Friday, October 18, 2013 by Action Alliance

VA SHORE: New director, new energy help Coalition Against Domestic Violence

ONANCOCK — The Eastern Shore Coalition Against Domestic Violence has come up with an innovative way for the community to show its support for victims of domestic violence — just in time for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, celebrated annually in October.

“Let’s face it, domestic violence is tough. ... How do you make this something people want to talk about?” said the coalition’s new executive director, Cristi S. Lawton, who started work Sept. 3.

The new project debuted at the Eastern Shore Harvest Festival earlier this month and generated positive response.

Dubbed “Pillow Talk,” the initiative gives community members the chance to write messages of care and encouragement on white pillowcases, which are then given to victims who are guests of the coalition’s emergency shelter. When guests leave the shelter, they can take their pillowcase with them.

Coalition Board President Peaches Dodge thought of the idea together with Lawton, after Lawton explained to her how well-wishers at her former position as development director for the Hanover Habitat for Humanity signed pieces of lumber destined to become part of houses the group built for needy families.

The coalition is experiencing a resurgence after surviving a financial crisis that occurred when a state grant the group had been awarded for years failed to come through. Dodge takes her volunteer position seriously and expects the same of fellow board members.

“I feel as if I’m setting a reset button,” said Dodge, adding, “Members of the board are really bringing their thoughts, their energy” to the effort to ensure the coalition remains solvent and on mission.

Lawton, who moved to Onancock from New Kent County after her husband accepted the position of Onancock town manager, said energy is what attracted her to the job.“That is one of the things that attracted me to the job — the fact that there was a very strong board of directors, that they were so engaged.”

She has an extensive background in nonprofit fundraising. Her most recent job was with Habitat for Humanity, where she was employed since 2010.

Before that, Lawton served as director of corporate and foundation relations from 2007-2009 for Montpelier, James Madison’s historic home in Orange, where she worked on a $60 million capital campaign to restore the home. She also worked in the past for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development in Richmond and for the City of Suffolk’s planning department.

Both Lawton and Dodge say the coalition is focusing on community outreach and on collaboration with other agencies.­

The Pillow Talk campaign is part of that focus.­

“The way this is going to change in this community is to talk about it,” said Dodge of the problem of domestic violence.

At the Harvest Festival, coalition members had the chance to talk to hundreds of attendees about the need to combat domestic violence, which they emphasize is a criminal activity.

In addition to getting people to sign pillowcases, the group handed out about 200 purple wristbands with the coalition’s phone number and the message, “Love should not hurt.”

“I told them if they knew somebody who is being hurt, give them the bracelet. ... I’ll get you a new one,” Dodge said.

They took 16 pillowcases to the festival, for the 16 beds at the coalition’s emergency shelter. The response was immediate and positive.

“It was powerful; some people had to sit there and think for a minute” before writing their message, Dodge said.

“It was a good draw to get people to our table and get people talking,” Lawton added.

They plan to take the Pillow Talk campaign to other community events in the future.

The group’s recent financial woes served as a wake-up call to it and the community — the coalition operates the only emergency shelter for domestic violence victims on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

From July 2012 through June 2013, the coalition provided 3,733 nights of shelter to 37 adults and 34 children. It also provided resources and referrals to 368 people who called its hotline and almost 4,000 hours of advocacy service to adults and 864 hours to children.

The staff and board engaged in 127 community outreach activities throughout the year to help educate the community.­

With Lawton’s development expertise and an active board, the coalition’s future looks bright. The ultimate goal is to make the coalition self-sustaining and less dependent on grants.

Additionally, the coalition is working to partner more with other community entities such at the hospital, the Eastern Shore Community Services Board, Social Services, law enforcement and others, to combat domestic violence.

“The tools need to be there to effectively prosecute offenders,” Dodge said.

Lawton said she has found what she was looking for in her new position.­

Her second day at work, a former client stopped by the office to make a donation and tell the staff again how grateful she is for the shelter and services the coalition provided her when she needed them more than four years ago.

The woman and her daughter are doing well now.

“I think this was the moment I realized that my job will be inspiring, motivating and rewarding beyond all my expectations,” Lawton said, recounting the encounter in a recent newsletter.

She said, “I wanted it to be an organization that really feeds my soul. You can see people’s lives transformed — that’s rewarding.”


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