On the first Valentine’s Day in the era of #MeToo, an Omaha nonprofit is offering survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence an upbeat message of love — and hope.
“Hope, hope, hope,” said Amy Richardson, executive director of the Women’s Center for Advancement. “We want to infuse hope so there’s no doubt that no matter how dire a situation may seem at the moment, here is hope and a community that cares.”
The WCA is weeks from opening its new quarters at 3801 Harney St., a nearly $11 million move that will more than triple its longtime space nine blocks closer to downtown.
To call attention to the expansion, this month the agency has begun its “Champions” campaign. The online effort at wcaomaha.org highlights the stories of 15 people who champion the cause of fighting sexual and domestic violence.
“They are everyday people,” Richardson said, “talking about something that, sad to say, is an everyday event.”
When invited, I readily agreed to participate, retelling the story of our daughter, then 24, barely surviving abduction, rape and gunshots from a stranger, who was caught and sentenced to life plus 40 years.
Bridget, who spoke publicly on behalf of survivors of sexual assault and served as a trained emergency room advocate, is now 40. She married a producer of her ABC News “20/20” story and lives in New York, where they have two boys.
LaShonna Dorsey, who leads marketing and sales teams at the AIM Institute in Omaha, also is a champion. In her blog post that went online Sunday, she said it’s important for people to understand the cycle of violence, “how it can escalate and how power, control and manipulation work.”
After she reported a 2015 assault by a man she knew, police referred her to the agency, though “I never knew the WCA existed until I needed it.”
“WCA” is not yet a household name (or abbreviation), but its roots were in the more widely known YWCA. The local board ended its affiliation with the national organization in 2011, dropped the Y and became the independent WCA.
Its staff of 53 operates on an annual budget of $3.8 million. The agency has offered services for decades out of crowded quarters at 29th and Farnam Streets.
Mutual of Omaha bought that site for $1.5 million, and the WCA has raised most of the money needed to purchase and renovate the building at 38th and Harney, which opens in early April.
Two foundations, which Richardson said want to remain anonymous, provided much of the funding. Only $30,000 is needed to reach the goal, and individuals also have donated.
“One woman stopped in and dropped off $66 in cash,” the director said. “She said she wished she had more to give and then left.”
The new headquarters in the resurgent Blackstone District previously was home to Region 6 Behavioral Healthcare and, before that, to a Conagra data center.
On a hard-hat tour of its four levels Monday, Richardson noted 15 private consultation rooms, compared with the current five.
Artwork by local women will hang from walls. There is a children’s play area, a walk-in closet for donated clothing, a community room for meetings and a yoga room.
The exterior looks so different that someone asked when the previous building was razed. It’s the same structure, but large windows now let in a lot of light.
“The whole idea,” the director said, “is where there is light, there is not darkness.”
And yet those who come to the WCA often do so in their darkest hours.
“Probably 10 times a day,” the director said, “we see someone straight out of a hospital come into our lobby, sometimes with a cast or wearing sunglasses.”
WCA leaders, along with RDG architects and builders at Lund-Ross, tried to think of everything. Because of the potential for violence, the main entrance is safely fitted with bullet-resistant glass.
The WCA motto is “stay safe, grow strong,” and the 24-hour hotline is 402-345-7273.
Besides sexual assault and domestic violence, the agency helps victims of prostitution and human trafficking, as well as those affected by stalking.
The “Champions” campaign adds another person’s story in Q&A format each Wednesday and Sunday through March. Digital billboards at 75th and Dodge Streets and 72nd and Pacific will call attention to the agency.
WCA champion Angie Rodriguez speaks out in memory of her daughter, Melissa, who was 19 when killed in 2013 by an ex-boyfriend.
“I hope that by being her voice and sharing her story, another life could be saved,” Rodriguez said. “And another family would not endure a loss like we have.”
Domestic and sexual violence occur year-round. But for the WCA, Valentine’s Day can be poignant.
“There’s some sadness with the day,” Richardson said, “because most people we work with — especially in domestic violence — truly once loved the person that now became violent. The same could be true of sexual assault, because most victims know the perpetrator.”
For survivors, though, the WCA believes there is hope after the horror, life filled with light and a community championing the cause.