A 30+ Year Journey

[Much of the following is directly quoted from a newsletter about HER's history written by one of the founding women, Ms. Zelma Rivin}

The seeds were sown as early as 1976 when Child and Family Service initiated efforts to assist abused women. This action was taken after forty cases of abuse came to their attention in a six-month period. Some emergency shelter was arranged in area motels. The Portsmouth Kiwanis Club paid the room charges. However, public awareness of the problem was so limited that all efforts to procure grants failed. 

In 1983, the Auxiliary to the Portsmouth Academy of Medicine became alarmed at the number of REPORTED cases of spouse abuse. At that time, most cases were not reported. They were considered "domestic spats". 

The H.E.R. organization became official in the fall of 1983 at the home of Elaine Weitzman. It was there that the name was chosen - HELP AND EMERGENCY RESPONSE. That name described the limited and unstated mission: To provide emergency shelter to women under violent attack, and to educate the community and especially women who were threatened. The original seven women grew quickly into a Board of twenty men and women, all with a broad range of experience and energy. The seven "founding sisters" were: Rachel Benzie, Dorothy Evans, Diane Griffin, Zelma Riven, Gail Tiesenga, Gloria Webb, and Elaine Weitzman.

Within a few months, and with the leadership of Rachel Benzie, a house was procured. Portsmouth Redevelopment and Housing Authority provided an abandoned duplex. H.E.R. agreed to rehab the structure, to bring it up to City Code requirements. The Board toured the house on October 25, 1984 in order to assess the renovation needs. The task was enormous. The work began. 

Gifts were solicited from every resource known to Board members. We received roof materials, lumber, carpet, floor tiles, plumbing supplies, appliances, paint and paper. In addition, labor was supplied by Navy ship personnel and other volunteers, including all Board members who were on a regular hourly schedule. Food for the laborers was also solicited as gifts. 

The Beazley Foundation provided the first grant money. Now the Board was,able to proceed with confidence to plan for the shelter and some supportive programs. The Board began soliciting grants and corporate contributions. A proposal to the United Way was successful after two years of negotiations. These negotiations involved consideration of the possibility of merging with the YWCA Shelter, and other options. 

The Board had hoped that repairs would be completed within a few months. It took almost a full year to make the shelter habitable. On October 1, 1985, the shelter accepted its first residents and received its first emergency hotline calls. The duplex had been converted into a single dwelling, which contained six bedrooms with multiple beds, cribs and couches, two baths, a kitchen, dining room, living room, and an admission and administrative office. The staff numbered three: a Director, an Assistant Director, who also was the volunteer coordinator, and a Resident Manager. The shelter was open twenty-four hours a day. Phones were monitored twenty-four hours a day. Staff worked in excess of 45 hours a week. The need for volunteers was urgent. The staff and the Board undertook dozens of speaking engagements to recruit volunteers, to educate the public and to solicit funds and supplies of all kinds. 

In one month, we recruited 21 volunteers and developed a volunteer in-service program. We are indebted to the Crisis Hotline director who gave her lime to this effort. During the first two months, twenty women and their children received emergency shelter and other services. A census of occupants revealed the largest percentage came from Portsmouth and Chesapeake. The Board negotiated with both cities to secure funds based on per capita residents. 

Our residents needed many additional professional resources. They required medical, legal and psychological counseling. Transportation services were urgent. Also, the Board soon recognized that the children required services as extensive as the adults. That the shelter had such in-depth programs for children was a new concept. By 1986, a special innovative program for children was initiated. During that same year, H.E.R. began to receive interns from both Norfolk State University and Old Dominion University. Now the shelter could begin to provide legal, financial and career counseling. A children's peer group was formed to try to interrupt the cycle of violence. Children were taught to identify and express feelings; to learn non-violent problem solving; and to develop healthy coping behaviors.

In 1988, the first strategic plan was developed. A formal mission statement as well as goals and objective were created. It was a five-year plan, which was to be reviewed annually so that the goals could be assessed, renewed or revoked. The formal mission statement still remains in place: "The mission of Help and Emergency Response is to provide shelter and to engage in dedicated efforts to eliminate domestic violence". This mission provided the opportunity and the challenge to create goals that were new and exciting. Those opportunities and challenges are still being developed. Staff and Board participated in all the strategic planning sessions. The Executive Director of the Colonial Council of Girl Scouts assisted them in this effort. 

By this lime, the Administrative offices had been moved out of the shelter. Park View Methodist Church, which was very near the shelter, became our office, storeroom for supplies, clothing and food, conference center and meeting place. 

Many attempts were made to develop a membership program. A membership committee was appointed by the Board and a plan for graduated dues and a membership strategy was developed. However, it soon became apparent that potential members preferred non-membership status. They wished to become merely contributors. As the numbers grew, so did the numbers of businesses, churches and other organizations, each of whom gave monetary and/ or in-kind support. Many clubs, sororities and special groups began to organize fund-raising activities to benefit H.E.R. These were great outcomes, but they put a strain on the financial and budget committees. Additionally, the United Way required very specific fiscal policies and records.

The Board realized that we needed a more sophisticated bookkeeping system than what we had used previously. Ergo: more staff, more budgets, more fund-raising.

From the beginning, everyone recognized the need to discourage the abuse victims from returning to their homes; from returning to further violence and possible death. We saw the need to help the victims develop psychological independence, financial independence and self-esteem. Although we had worked towards those goals all along, it wasn't until 1990 that a true Transitional Services Program was put in place. The goal was to provide extensive care and services for families who had left the shelter. This program demanded hundreds of additional support groups and meetings, counseling sessions with adults and children and additional follow-up where it was feasible. Another part, a pioneering part of these transitional services, was to provide housing, which would allow for independent living with some assistance and supervision. By 1991, the Chrysalis House was completed and occupied. In a short time it became apparent that H.E.R. could not sustain the effort that Chrysalis House required. That was a costly lesson. 

In 1994, H.E.R. began its campaign to raise funds to build a new shelter. The community response was overwhelming. Once again the Beazley Foundation made a gift so generous that it insured the success of the building campaign. A grant was also secured from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development's SHARE Program. In addition, the United Way Capital Campaign included H.E.R. in its campaign plan. All former givers and many, many new people provided funds as well as expertise and building materials. Within six months of the groundbreaking, in April 1995, the shelter was completed and occupied. The new shelter would be able to shelter forty-two women and children and that many occupied the shelter at one time at least once in its first year. Another highlight of 1994 included the hiring of Sandra Becker as Executive Director. 

Many groups and individuals provided the funds needed for furnishing the shelter. Just a few weeks after opening, the shelter was completed and the adjoining property was purchased for our children's playground. 

The ceaseless efforts of the staff and the Board, and the generous gifts of time from our volunteers have all produced quality programming, with the continued support of citizens throughout Hampton Roads. Additionally, many grants and funding sources from outside our area are made to H.E.R. for its various innovative programs.

By 1999, our staff had grown to sixteen full time and part time professionals. The shelter had welcomed nearly 300 residents. Contributions were received from 275 businesses, 100 churches, 227 clubs and organizations, and 1,250 individual donors.

From 2000 on, the shelter did nothing but continue to grow. By 2014, the Portsmouth facility was continulously surpassing capacity and another location was needed. A capital campaign begun and through generouse donations, another location was purchased, renovated, and opened in 2016, adding additional space for clients and staff.

As of 2023, H.E.R. now has stabilization serives, housing advocacy, mental health resources, court advocacy, underserved populations outreach, aftercare, children's programing, and empowerment services. H.E.R. manages all these programs on a 1.8 million dollar budget and a staff of 33 individuals.