WomenSafe’s Smith steps down after eventful tenure
MIDDLEBURY — Naomi Smith had spent several years as a Certified Public Accountant when, during the late 1990s, she felt a tug to a decidedly different profession. Instead of counting numbers, she wanted to become a person who other women could count on if they had become victims of domestic or sexual abuse.
So Smith took a job as shelter program director for Burlington’s Women Helping Battered Women organization.
“It was an amazing experience,” Smith recalled of her experiences assisting women in crisis.
She decided to take that career path to the next level in 1999 when WomenSafe in Middlebury was looking for a new executive director. Smith applied and was hired for the job.
Now, after bringing WomenSafe through a period of tremendous growth, Smith has decided to retire from the job, passing the leadership mantle to longtime colleague Kerri Duquette-Hoffman. Smith took some time last week to reminisce about some of the major changes and remarkable continuity that WomenSafe has seen during her tenure.
When Smith arrived on the scene, WomenSafe consisted of four employees who had just moved from rented space into the organization’s first-ever permanent home in Middlebury village.
“We had one computer that kept crashing on us,” Smith recalled with a smile.
Back in those days, WomenSafe staff focused primarily on getting battered/abused women through short-term crises by connecting them with a safe place to stay for a few nights and referring them to other local nonprofits to get critical counseling, legal advice, job training and/or long-term housing.
“We weren’t able to do much besides offer a hotline and talk to people,” Smith said.
That’s changed, in large part due to the organization’s success in securing some major federal grants. Since 2007, WomenSafe has landed a combined total of almost $2.4 million in federal funds to battle domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking. This financial assistance recently helped WomenSafe achieve a peak of eight full-time positions and provided service collaborations with such organizations as the Addison County State’s Attorney’s Office, the Addison County Council Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, Community Associates, Addison County Community Trust and PathwaysVermont.
These added resources allowed WomenSafe to, among other things, provide training to local police officers in responding to domestic violence cases. This training, Smith believes, has helped ramp up the number of domestic violence-related cases that county law enforcement refers to the Addison County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Grant revenues have also funded a legal advocate, education coordinator, outreach advocate and transitional housing program coordinator at WomenSafe; a prosecutor and investigator at the state’s attorney’s office dedicated to domestic violence/sexual assault cases; and coordinators for the Addison County Council Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
“These grants have also enabled many professionals in our community to take advantage of national trainings around the country, allowing our response team in Addison County to hone its skills,” Smith said.
WomenSafe now has a “safety fund” to assist survivors and their children in securing transitional housing, emergency housing, food, diapers and transportation needed to find and maintain safety.
Unfortunately, the need for WomenSafe services continues to grow.
In 1999, the organization had an annual budget of $162,213 and recorded 1,345 contacts with victims/survivors of domestic violence or sexual abuse. WomenSafe thus far this year has had 4,079 contacts for advice or services. This year’s budget is $830,715, though it should be noted that sum includes some of the aforementioned grant money; $110,000 in “pass-through” grant money to collaborating organizations; and $108,000 in in-kind volunteer hours spent on the hotline and other direct service tasks.
Smith credited her veteran staff in helping WomenSafe fulfill its mission.
“We have a lot of longevity as a crisis organization,” Smith said, noting it is more typical to have high employee turnover due to burnout. “We have three people who have been here more than 11 years and another three who came here three years ago. It is a cohesive group that works well together.”
She noted WomenSafe employees now have a good benefits package, an amenity that was absent back in 1999. And all six of the current full-time staffers have laptops, so there’s no longer a need to depend on a single, unreliable computer.
Smith doesn’t have any firm plans post-WomenSafe. But at 55, she does not plan to completely stop working. She will likely do some consulting work within the field of domestic violence.
“For a while I will lay low and take it easy,” she said, noting she has two grown children, four grandchildren and her mom with whom she plans to spend more time.
Smith is confident WomenSafe will continue its success under Duquette-Hoffman.
“I am excited about the next leg of the journey for WomenSafe; I know it is going to be good,” Smith said.
WomenSafe board member and past Chairperson Melody Perkins praised Smith’s work and echoed her confidence in the next chapter under Duquette-Hoffman.
“We know the continuity that Naomi has begun will continue,” Perkins said.
She called Smith an excellent financial manager and a compassionate leader who will be missed.
“Our staff is committed to her work,” Perkins said. “I’m very pleased that Naomi’s style has allowed the organization to stay this strong.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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