Domestic Violence Agency RESPONDs to Community’s Needs for 40 Years

Forty years ago, four women in Somerville opened their homes as safe houses for women fleeing domestic violence. In doing so, they created RESPOND Inc., the first domestic violence agency in New England. Four decades later, RESPOND is now the second-oldest domestic violence agency in the nation and continues its work in the community to end domestic violence.

“The four women who founded this organization came from humble means,” said RESPOND’s Executive Director Jessica Brayden. “They would leave their porch lights on to provide a safe place for people who needed to flee. There were no resources. They were able to make an organization that has succeeded for 40 years.”

RESPOND has grown immensely since its humble beginnings in 1974, providing services to more than 100,000 members of the community and employing hundreds of people. RESPOND offers emergency shelter, a 24-hour-a-day crisis hotline, individual and group counseling, basic assistance programs to help with necessities, legal services, children’s services, high-risk assessment teams and outreach and education. The services are free, confidential and offered in multiple languages.

While the organization has been operating in Somerville for 40 years, it often flies under the radar and that’s no accident. RESPOND must walk a fine line between being visible in the community and keeping those who seek its services free from harm.

“For the first 35 years, it was about this intricate, elaborate movement,” Brayden said. “We wanted to be in the community without being spotted in the community. We still struggle with that.”

Respond open house

RESPOND’s Executive Director Jessica Brayden (at right).

Another struggle for RESPOND, as with nearly all nonprofits, is being able to provide services to everyone who needs them and raising enough funds to support the organization. RESPOND has had more than 1,000 requests for placement in its shelter during the last 11 months and was able to help 42 adults.

“There are slim odds of getting into our shelter, but it’s not hopeless” Brayden said. “We’re looking at alternatives to shelter. The state has not funded domestic violence shelters in the way we think they should and there needs to be a response.”

Money from local, state and federal governments makes up about 40% of RESPOND’s budget with the rest coming from individuals and foundations. In addition to the need for more funding, RESPOND has three types of volunteers that work with the organization.

The skilled volunteers are people like plumbers, carpenters and marketers who can donate their services to the group. Administrative volunteers help with data entry, answering the door and answering the phone. And then there are programs and services volunteers who work in the shelter or provide childcare. Those volunteers must complete a 25-hour training that is offered three times a year.

“We have 10 to 15 people on the payroll, but there is a cast of hundreds that make this organization float,” Brayden said.

As one of the first domestic violence agencies in the country, RESPOND has been the cutting edge since its inception. And that has continued today with its work on teen dating violence and providing services to more populations, like the LGBT community and men.

“RESPOND has really been on the cutting edge of domestic violence since the very beginning. And it continues to be a pioneer,” Brayden said. “We serve all victims of domestic violence, everybody is welcome.”

RESPOND gala

The crowd at last year’s RESPOND gala. The 2014 event will celebrate the organization’s 40th anniversary.

RESPOND approaches teen dating violence education in two ways. The first is by casually hanging out in the cafeteria to chat with students and hand out keychains and magnets with the organization’s information. The second is by going into health classes to discuss how technology affects dating and the importance of language.

“We need to get teens when you’re learning how to date,” Brayden said. “Language can have a big influence on where kids learn to draw those lines. It can get pretty intense for them.”

A few years ago RESPOND noticed more men were seeking the organization’s services and the group had to grapple with the polarizing issue of whether to serve them. After looking at the organization’s mission and founders’ intent, the majority at RESPOND felt it was absolutely necessary to help these men.

“Our mission is to end domestic violence,” Brayden said. “We have to serve whoever comes. Nobody deserves to be abused. The intent then is still in unison with the intent now.”

RESPOND celebrates is 40th anniversary this year with a gala in the fall that will honor the work the organization has accomplished so far and allow it to look ahead to what’s next.

“Forty years is a big deal,” Brayden said. “I have seen domestic violence ended in so many families that have come through our programs. But we have a long way to go.”

P.S. This story is part of a larger series on local nonprofits and ways to give back to them. You can read the rest of the series here.

Images courtesy of RESPOND.

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