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Crisis Center North to celebrate 35 years of helping others

| Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012, 8:54 p.m.
Crisis Center North logo
Crisis Center North logo

Friends of Crisis Center North hope to be partying all year long in honor of the organization's 35th anniversary.

In fact, members of the organization are asking supporters to make their own birthdays fundraisers for the nonprofit group. From now through June 30, they hope people accept donations in lieu of presents for their individual celebrations. Some board members already have done so.

It's a way to show appreciation to the center that has touched more than 70,000 lives — all at no charge.

Crisis Center North provides free, confidential counseling and advocacy for adult, teen and child victims of domestic violence in the northern and western communities of Allegheny County. The center also provides educational programming for community and school groups.

Grace Coleman, of Center Township, Beaver County, has served as executive director for 15 years.

With a handful of full-time, paid employees, 50 to 60 volunteers who do more than answer phones, dedicated board members and a $600,000 budget, the center handles approximately 2,000 clients a year from 23 ZIP codes in Allegheny County.

“It's quite a land mass to attempt to cover,” Coleman said.

Each of the center's advocates assists 450 clients annually, while each counselor works with 375, she said. In addition, the organization connects with thousands more through community presentations or talks with judges, students and others.

Decades ago, three members of the American Association of University Women branch in the North Hills — Dee Walk, Lori Heiser and Anna Belle Few — recognized the need for a North Hills-based program to assist those dealing with domestic violence. It seemed that north-suburban housewives were reluctant to cross the rivers, Few said.

She remembers holding steering committee meetings in the basement game room of her home in Ross Township's Berkeley Hills neighborhood as the women explored community interest in their idea. After incorporation papers were signed, they were off and running, making the organization known, gathering volunteers and meeting immediate needs.

“This was the most meaningful volunteer job I've ever done,” said Few, 76, now of Sewickley.

She trained to be a hotline counselor and then, a legal advocate. For 13 years, she spent every Monday morning in downtown Pittsburgh helping victims collect their thoughts as they filled out paperwork for protection-from-abuse orders, or PFAs.

“I wanted the victims to get on paper what the judge needed to read,” she said.

Few recalls one woman who stopped in the middle of her paperwork.

“I'm afraid I can't do this today,” the woman told Few.

Few said it could take seven violent encounters for a victim to make that first hotline call.

“It doesn't surprise me there's a need for the center anymore,” Few said.

“Children of victims come back with their own issues.”

Jeannie Friedlander of McCandless has devoted 30 years and counting to the crisis center. Over the years, her roles have changed from office assistant to legal advocate to volunteer.

“While the victims have changed, the victimization is the same,” she said.

Fear, humiliation, worry for their children and even religion might keep a victim behind closed doors, Friedlander explained. And the husband's salary might be the only thing keeping the woman from the prospect of welfare.

“People ask, ‘Why doesn't she leave?' when they should be asking, ‘Why doesn't he stop hitting her?'” she said.

Friedlander finds the greater community more educated about domestic violence these days, even understanding that support from crisis center personnel is confidential and always there, “even after 10 times calling the hotline,” Friedlander, 70, said.

“The first thing we ask is ‘Are you safe now?' Then, we ask what she wants to do. We'll always find something for her.”

National statistics on domestic violence show it affects all socioeconomic groups equally, Coleman said. Incidents aren't limited to people of a certain educational or economic status. And there's no specific time of year when violence usually escalates. All it takes is added pressure to an already tense situation in a relationship, Coleman said.

“The economy serves as a catalyst for victims under duress,” she said.

If things aren't good at home, a job loss can be an added stressor on an already vulnerable situation.

And assuming that “it can't happen here” creates the real possibility for victimhood, Coleman said.

“Every woman could be a victim,” she said.

“That's one-third of all women in the course of a lifetime.”

Knowing the signs of domestic violence is key and determining whether a situation might be a danger or an activity a risk is imperative, Coleman said.

To encourage understanding of the domestic-abuse challenge, the center's staff presents programs to educate teenagers about dating violence and engages in legislative advocacy, reviewing laws that affect women and working to influence political candidates.

“I hope I live to see the day when domestic violence is no longer an issue,” Coleman said.

“I've dedicated my life to the center. They're such an amazing group of people.”

And there's always room for more.

“If you have two hands and talent, there's a place to put you,” Coleman said.

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or

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