Walnut Avenue Women’s Center turns some of its focus toward families. How the directors hope to broaden conversations about safety and more.

Despite the organization’s name, the enterprising individuals who run the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center are shifting the focus to families as the organization prepares to celebrate its 80th anniversary this month. Jennifer O’Brien-Rojo, co-executive director of the nonprofit organization, says it has been turning toward the community and letting those needs dictate what they do.

“It’s been transformative,” she says.

Though the organization still works diligently to assist women in need and focuses on female-centric areas, the push in the last few years toward an increased emphasis on family, as a whole, is just one of the conversations those involved with the center have been attempting to create. That, and how to make families thrive.

“When you look at a man who has used violence and control (at home) – the woman isn’t thriving, the children aren’t thriving, but he isn’t either,” says O’Brien-Rojo, who first got involved with the center when she was a teenager. That emphasis on serving the whole family is what makes the organization so “critical and unique,” she adds, noting that working with men who have been abusers, have been abused or been exposed to abuse in the home is an important component in helping to change the futures.

One way the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center is trying to tackle these issues is by partnering with an organization called “Futures Without Violence.” Essentially, the goal is to coach boys on how to become men. “We’re working to really bring this program here, to start working with boys to break that mold (of violence),” says O’Brien-Rojo.

Formerly the YWCA, the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center took on its current name in 1994 to better reflect the programs and services it offers. In the nearly 20 years since that name change, it has continued to evolve, and now serves more than 3,000 women, children and families annually. But its history may capture interest. Its location at 303 Walnut Ave., near Downtown Santa Cruz, was once a perfume factory and distributor of sheet music. Salvator Fachutar and his wife built the house in 1921. Fachutar was a violin maker, composer and perfume chemist. After his death in 1939, his widow continued living in the home until 1944, when she sold the property to what was then called the Young Women’s Christian Association, the female counterpart to the YMCA. The YWCA, of course, had already begun assisting local women at that point.

cover1At its core, the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center has long focused on issues pertaining to domestic violence, in large part because, as longtime board member Julie Schneider explains, “women started the movement – they created safe places for women.”

Schneider joined the board of directors nearly 17 years ago. Since 1988, she has worked for the Santa Cruz City Police Department’s victim services program as a victims’ advocate. In that position, which involves accompanying victims of violent crime to court and helping them through the often-harrowing process of a criminal investigation, Schneider frequently worked with domestic violence victims. Joining the board of the women’s center seemed like a perfect fit.

When the center developed its women’s support services, it was a very different model from other such existing programs, says Schneider, pointing out that support and counseling were done by survivors, using a peer model. In turn, those group sessions later evolved into the center’s full-blown domestic violence program.

“Women were supporting one another,” she says.

That is key, adds O’Brien-Rojo, because domestic violence tends to be very isolating and  victims tend to feel alone.

Still, she says that the center finds that “a lot of women don’t want to break up their families,” even in light of domestic violence at home. Because of this, she says it’s important to try to work with the women at the level they’re comfortable with.

“At the same time, we don’t have enough resources for the bigger conversation,” she adds. “One of the first things people often ask in domestic violence situations is ‘Well, why does she stay?’ But the question I want to know is, ‘Why does he do it?’

“We’re really hoping to change that conversation.”

The center has also been working with other organizations to focus on “fathering after violence,” and addressing questions of how to build trust again and make amends after violence has occurred— including PAPAS, a Watsonville-based program dedicated to supporting father involvement and co-parenting. But, again, the center’s limited resources can make collaborations with other organizations critical to success. The center is primarily grant-funded, which can be ideal, but also leaves funding vulnerable to the whims of politicians and legislation. Last year, the center’s cash budget was $1.1 million but their “in kind” budget, which includes less tangible resources like volunteers and time, was estimated at $1.5 million. Currently, there are 28 full-time staff members in addition to numerous volunteers.

But the center doesn’t just work with nonprofits, it also tries to connect with the faith community and even local businesses, as well as teaching others in the community how to be a resource for those experiencing domestic violence.

