Women & Family Life Center Marks 30 Years
The Women & Family Life Center (WFLC) is marking its 30-year anniversary serving the shoreline, though its a celebration dimmed by the ongoing necessity of an agency that assists a rising number of victims of sexual and domestic abuse, among other services.
WFLC is a privately funded non-profit with headquarters in Guilford and serves women, men, and families that are in a crisis situation. The center offers programs to 16 area towns, but this year served more than 50 area towns. WFLC partners with numerous other organizations including the Guilford Foundation, The Branford, Community Foundation, the United Way of Greater New Haven, and both Guilford and Madison Youth & Family Service agencies to assist those in crisis.
WFLC Director Jennifer Wenderoth-Holster and Community Outreach Director Dawn Jackson said there are a number of factors that are creating and compounding a recent rise in violence. Though the pandemic did quantifiably increase the numbers of domestic and sexual violence, according to data supplied by WFLC, COVID isn’t the sole factor in the alarming increase being observed.
“Yes, there has been a rise, and yes, I think some of that is connected with COVID. In regards to domestic violence, that has definitely risen during COVID, but there has also been a rise in sexual violence as well,” said Wenderoth-Holster. “[L]ast fall when we started hunkering down is when we saw the rise really begin. There was little escape with people so close together, and adding in that people were now moving in with siblings, other family members, aunts, uncles living together prompted this rise in sexual abuse and the domestic violence has been sky rocketing.”
According to its own accounting, WFLC served close to 1,300 people from 54 towns across Connecticut last year and since the onset of the COVID pandemic has provided more than $200,000 in emergency relief funds to area organizations.
The center provides not just emergency housing and counseling, but also provides a number of services that are critical for anyone seeking to escape violent domestic situations. WFLC provides financial consulting, which is often necessary for clients attempting to extricate themselves from abusive situations; legal assistance, which is also a vital need for many participants; and also divorce workshops that empower clients through the labyrinthine process involved in Connecticut divorce matters.
According to Wenderoth-Holster, the financial education and legal assistance programs are a vital component of their services. Safe housing and immediate crisis help is just the beginning for those attempting to extricate themselves form abusive situations.
“A team of social workers called referral navigators would first counsel participants. That is basically the gateway to the center to evaluate what’s happening in someone’s situation and provide programs and resources,” said Jackson. “From there we have our Lawyer Time program, which are free volunteer attorneys who meet with people for civil matters—divorce, bereavement, custody, housing situations, foreclosure. We then also have our financial program, which has community financial coaches who can meet about the plethora of financial situations that someone might be facing to create an action plan and budget.”
Changing the Approach
The WFLC Task Force is another important tool for how the organization responds to the needs of clients. According to Wenderoth-Holster, they are currently striving to change the narrative of how the conversations about sexual and domestic violence is approached.
“In order for this to stop, we have to create a culture change. There has to be more awareness, there has to be more discussions on the topic of domestic violence and sexual assault. There needs to be more education done,” Wenderoth-Holster said. “What is important in regard to what we are trying to achieve going forward is a culture change along the shoreline in what we are seeing in our areas. We need to be focusing on educating the youth and to teach them who to reach out to. We need to realize that this type of abuse is not something people need to be ashamed of, or something they need to hide from. Unfortunately, we know the numbers are absolutely astronomical, and we want people to know that this is not acceptable and that there is help available. We want to change the conversation.”
Jackson said changing how these crimes and abuses are viewed by victims and the community is critical to the organization’s mission. And despite its name, WFLC serves men who are in abusive crisis as well.
“Part of the advocacy and our mission now is bringing a voice to these situations,” Jackson said. “We are trying to bring that voice to that story and a face to that story, so this way there is the awareness and in turn, hopefully giving and empowering women to get the help they need. The center is here for you.”
A recent participant in the WFLC’s Guided Assistance program said that WFLC allowed her to overcome an extremely difficult situation.
“Over and over, WFLC threw me a lifeline and I was able to hold on to it. I’ve been holding on to it ever since. And the crazy thing is, if it all happened again, I wouldn’t change a thing. From my journey—the tragedy and trauma—I learned so much,” said the participant in quote supplied by WFLC.
Ways to Help
Wenderoth-Holster said there are several ways in which residents can assist in WFLC’s mission.
“There are a lot of ways to help. If you are looking to help the WFLC, volunteering, being a donor, if you are interested in getting involved on the board, joining the Task Force-those are all great things,” said Wenderoth-Holster. “I think that if you’re looking to get involved in the community on the shoreline, joining the Task Force and having your voice be heard is a great way to get involved. If you’re looking to make a difference, just address it. If you see or hear something, address it. Bring this into the light and help by not remaining silent. Let people know that this is not OK, but that it is OK to come forward.”
Anyone in crisis can call the center at 203-458-6699. Those in crisis they can also call 211 at any time. The state sexual assault hotline is 888-999-5545 and the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence can be reached at 888-774-2900.
As part of the 30th anniversary, WFLC is sponsoring an EmpowerHer Gala in March 2022 to share the impact the organization has had on the community and to share participants’ stories. To find out more about the task force, which encourages new members, or to donate, contact WFLC at 203-453-6699 or visit www.womenandfamilylife.org for more information.