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National Domestic Violence Awareness Month highlights need at SAFE of Columbia County shelter for domestic, sexual violence survivors

COURTESY PHOTO: COLUMBIA COUNTY - Members of SAFE (Support Advocacy Freedom Empowerment) of Columbia County, the SAFE board and Columbia County commissioners. From left: Janelle Adams, Commissioner Alex Tardif, Michelle Wilson, Stevie Strawn, Ellyn Bell, Commissioner Margaret Magruder and Commissioner Henry Heimuller.

This month, leaders from SAFE of Columbia County are working to spread the word about their work and encourage community members to become volunteers with the organization. In particular, SAFE is looking for volunteers to staff their 24/7 hotline.

SAFE, which stands for Support, Advocacy, Freedom and Empowerment, is a shelter and hotline provider in Columbia County serving survivors of sexual and domestic violence.

Last year, SAFE received 1,489 calls to the hotline, generally individuals calling on their own behalf or hospital or law enforcement staff calling to request an advocate for someone in their care.

During the day, the hotline is typically covered by SAFE staff. But at night, or on the weekends, SAFE looks for volunteers who can sign on for shifts. Those volunteers have to go through state-required training before they can start answering calls.

Volunteers can go about their business while on duty, so long as they're able to answer their cell phone when it rings. 

On the phone, volunteers can offer support and help connect callers with resources. SAFE also provides advocates in the aftermath of abuse, joining survivors at hospitals or their homes. Volunteers can act as advocates or request that a staff member fill that role.

"There's always a staff backup person, so they're never on their own," explained Ellyn Bell, executive director of SAFE of Columbia County.

Volunteers learn about the services SAFE provides and how to advocate for someone in crisis through an online training.

The organization is also developing an in-person weekly training for people who don't like the online platform.

Each caller has different needs, Bell said. Some people want help navigating the legal process if they choose to press charges, while others may want assistance accessing support groups, to working through their trauma. When there is an ongoing risk, survivors may want to put together a safety plan with their advocate's help.

Bell said she appreciates the work of law enforcement and thinks SAFE benefits them as well as the survivor.

"By us providing options and being there, it takes a little bit of the pressure off. You've just got another person ... to walk with the person through the process (while) law enforcement is filing the report and holding the perpetrator accountable," she said.

"You win domestic violence cases when the victims feel empowered," District Attorney Jeff Auxier said.

"After an incident of domestic violence, a victim's life is just thrown into chaos, oftentimes, and SAFE helps bring stability to victim's lives," Auxier said.

The DA's Office benefits from SAFE's work, Auxier explained, but he noted that SAFE's top priority is always victims, regardless of if the victims' wishes run contrary to what the DA wants. 

SAFE is also seeking volunteers to provide childcare during the organization's support groups. SAFE hosts a handful of support groups for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, but lack of childcare can make the support inaccessible to many parents.

"With those support groups, we oftentimes get young moms with kids who want to attend but they can't attend due to childcare challenges," she explained.

SAFE also operates a 22-bed shelter for individuals fleeing abuse. Stays can range from a few days to a few months. Approximately 150 people stay in the shelter each year, Bell said. 

This month, Brown Butter Bakery in Scappoose is selling purple cookies and cupcakes in honor of SAFE.

"Charities that help women, children and animals are really close to my heart because they are the helpless among us," said bakery owner Darcy McDonald. 

Each day, dozens of customers have asked about the themed sweets and said

they didn't previously know about SAFE, McDonald explained.

"I myself, in my first marriage, had a domestic violence situation. I didn't know of any organization to call, I just had to pack up my car and leave," McDonald said, explaining how more awareness of resources could help women in similar situations.

On Oct. 9 at 5:15 p.m., SAFE will host a vigil on the steps of the Columbia County Courthouse to honor those who died as a result of domestic violence. The organization will celebrate current volunteers and share information with prospective volunteers at Tap Into Wine in St. Helens on Oct. 23 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

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