Other issues persist.

The center is also building awareness around domestic violence in same-sex relationships. Domestic or “intimate partner violence,” as it’s also known, traditionally has been framed in the context of heterosexual relationships.  However, statistics and evidence show a growing epidemic of violence in same-sex relationships, but one that has long been shrouded in secrecy. That’s made compiling accurate statistics extra difficult, according to experts. An article published in the Atlantic magazine in November of this year examined the way in which domestic violence is often still thought of as a heterosexual problem and how conversations tend to be framed through a heterosexual lens.  That’s created major hurdles when it comes to finding funding and providing services to people who don’t fit the stereotype of a domestic violence survivor.

cover2“The model we have for heterosexual services doesn’t necessarily work for the LGBTQ community,” says O’Brien-Rojo.

And that’s just another component of what the center hopes to work on as it strives to  focus on the larger conversation surrounding domestic violence. These include issues of gender roles and authenticity, as well the larger issue of how to build healthy relationships.

“As a community we need to talk more about the circumstances, the reasons and the roots [of domestic violence],” says O’Brien-Rojo. “We have to look at ‘what does a healthy relationship look like? And how do you create that?’”

Schneider points out that you can’t take a “one-size fits all approach”– it’s much more complicated than that.

The key approach the organization attempts to create is to begin a dialogue as early as possible—talking to young people addressing, among other things, teen dating violence, which Schneider says is reaching epidemic proportions.

Working to prevent this can begin at a very early age, which is why the organization is ramping up its youth development efforts. In fact, a capital campaign currently in the works would transform the building adjacent to the facility into a family literacy center, low-income housing and classrooms, among other resources. To do so would  take $1.2 million, and a plan to raise those funds is expected to be finalized within the next 18 months. With the capital campaign, the center also hopes to be able to pay its employees a better wage in addition to working more on early education programs.

“You can start teaching them about respect and creating a safe space at a young age, as toddlers, really,” Schneider says.

Before even reaching a point where sex and love are involved, it’s essential to teach children about friendships and boundaries, to give kids the skills to be allies for one another, the women say. The youth development components are just some of the variety of other diverse programs the organization runs, though it often gets typecast as being just a place that deals with domestic violence. That isn’t exactly true, however.  Other services include teen parenting classes, a food pantry, clothing, and just the very existence of offering a safe space.

“And that’s a really amazing concept,” says O’Brien-Rojo. “That ability—that a person can come into the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center and just have a cup of tea in a safe, peaceful space.”

As the center continues into its 80th year, its directors hope to be able to further that sense of community.

“The model we have is—community members who are really partners and can feel that they can be a part of this – that there isn’t an ‘us and them,’—we’re just us,” O’Brien-Rojo notes.

That is evident in recent events. A few months ago, the center was approached by a group of locals who wanted to establish a garden in honor of the late Shannon Collins, the downtown business owner of Camouflage who was fatally stabbed in May 2012. Collins’ love for gardening inspired the idea and her fundraising efforts for the center did not go unnoticed.

The garden broke ground in October.

“That’s just been fabulous,” says Schneider. “We have a great community.” 

Giving Back
The Walnut Avenue Women’s Center is once again running its Adopt-a-Family program for the holiday season. The program matches families in need with individuals, local businesses and community groups that “adopt” them for the holidays and help ensure the families have a safe, happy holiday. Participants can adopt an entire family, donate gift cards or make a monetary donation.

In particular, Schneider says the center is working on a gift card drive for teenagers.For more information, call 426-3062.

The center also collects donations throughout the year. In addition to volunteer hours and monetary donations, the center is always looking for supplies including snacks for support groups, and gift cards for office supplies or gas.

cover3Walnut Avenue Women’s Center 80th Birthday Celebration
7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7
Center Street Grill, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz.
The center’s 80th birthday gala will be 1920s themed, with cocktails, hors d’oeurves, music, a gift raffle and a live auction.
Tickets are $50 and are available at the center, or online at For more information, call 426-3062.

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