From Survivor to Savior
By Terran Smith
In a purple T-shirt, jeans and black sandals Mary’s appearance is modest, but the eyes behind her thin-rimmed glasses glisten from the powerful story she waits to tell. Mary, 60, is a happily married, retired Certified Public Accountant who’s both a volunteer and survivor at The Willow Domestic Violence Center (WDVC) in Lawrence. Her volunteer efforts as an accountant at the center not only motivate her to continue to heal, Mary says, but also give her the chance to fight domestic violence in a unique way.
Mary’s work with finance and funding help the non-profit organization to move forward. The mission of WDVC is to restore health and safety of victims of family and domestic violence. Mary says she missed her job as an accountant after she retired. She also wanted to help women who share the same struggle that she experienced for two decades. The behind-the-scenes work that Mary began in August 2011 allows advocates who work with victims to strive for the mission.
Mary married her high school sweetheart at 18, but the relationship progressively declined into violence.
“It started out with shoving, ugly names and the occasional hit, but he started dealing cocaine and became much more physical,” Mary says. “He threatened to kill me so frequently, I began to believe it.”
18 years and one child later, Mary says she found the strength to divorce her husband. Three weeks after the divorce finalized, Mary’s ex-husband was arrested for dealing cocaine, sentenced to prison and later died from esophageal cancer.
In Mary’s case, the road to recovery included help from friends, family, advocates, and fellow survivors. She moved from a Western town in Kan., to Lawrence to “find out how to be myself again after being consumed with someone else’s life for so long,” Mary says.
After approval from her son to share their story, Mary began volunteer work in the administrative office of WDVC. “I actually specialized in non-profit organizations for 25 years, so I know all of the financial ropes,” Mary said. “The money has to come in through the background in order for everything to work,” Mary said.
“Most people don’t think about the money behind non-profit organizations.” Becca Burns, 29, the director of volunteer services, said. “But if we don’t have someone reporting the budgetary reports to the grants then we wouldn’t have an agency. Ultimately, she’s keeping the agency alive.”
“The most incredible thing about Mary, in my opinion, is her willingness to share her story,” Burns said. “Hearing it from someone in person rather than reading it or seeing a story on television truly puts the power of her experience on a whole other level.” Although she doesn’t work directly with the shelter’s victims, she leads the ‘Survivor’s Story’ training session for the Volunteer and Intern Advocate Training.
“I have accepted that the memories of my abuse will never fully go away. But if I could say just one thing to one woman that gives her strength and hope for a good future and life, then it’s worth it to tell my story—even if I have to relive it every day. For me, it’s a way to pay it forward,” Mary says.