SafePlace Prepares To Serve More Victims Of Domestic Violence And Sexual Assault

SafePlace clients are served by 34 staff and 50 trained volunteers. Photo courtesy of SafePlace.


By Jennifer Crain

oly fed sponsorMary Pontarolo didn’t know that the woman sitting opposite her, a professional in her late 30’s, was a survivor. Not until she said, “I don’t know what I would have done without you guys.”

The woman told her she’d attended one of the legal clinics run by SafePlace, the Olympia-based sexual and domestic violence social service agency. She then secured a restraining order that provided protection for herself and her child.

“One call to the SafePlace helpline connected her to legal services, connected her to parenting services, connected her to sheltering services and now she’s safe and fine,” Pontarolo recalls. “Given some safety, planning and help, she was able to escape her abusive husband.”

SafePlace staff provides resources for victims of sexual and domestic abuse. Pictured are (L to R) Rosalie Saecker, Fiscal Director, Thomasina Cooper, Development Director, Cheri Literal, Human Resources Director, Mary Pontarolo, Executive Director and Connie Sue Brown, Program Director. Photo courtesy of SafePlace.

As the SafePlace executive director, Pontarolo hears stories like these every day.

And as a survivor herself, she understands the needs of victims: women escaping abusive situations; children who are learning how to play, a foreign concept for some in abusive environments; youth who survive sexual assault and return to help others. That’s why she’s spent 31 years working in the field, the last 10 of them at SafePlace.

In 2011 the organization, which has been operating for 31 years, served more than 1,400 in-person clients, including walk-ins, attendees of legal clinics, shelter residents and other advocacy recipients. In the same year the agency handled over 4,500 helpline calls.

SafePlace is the only agency in the county providing 24-hour care and intervention for those in danger of sexual and domestic violence. They run three round-the-clock programs: a helpline for victims, a 28-bed confidential shelter and an in-person sexual assault response team.

Talking with Pontarolo, it’s clear that she and the 34-person staff and a corps of over 50 trained volunteers are guided by compassion, hope and an unwillingness to accept violence as the status quo.

“I have a very strong commitment to doing what I can in this community to make a significant difference to raise our intolerance on sexual and domestic violence issues. The violence that we’re dealing with is quite a phenomenon – boys and girls and men and women are affected by it. It’s an important personal and societal drain, not only of financial resources but of human dignity,” she says. “We should not be tolerant of it at all.”

SafePlace is a clearinghouse for services that help victims get out of abusive situations and begin again. They provide access to safe housing in their shelter and legal help through twice-monthly clinics with attorneys who donate time through Thurston County Volunteer Legal Services. Weekly facilitated support groups, in both Spanish and English, allow survivors to connect with each other, give mutual encouragement and learn skills to cope with the past and build a life after abuse.

Mary Pontarolo, left, is the executive director of SafePlace, which served over 1,400 victims of sexual and domestic violence last year. Pictured with Rev. Suzanne Appelo whose congregation at Gull Harbor Lutheran Church makes quilts for SafePlace clients. Photo courtesy of SafePlace.

But SafePlace would like to do even more. In 2011 they turned away almost as many clients as they served due to lack of space at the shelter. Four separate support groups meet every week, more than their one private room can handle. And they’re expanding their sexual assault services “because of the demand.” The high needs are putting a strain on the current building and on staff resources.

But their expansion efforts will be helped greatly by the receipt of a $450,000 national grant, announced last September. SafePlace is one of just six recipients of the Sexual Assault Demonstration Initiative or SADI grant and the only recipient located on the West coast.

The three-year grant will allow SafePlace to assess its programs for victims of sexual assault, target and reach out to new groups and develop programs that address the needs of victims beyond initial crisis intervention. Overall, their goal is to determine how to best serve various populations in the Thurston County area, such as a diverse immigrant community, college students, members of tribal nations, GLBTQ residents and those connected with the military base.

The nonprofit is also working toward a fundraising goal for a new building. The completed project would alleviate space problems, consolidate staff and retain visibility in the community. The new building would replace the current building in downtown Olympia, keeping services anchored in a location that’s vital to their vision of engaging the community in the agency’s mission.

In addition to more private rooms and office space, the building design includes on-site childcare and a commercial kitchen that would serve as a “business incubator” where survivors could train for work in the food industry. (See Thurston Talk’s coverage of Mijas, the survivor-led catering business, here.)

SafePlace clients are served by 34 staff and 50 trained volunteers. Photo courtesy of SafePlace.

So far they have raised $1.8 million of the $4.7 million total. Their aim is to begin building by the end of next year and inaugurate the new building in 2014.

The grant, and hopefully the new building, will go a long way toward helping SafePlace expand services to help more victims, de-stigmatize and empower survivors and move toward achieving their vision of a violence-free community.


Community Services Office

314 Legion Way SE
Olympia, WA 98501

(360) 786-8754

24-Hour Helpline:

(360) 754-6300
(360) 943-6703 TTY

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