Florence Smith had enough. She had been beaten, left to crawl to a pay phone for help.
“I felt ashamed, like it was my fault,” she remembers. “Maybe if I hadn’t been so independent, or hadn’t gotten pregnant. Maybe I should have let him control me.”
The world is full of maybes and excuses when it comes to domestic violence, especially 40 years ago. Today, thanks to Helen Syrios, Gertrude Kennedy and Nancy Boylan, there is help.
The three women founded the Domestic Violence Project in Stark County more than three decades ago. Smith was their first case.
IN THE BEGINNING
The Domestic Violence Project is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.
“None of us have been abused ourselves, but we saw the need and we stepped up to help,” said Boylan. “We wouldn’t have gotten started if it hadn’t been for Gert.”
Kennedy was working at the United Way Information and Referral Center on Friday afternoons.
“For some reason, they thought I could answer the phones by myself after everyone else went home,” she said. “I kept getting these calls from women who were frightened out of their minds wondering where they could go to get away before their husbands got home. They were afraid they would get hurt. I would go home and worry about these ladies all weekend because I didn’t know what to do.”
After talking to representatives of Legal Aid, the Salvation Army and a few other nonprofits, Kennedy formed a plan, inviting several representatives from the organizations to a meeting at the North Branch Library. “We formed a task force and met at a different agency every month.”
There were no shelters in the late 1970s capable of handling the number of people who needed help at the time. During a meeting at Planned Parenthood, Kennedy met Syrios.
“Every Monday, I had clients who were pregnant and beaten or just beaten,” said Syrios, a Planned Parenthood volunteer.
She said she called around to other agencies to find out what they did when they had battered women, and most of them sent the women to the Salvation Army for a three-day stay.
“That made the husbands even meaner, but it gave the women a safe place to stay,” said Syrios. “Before we got the shelter started, we housed women in our homes. Our husbands were very supportive and allowed us to keep these women.”
Syrios became the first director of the Domestic Violence Project. She earned $1 a year. She still has her first check.
“We gradually gathered enough support in the community, and eventually, we were able to purchase a house, which served as our first shelter,” said Kennedy.
Page 2 of 3 - After about a year of monthly meetings, someone told Syrios and Kennedy they needed goals and objectives.
“I looked at Helen and she looked at me, and we marched out of that meeting to (local attorney) Harry Schmuck’s office and it went from there,” said Kennedy. “We found out we needed three signatures for the incorporation papers. That is where Nancy came in.”
Kennedy called Boylan and told her about the project.
“A lot of people objected to their efforts, including other agencies,” Boylan said. “They needed someone not associated with an agency. I said that is me. I wasn’t working at the time and I wasn’t associated with any organization, so I signed the incorporation papers and we started the Domestic Violence Project, thanks to Harry Schmuck and $50 for the incorporation papers.”
A $500 check from a North Canton Garden Club allowed the women to rent the second floor of the YWCA in Alliance for rooms and started taking clients in. “We were full all the time,” said Boylan. “Every time you came to volunteer, you had to bring diapers and milk.”
After three months of running back and forth from Canton to Alliance, they were running out of money, so they closed down. A few months later, they opened a house on McKinley Avenue across from St. John’s Church. The house is no longer there, but Kennedy and Boylan said the shelter was full all the time.
“The city found out about us, and we didn’t have any licenses or anything,” said Boylan. The women put a board of directors together and had board meetings every month. All board members, men and women, had to volunteer at the shelter.
They found a permanent place on 17th Street NW.
“I went around to a number of friends who had money and told them the house was going up for auction, and asked if they would buy it for us,” said Boylan, who was turned down. “My husband said we would buy it.”
The house was sold to someone else at the auction. Months later, Boylan said, they found out the people who bought it had backed out and it was for sale. The Boylans bought it.
It was year before the Domestic Violence Project got a grant to buy it from the Boylans. The house had 27 rooms with eight bathrooms. There was little money, except for donations made when the three women went out to speak.
“We have met so many neat women through all of this,” said Boylan. “I still keep in touch with some of them.”
Smith is one of thousands who have benefited from the agency.
“I was lucky,” she said. “I was already working when I went to the shelter. I took my children to their grandmother’s in Wheeling (W.Va.), then stayed at the shelter for a couple of weeks, during which I found a new place to live. They gave me a lot of support and befriended me when I needed it most. They were not judgmental, just helpful. He (her husband) chiseled my confidence and self-worth away, but they helped me restore it. They gave me my head start.”
Page 3 of 3 - MOVING FORWARD
Boylan, Kennedy and Syrios are proud of the way the project has continued.
“We watched ‘our child’ grow up,” said Kennedy.
“And we are so proud of what it has become and it success,” added Boylan.
The current Domestic Violence Project building on 19th Street and Spring Avenue NE opened in 2004. It houses the Renewed Counseling and Recovery Center, legal advocacy program, community education program, transitional housing program, and the administrative offices.