In 1979 Linda Sullivan was looking for any place in the city of Warwick that could potentially serve as a part of a solution to an issue that most in the community didn’t even realize was a problem. Forty years later, what was originally known as the Elizabeth Buffum Chace House – named in honor of the early 19th century Rhode Island native and civil and women’s rights activist – now serves over 3,000 victims of domestic violence each year as the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center.
The center will celebrate the milestone with a party at the Warwick Country Club on Thursday, Oct. 10 from 5-7 p.m. The event is free to attend but guests are asked to RSVP to Joyce at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 401-738-9700 if they have not been sent a direct invitation.
The party is not a fundraising opportunity, but rather a joyous recognition of the progress that has been achieved by the EBC Center – going from one, small emergency center at the beginning to most recently breaking ground on a seven-unit, long-term housing option at the site of one of the original buildings purchased in the past – in addition to a celebration of progress made overall in protecting and advocating for victims of domestic violence.
“I think people felt at the time that problems were happening elsewhere but not in our city,” Sullivan, EBC Center founder, said from her Florida home via phone interview on Wednesday. “They didn’t understand that it doesn’t matter if you make $100,000 or $1,000, it can be anywhere.”
Sullivan recalls getting crucial help from then-Mayor Joe Walsh, who helped in finding a grant program that ultimately led to hiring the center’s first director and found a suitable building that was donated for $1 a year. With construction help from the Warwick Women’s Club and Sullivan’s husband, Fred, the building was turned into the first emergency shelter for domestic violence victims in the city.
Sullivan would serve as the president of the board of directors for the shelter until 1990, when she won a spot on the Warwick City Council. Her foundational work has since been built on by Judith Earle, who is the Center’s director to the present day.
Earle spoke about how about a decade after the original founding of the emergency shelter, another two houses were acquired by the center along with some more city-donated land. The organization then became involved with the Kent County Courthouse, providing advocates to assist those going through trying times within the Rhode Island justice system.
That started out as a barebones operation, with advocates standing in hallways holding their hats and coats because they didn’t have any actual space to hold their things. Victims of abuse would often be standing alongside their abusers, Earle recalled. It has evolved significantly since then, as EBC Center heads the domestic violence office at the courthouse, where they provide help and resources to those in a much more official setting.
“We see victims from 15 cities and towns,” Earle said. “Thirty-nine percent of the state's population is coming through and seeing our advocates.”
The Elizabeth Buffum Chace House officially became the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center in 2004 with the opening of its community center in Conimicut, where people could come for support groups, individual counseling and staff could conduct training.
“Now we were more than just a secret location,” Earle recalled.
Today, with a staff of 16 people, the EBC Center is known statewide for its decades of dedicated service and commitment to providing that service without burdening or jeopardizing the safety of the victim.
“What's unique about [EBC] is that clients can come and meet with our counselors and sit one-on-one at no cost and that means no co-pay, even if they have the best insurance, we're not taking a penny because there should be no paper trail or no extra burden on our clients,” Earle said. “That's kind of a unique service for us to provide and we do a lot of fundraising for it, but it's an important service to us.”
And as the years have passed and the center has grown, so too has its responsibilities in recognizing and tackling the challenges often associated with domestic violence.
“We were the first for years to recognize that so many of the victims of domestic violence have experienced sexual assault and sexual abuse, and we want to be able to work with our clients on that issue as well,” Earle said, adding that the center has a full-time sexual assault counselor and a support group specifically for sexual assault survivors.
The center also has three employees who work with six different police departments throughout the state, providing training to officers on how to recognize abuse and work with victims of domestic violence, sometimes in the immediate aftermath of an incident.
Along with the organizational growth, Earle said that she has been encouraged by the growth of awareness in the larger community about domestic violence – and appropriately plugged that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which is one of the campaigns that she believes has helped spread the message to the public at large about being on the lookout for signs of abuse.
“More people are becoming aware of what to do if what they're seeing or experiencing isn't right,” she said. “I think our awareness campaigns have really made a difference.”
Earle is also encouraged by legislative changes that have held domestic violence perpetrators more accountable for their crimes, and believes that prevention efforts are the key to continuing the improvement that has been seen over the decades.
She brought up a program where the center sent staff to work full-time within the Cranston school department, specifically with middle school aged kids – a key age in terms of addressing concerning behavior that could lead to a child eventually suffering from or committing abuse. That program was funded with a Center for Disease Control grant, which has since lost support from Washington. However, seeing its efficacy, Cranston has taken responsibility for funding the program, taking on the former EBC Center staff member to continue the work within the schools.
“We accomplished what we set out to do,” Earle said of the Cranston success story. “We're looking to take that and bring it into other cities and towns where we do our work, but it's costly to fund these programs.”
Earle was immensely thankful to all the advocates who have helped the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center continue to grow, and said she wanted the 40th anniversary celebration to be a party, with “no cost to come and nothing to buy.”
“It's just celebrating, feel good about it, acknowledge it and have a piece of cake,” she said.
And although the subject matter at hand can feel dark and overwhelming, to have a strong advocacy agency in the city working to help combat the problem – and finding success in doing so – is as good a reason to celebrate as any. It will hopefully also serve as a rallying cry to continue the work.
“It's encouraging,” Earle said. “You would think 40 years later, why do we still have so many clients? The good news is we still have the services. We're out there and we can help. Changing human nature, changing violence, is something that we just have to chip away at. I do feel positive about the impact that we've had in our 40 years.”