The physical and emotional scars of domestic violence, sexual assault and rape profoundly alter people’s lives. Sadly, in Skagit County, the rate of domestic violence is 40 percent higher than the statewide average.
That’s why organizations like Skagit DVSAS (Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services) are critical for women, children, seniors and others affected by such issues. Each year since 1979, the non-profit organization has provided crisis intervention, emergency shelter, advocacy-based counseling, and other medical, legal and social support – free-of-charge – for anyone who needs it.
The organization relies heavily on government grants, but also from the community financial support of individuals and local businesses like Peoples Bank, a title sponsor of DVSAS’s annual fundraising gala taking place on Saturday, November 2. It’s the biggest fundraiser the organization has all year, says Lynda Nelson, vice president and loan manager at Peoples Bank Mount Vernon Real Estate Loan Center.
Nelson is also a Skagit DVSAS board member. As someone who survived an abusive childhood, Nelson felt compelled to become part of the organization several years ago. “It’s the type of thing that affects everybody, but especially children, their whole lives,” says Nelson. “I’m still dealing with things. I still see a therapist. Having gone through that and having survived it – having learned that there’s a healthy way to live and talk with others about this subject – I sought them out because I believe in what they do so much.”
In 2016, Nelson and several other Peoples Bank employees undertook a volunteer project, independent of the bank. The employees helped renovate three of the rooms in DVSAS’s 30-day emergency shelter for women and children. They brightened up the space with newer linens, window coverings, lighting, and worked with several thrift stores to obtain newer furniture. A kitchen table was spruced up, and extra toys were provided for the shelter’s child play area. “We took a vanload of stuff over to them,” Nelson recalls.
Since then, Peoples Bank has become directly involved providing financial support of Skagit DVSAS, as well as occasionally providing material donations the organization regularly needs. Heidi Roy, executive director, says their website contains a handy list of items that anyone can consider donating, including clothes, diapers and toiletries.
Non-grant donations are especially important to DVSAS because they provide greater freedom in how to use those funds. Grant money, Roy explains, is typically earmarked for specific usage and can’t be re-allocated if DVSAS wanted to apply more funds to another cause, such as providing financial support to a victim after they’ve left the emergency shelter.
DVSAS also has a 24-hour crisis hotline, which last year fielded over 2,700 calls. Nelson points out that third parties are often hesitant to call with a domestic violence concern, for fear of being outed to those directly involved. But that needn’t be the case with DVSAS. We answer questions from third parties about what abuse is and how they can support their friend or family member. Our hotline is for victims to get support. “A lot of individuals will say, ‘I don’t want to get involved,’” she says. “To call that crisis line is anonymous. We’re not capturing their information. Conversations aren’t recorded. So, when people see, hear or suspect something, make the phone call. We’ll take it from there.”
Violence prevention education in local schools, often as part of health curriculums, is also conducted by DVSAS. Topics addressed include safe relationships and technology, teen dating violence, and health self-esteem and boundaries.
“Our mission is to end domestic violence and sexual assault in our community,” Nelson says. “In order to do that, we’ve got to reach people before they are exposed to interpersonal violence.”
DVSAS also works with Brigid Collins’ Child Advocacy Center, helping provide resources to children who’ve experienced sexual assault. For adults, DVSAS support groups are available in both English and Spanish.
Several newer programs are having positive effects as well. Collaboration with local law enforcement agencies has resulted in a lethality assessment program, which consists of an 11-point questionnaire for officers responding to domestic violence calls. If the assessment determines a victim to be in enough danger, officers will immediately call DVSAS’s hotline and connect the person with an advocate. Throughout the US, the program has provided great safety results and lowered the number of repeat domestic violence calls, Roy says.
DVSAS is also working with the Northwest Justice Project to provide domestic violence and sexual assault victims a legal advocate, attorney, and office location in downtown Mount Vernon. Many victims have difficulty with attorney costs, so providing both legal and personal support through the entirety of often years-long court processes is critical.
As for the annual DVSAS gala and auction, it will take place at 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, November 2 at the Swinomish Casino & Lodge’s Walton Event Center. This year’s event – the organization’s 40th anniversary – will include carnival-themed games, prizes and food. The gala will also feature a keynote speech from a special guest and former victim of domestic violence. Last year, Nelson spoke at the gala, and considered it a great honor.
“It’s a superb organization,” she says. “It’s something that’s so desperately needed. And nothing would make me happier than to see it just continue to grow. If we’re going to stop domestic violence, we have to have the funding and the growth in order to do that.”