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Women’s Shelter: 35 years of SLO County service

jmellom@thetribunenews.com

Sandy Wade’s husband had always been quirky. But when he started doing drugs, his behavior grew even more bizarre.“After a while, he would monitor all my phone calls,” she recalled. “If church or friends would call, I’d find out he’d been in another room listening on a handset.”

He followed her on shopping trips. He stole her keys, disabled her vehicle, and disappeared for days on end. He’d even bring loaded guns to bed, claiming that he heard demons walking around in the living room.

“It got more and more dangerous.”

Finally, she called the Women’s Shelter Program of San Luis Obispo County.

Established in 1977, the San Luis Obispo-based shelter seeks to help the victims of intimate partner abuse, through counseling, emergency housing and other services.

Hotel owner and philanthropist Phyllis Madonna said the shelter’s mission has always been close to her heart.

“I’m just so gung-ho and entrenched in my feelings for our Women’s Shelter,” she said. “They’re a wonderful group of people, and they deserve all the help we can give them.”

Key fundraiser

Over the past 25 years, Phyllis’ Musical Revue and Fashion Show has raised close to $3 million for the Women’s Shelter, $230,000 in 2005 alone, event organizer Cheri Humphrey said.

The annual fundraiser earned about $154,000 last year, up from $147,000 in 2010.

Eventgoers contributed an additional $43,000 over the course of 2011 by sending in donations in envelopes provided at the event.

“It’s just really made all the difference,” said Marianne Kennedy, executive director of the Women’s Shelter Program. “We’re just so indebted to (Madonna) and her dedication.”

When Kennedy took over 25 years ago, the shelter had a $130,000 annual budget and 31⁄2 staff positions.

“At that point, the shelter was kind of a revolving door,” she recalled. “We would bring people in, they’d have safety for a time, and then they’d go back to their abusers.”

That changed as the shelter added more services and personnel, Kennedy said.

As of 2011, the organization boasted 30 staffers, 20 of them full time, and an annual budget of about $1.75 million. (That amount will shrink significantly this year due to the loss of three federal grants, Kennedy said.)

Yet, as the shelter has grown, so have the community’s needs.

During the 2010-11 fiscal year, the shelter provided services ranging from emergency shelter to crisis line calls to 320 adults and 260 children; the majority were female. Seventy-eight percent of those clients lived in San Luis Obispo and the South County, while the rest hailed from the North County and the North Coast.

Money put to good use

According to Beth Raub, the shelter’s volunteer and outreach services coordinator, Phyllis’ Musical Revue is “vital to keeping our doors open.”

Proceeds from the fundraiser go directly to the organization’s general fund, where they’re used for such mundane but necessary expenses as electricity bills and printing paper.

“It plugs a hole that granters don’t (fill),” Raub explained.

A decade ago, she said, the shelter used general funds to purchase a six-unit San Luis Obispo apartment complex to serve as transitional housing for clients fleeing abusive homes. The organization was then able to fund that housing through grants, eventually adding four more units in Grover Beach.

General funds also pay for the shelter’s domestic violence restraining order clinic, which opened this January. Volunteer attorneys and paralegals help shelter clients fill out temporary restraining order forms, answer legal questions and accompany them to hearings.

“When you’re facing your abuser, (court) can be especially scary and intimidating,” explained Wade, who is training to become a marriage and family therapist at the Women’s Shelter Program. “Having someone from the Women’s Shelter sitting next to you makes you feel safe.”

A personal stake

Wade understands the shelter’s importance more than most.

After leaving her abusive husband, she and her daughter, then 4 years old, participated in the shelter’s counseling and transitional housing programs. The organization helped her get a temporary restraining order against her husband and gave her the resources to complete her divorce.

“They have done so much for me,” Wade said of the Women’s Shelter Program. “Not only was it lifesaving, literally, but going through the counseling built my self-esteem, gave me confidence.”

That newfound confidence inspired her to go back to school. After earning an associate’s degree in family services at Cuesta College, she got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology at Chapman University in Santa Maria.

Now Wade works with women who, like her former self, are looking for a way out.

“It really does help them to know they’re not alone,” she said.

Phyllis’ Musical Revue and Fashion Show

Benefit for the Women’s Shelter Program; 11 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., March 2 and 3, at the Alex Madonna Expo Center; $65 to $75 lunch show, $120 to $130 dinner show; 784-2441; www.madonnainn.com

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