By Anita L. Sherman
Special to the Rappahannock News
Walking into the offices of SAFE (Services to Abused Families Inc.) on East Piedmont Street in Culpeper is immediately comforting. A room that serves as a meeting/conference/library area welcomes visitors. A quote underneath a clock reads, “simple pleasures are life’s treasures.”Pleasant and colorful prints adorn the walls and the bookshelves are filled with children’s games and books that give a hint of the work that goes on here.
SAFE deals with the results of divorce, sexual abuse, domestic violence, physical and emotional health problems.
While SAFE has been anchored in Culpeper for 30 years, it serves a five-county area that includes Culpeper, Rappahannock, Fauquier, Madison and Orange counties.
SAFE’s new director, George Stokes, enters the room with a broad and warm smile. While Stokes is new to the position, he is not new to the work of this non-profit or his involvement over the years.
“I started out serving on the board . . . which I did for three years . . . as a volunteer,” said Stokes, who has made Culpeper his home for more than two decades. “Then in December of 2009, I was asked to be the interim director . . . with an end date of June 2010 . . . while a search was conducted for a permanent director.”
As June drew closer, the board asked Stokes to consider the directorship position. “I went through a series of interviews just like the other candidates,” said Stokes, “and then was chosen and here I am.”
And happy to be so.
“It’s interesting,” mused Stokes. “Things starting moving in this direction and I feel that it was meant to be. I was very fond of my mother-in-law Anna Panagos . . . she was very involved years ago . . . and I wanted to honor her by continuing to serve. I’ve always asked myself if there was more that I could do, more ways that I could help the community . . . what better way to honor her memory.”
Stokes has a staff of 10 full- time employees and three part time.
“Thanks to a new volunteer program that we’ve established, I actually have a 14th person . . . she’s a great help in the office . . . we’re fortunate to have her.”
Stokes said that most of his employees spend a good deal of time peer counseling or helping connect clients with allied professional services.
SAFE offers two types of shelter — emergency and transitional.
“An emergency stay can be one or two days or up to 90 days,” said Stokes.”The transitional housing allows clients to stay for up to 18 months as they get their lives back together and past the crisis point.”
For the last few years, the situation has been the same — SAFE housing is usually full. From Jan. 1 to June 30 this year, it served 28 adults and 30 children with the majority coming from Culpeper and neighboring Madison and Orange.
“Our numbers continue to go up . . . and what we’re seeing is an uptick in older seniors . . . perhaps this bad economy has exacerbated situations that they’ve lived with for 15 to 20 or more years,” said Stokes. While the numbers are certainly smaller, SAFE does shelter men from time to time.
“We are here for everyone,” emphasized Stokes. “We don’t discriminate. We are here to help.”
Stokes laments that while the agency has a long history many people still do not know about it.
“I intend to be much more proactive as we move forward,” he said. “We’re here if the phone rings but 40 percent of the time, our staff will be out talking and visiting places that you might think unlikely . . . like beauty parlors and community centers . . . places where people might be more comfortable talking about their situations or know of someone who needs assistance.”
Plans are also under way to start a Latino-based counseling service in Culpeper.
SAFE’s annual budget of roughly $500,000 goes largely to pay staff and maintain facilities. Seventy-five percent of their funding comes directly from the state. The remaining 25 percent comes from local, business or individual contributions. This past budget cycle Fauquier and Culpeper counties cut funding to many non-profits , including SAFE .
“We received some funding from Madison and Orange County and were so excited when the Town of Culpeper reconsidered and put $7,500 into our budget,” said Stokes who couldn’t praise enough the support of the community.
“Donations help out in a variety of ways,” said Stokes. “If we need light bulbs and get those . . . then it’s light bulbs we don’t have to buy.”
SAFE’s two residences have shared common areas including kitchens. Once clients leave the SAFE shelters they will often need basic items like clothing and furniture to help them get started.
“We couldn’t survive without the help we receive from our faith-based community,” said Stokes.
“When you think about it there is probably not one of us who hasn’t known of someone who hasn’t been the victim of domestic or sexual violence,” noted Stokes.
“I opened the mail the other day,” Stokes said, “and one envelope had a donation of $5 . . . that $5 meant so much to me because I suspect it came from someone who truly believes in the work that we are doing and it was probably a sacrifice on their part to send it in . . . that kind of grassroots support is very gratifying.”
Services to Abused Families, Inc.
501 E. Piedmont St.
Culpeper, Va. 22701
SAFE fall fundraiser
Sept. 25 is an evening of “Words and Wine” at the Prince Michel Winery in Madison, a benefit for SAFE featuring book signings by nine Virginia authors, a guest speaker, silent and live auctions, food and wines. Tickets are $50 per person and must be purchased by Sept. 1. Contact Kathryn Morris, at 540-948-6174 or visit friendsofsafe.com on the Web.