NPO Spotlight: Interview with the Leaders of SafePlace
This article is part of the NPO Spotlight Series in which we highlight nonprofits who are doing excellent work.
Providing insight on ending the epidemic of Violence: A Conversation with Melinda Cantu, Vice President of SAFE and Executive Director of SafePlace Campus-Based Intervention Services, and Yvette Mendoza Rouen, Shelter & Children’s Services Director of Safeplace.
“We have a long way to go before we are able to hear the voices of everyone on earth, but I believe that providing voices and building bridges is essential for the World Peace we all wish for.” (Joichi Ito)
Every month I highlight a nonprofit that is positively impacting the community in the NPO Spotlight Series. This month I wanted to display the voices of the heroes in our community who help survivors of violence pick up the pieces of their lives.
I had the honor of interviewing two leaders within SafePlace, a nonprofit that provides safety for individuals and families affected by sexual assault and exploitation, and domestic violence. SafePlace’s prevention and intervention services have been reducing violence in Austin since 1998.
The Executive Director of SafePlace, Melinda Cantu and Yvette Mendoza Rouen, Shelter & Children’s Services Director of SafePlace, shared their insight on the cycle of violence and what we can collectively do to end it.
YourCause: Earlier in your career you volunteered for the Austin Rape Crisis Center and The Center for Battered Women. How did you know that Social Work was the right field for you?
Melinda: I went to St. Edwards University here in Austin and part of the requirements was to complete 60 hours of volunteer work. I decided to volunteer with the HeadStart program in my area. Literally after one weekend of volunteering, I knew I was going to change my major to Social Work!
I enjoyed talking to the teachers and looking at the family systems and how complex some of the issues were. My question was: What do we do to stop violence?
That is what we are trying to do here at SAFE: discover new answers to that question and implement solutions, one at a time, in hopes of Stopping Abuse For Everyone.
YourCause: You’ve been with SafePlace for 17 years. What is the most fulfilling aspect of your current role?
Yvette: It’s the connections…those moments where you can make a connection with an individual. It’s the moments where you have been able to support a survivor. Sometimes, it’s providing basic needs like food or shelter. Sometimes, it’s just a nurturing empathetic touch or allowing them to be heard. That’s the most fulfilling aspect for me.
YourCause: What challenges do you face at SafePlace?
Melinda: It’s always that the needs of survivors, families, and children outweigh the resources we have. So, the challenge is constantly trying to think about how to make those resources the most effective.
I see strength and resilience in people. I see the potential and promise. But I’m always asking myself: What do we have to offer them to make sure that their potential is realized?
YourCause: What are some principles that SafePlace follows to create and sustain a nurturing positive environment for children?
Yvette: The most important thing is to create an environment of physical and emotional safety. Most of the kids coming to SafePlace are living in fear because of the uncertainty of their surroundings. It’s important to give them an environment where adults are available for support and also space to process their emotions.
We try to create an atmosphere that is inviting and safe. We are also accepting of behaviors and coping strategies that the kids pick up. These behaviors may be rude, disrespectful, or aggressive but those actions served a purpose previously. We give the kids space to let those emotions out and then help them learn to cope in a healthier way.
YourCause: What are some goals that SafePlace has to keep working toward the SAFE Alliance vision: Creating a just and safe community free from violence and abuse?
Melinda: The SAFE Alliance, which is the partnership between Austin Children’s Shelter and SafePlace, wants to use our collective voices and experiences to look at the continuum of violence over the life span. We now know that people experience violence throughout the course of their lives.
We are trying to look at how we can address these issues holistically while also working to prevent abuse. We want our communities to be safe and we want people to have healthy and supportive relationships.
YourCause: How does SafePlace ensure that the organization is in tune with the needs of society?
Melinda: What we know is that if people don’t think we are for them, they’re not going to come get help. That’s why it is very important to be aligned with the needs in our community.
To remain in tune, we organize focus groups and listening projects. We are also very lucky that the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault is here at UT producing wonderful research that we can use.
The other thing we do internally is look at our service delivery model and ask specific questions to various communities regarding that model.
After doing some initial research, we realized there were 3 main groups that we wanted to focus on:
- African Americans
- LGBTQIA community
We have task forces within our organization and they look at how our programs are received and if they are appropriate for these various populations.
YourCause: Can you explain what preventative programs are?
Yvette: Preventative programs help build a foundation for children on what healthy relationships look like with peers, family members and friends. These programs teach skills of tolerance, inclusiveness and respect.
Another piece of prevention is teaching the kids what equality looks and feels like. So many times I see that abuse is normalized for these kids. The idea that relationships don’t have to be abusive is foreign to them. It’s about creating opportunities to tell them that they are worthy of love and protection.
This doesn’t take the place of getting love from a parent. But, the interaction at least introduces the awareness that healthy relationships can exist.
YourCause: Which preventative program is most effective at SafePlace?
Yvette: We have Psychoeducational Groups that start from age 4. These may be discussion groups, art groups or a fun game. The goal is to teach kids to develop skills like conflict resolution, healthy communication and also healthy coping skills. It’s been very effective because the group sessions unite kids who have had similar experiences.
The kids often feel isolated and like they are the only one who has been in an abusive environment. These exercises allow the kids to talk to peers and gain hope from the children who have moved out of the shelter and now live in the community.
YourCause: As a society, how can we prevent sexual and domestic violence from occurring?
Melinda: The solution is multi-layered. As individuals, we have a responsibility to talk and think about the epidemic of violence. As a society, we also have a responsibility to think about the things we value. Do we really value human dignity, strength and support? Or, has our society accepted that there are people who are up and people who are down and that’s never going to change?
Undoubtedly, the societal norms that surround people who have resources and people who don’t can be problematic. If we remove those stereotypical boxes and start talking about people without the labels, we will remember that we all want to live in a world where there is peace and justice.
YourCause: What is the best way to help someone who is being abused?
Melinda: Make sure that the person knows that there are resources available. To express this you could say:
“Nobody deserves to be hurt. There are places where you can go to get help.”
But, also remember to respect the person’s choice in this difficult situation. There are lots of reasons why people choose to stay in abusive relationships. Really listen and be supportive of whatever that person wants. You can vocalize your support by saying:
“This is your choice. But I care about you and I don’t want you to be hurt. If you feel like you want to talk to someone please know that there are these organizations available or you can always call me”.
SafePlace sheltered 626 adults and children in 2015 and provided 35,537 shelter-bed nights. The nonprofit also has a 24 Hour Confidential Hotline where trained hotline advocates handle calls from sexual assault and domestic violence survivors, their families and allies. The hotline received 13,490 calls from sexual assault survivors in 2015. The nonprofit has a plethora of campus based intervention and prevention services that provide a holistic approach to helping survivors find healing. After receiving counseling services, 97% of survivors showed an increased ability to manage the effects of trauma. SafePlace is providing multi-dimensional solutions to end violence. The organization is passionately and strategically working toward World Peace! YourCause is very proud to have processed $564,916.54 in donations and grants to SafePlace last year. If you are inspired by this interview, please get involved and leave your comments below!