Times Past

SLO Women's Shelter fills a need seen throughout history

Icon of St. Rita of Cascia being pierced by a thorn from Christ's "crown of thorns" by Theophila.
Icon of St. Rita of Cascia being pierced by a thorn from Christ's "crown of thorns" by Theophila.

A statue of St. Rita of Cascia, patron saint of abused women, stands in a niche at Mission San Luis Obispo.

St. Rita endured 18 years of insults, physical abuse and infidelities in her marriage. Her husband was stabbed to death by his own neighbors. Later, Rita’s own sons mistreated her. St. Rita’s statue has a red dot on her forehead, representing the spot where she was pierced by Christ’s crown of thorns.

Similar abuse exists in San Luis Obispo history. Famed late 19th century osteopathic physician Thomas A. Still of La Panza had nine children. Two of his daughters married abusive men, only to return to the Still Ranch in Annette.

Ellen Still became a teacher on the Carrisa Plains and happily married Earl Newsome. Dabirma Still Maclean became the postmistress at La Panza, where her son Othar listened to stories of the ranch hands and miners and wrote about them under the name Angus Maclean. He told us how his father had gambled, drank and beat Dabirma.

Most women didn’t have nearby families to provide refuge. As late as the mid-1970s, when women would seek assistance from city and county authorities there was little that could be done.

Cam Mitchell worked at General Hospital’s County Mental Health Clinic. When abused women and children came in, case workers directed them to Cam. Lacking any other solution, Cam suggested the women consume six packs of beer and check themselves into the County Detox Clinic.

Cam and Darlene Reynolds, her partner of 44 years (they married five years ago), had a duplex in Morro Bay in 1977. They decided to use the second unit as a refuge, housing 19 women and children.

In 1975, the County Commission on the Status of Women was authorized with Carol McPhee Norton as the first chair. The commission worked to make Dar and Cam’s dream a permanent reality in a less visible location. Psychologist Carol Painter wrote the first grant.

In 1979, Anne Cruikshanks, Gloria and Lou Zimmerman and John Carsel led a campaign to fund SLO County Women’s Shelter. District Attorney, later Superior Court Judge, Chris Money was an early advocate of county support. Funds from marriage license fees were used to help the program.

Twenty-seven years ago, Alex and Phyllis Madonna started Phyllis’ Musical Revue & Fashion Show at the Madonna Inn to support the shelter. The show has become a major San Luis Obispo event.

In 1994 Nicole Brown Simpson’s murder brought abuse back into the spotlight. “Almost immediately, the state of California contacted the shelter, providing $220,000,” recalls shelter Executive Director Marianne Kennedy.

In 1986, hair stylist Dolores Winje was shot in the face by her husband, a counselor at El Paso de Robles School for Boys, a correctional facility. Dolores’ appearance on the Oprah Winfrey and Richard Simmons shows and her numerous talks have kept the awareness of the need for shelters alive.

Today Dolores leads the Mission’s Social Justice Committee.

“Although domestic violence has been traditionally thought of as violence against women, there are men who are abused and given help, too,” Cam says.

From 4 to 7 p.m. Oct. 31 the Women’s Shelter will celebrate its 35 years with an Art Show, Open House and Food Trucks at 51 Zaca Lane, Suite 150 in San Luis Obispo. If you’re on my 4 p.m. Annual Tour of the Catholic Cemetery, you’ll have time afterward to go across Higuera Street and take in this wonderful event.

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We have just seen the movie “Botso” at the Palm Theatre. The tribute to the life of Morro Bay’s famed musician, sculptor and above all else teacher, Botso Korisheli should be seen by everyone who values art and learning.

Few individuals have contributed so much to the life of our region and to our understanding of life. He has squeezed joy, strength and wonder out of an early life filled with the most profound tragedy. Treat everyone you love to this movie. It may only be at the Palm this coming week!

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