Illustration by Christine Hipp

When 52-year-old Karen Jones* walked into the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center (WAWC) nine months ago, it was an act of desperation.

“I had left Arizona from a situation of domestic violence and I was really looking forward to my new life in California. I was going to be home free,” Jones said. “I got here and it took about nine months before I had collapsed into myself and had thoughts of suicide at a time when I should have been starting a new life. It was in that moment when I reached out to the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center.”

Jones told the receptionist she had hit her “complete bottom,” and within 30 minutes they provided her with an advocate, who comforted her and assured her it was going to be OK.

When she left, the center provided Jones with a small gift bag of toiletries — “such a special little thing of personal care,” Jones said.

She started her path of healing.

But since Jones first came to the WAWC, funding has been cut, the resource has been threatened, and even fundraising has been unable to provide significant help.

In an effort to remedy an estimated $25.4 billion deficit, Gov. Jerry Brown slashed through state funding for state social service programs in January 2011. The new budget takes steps toward “dismantling much of California’s once vaulted social safety net,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

A sleepy wooden building at the end of a stretch of colorful gabled houses and arches of mature tree cover, the WAWC commands no attention from the rest of the avenue. The antiquated Young Women’s Christian Organization (YWCA) sign that hangs from the side of the building is the only hint pointing to what goes on behind those doors.

Aside from Defensa de Mujeres, a Santa Cruz domestic violence service center for women and their families in Santa Cruz, WAWC is one of the city’s only resources designed to help those who have been in an abusive relationship or struggled with poverty.
Over $200,000 in grant money has been eliminated by the state for domestic violence services, family literacy services and youth development services. Seven workers at WAWC have been laid off so far, and the remaining 27 have been furloughed.

“My advocate is no longer here on Friday,” said Sarah Walker*, domestic violence survivor and friend of Jones. “You are used to [being able to] fall apart [any time], but now I have to watch my days when I need help.”

Since 1933, when the center was first created under the name Young Women’s Christian Association, the programs provided have grown beyond women’s issues to support the development of the entire family.

The center’s mission statement pledges to “encourage women and their families through personal action and leadership” and aspires to reach this objective through their three umbrella programs: Family Literacy Services, Domestic Violence Services and Youth Development Services. Unlike other centers in Santa Cruz County, the services are designed to “serve the whole lifespan” of their members.

“Our teen moms who have babies, we get them as early as two weeks [for childcare],” said Jennifer O’Brien-Rojo, director of WAWC. “As soon as [the babies go] to school, they come into our [youth development] program. Then, all the way through the end of life, [we have] our breast cancer programs. So it really is the whole spectrum.”

O’Brien-Rojo started at the WAWC as a volunteer when she was 15 in 1985. After college, she came back to become a board member for the center before eventually becoming the director. Now 42 years old, 27 years later, O’Brien-Rojo sat on the edge of her chair as she spoke about the WAWC in its prime.

“In ’99, when I went on staff we just went crazy writing grants for all the things we wanted to do,” O’Brien-Rojo said. “We just saw so much need in our community.”

From 1996 to 2001, the budget of the WAWC exploded from $300,000 to $1.5 million thanks to funding from state grants. The center was able to develop their three main programs during this time.

Two of the three large programs, Family Literacy Services and Youth Development Services, had their state funding eliminated this year. Yet the WAWC has been able to keep the programs afloat by cutting staff to the bare minimum, requiring staff to take alternating furlough days to ensure the center is always open, and cutting what O’Brien-Rojo calls “the gravy” of the Youth Development and Family Literacy services, leaving only the necessities.

It costs $200 per day to fund the Family Literacy program, and the same amount to fund the Youth Development programs.

The Youth Development Services program, which is funded 90 percent by a state grant, started out small but over time created one-on-one mentoring services, youth support groups, a comprehensive sex education program and youth empowerment programs.

The Mom and Kids Club, a 10-week program that supports families who have survived domestic violence, helped facilitate the expansion of the Youth Development program.

“We got to the end [of the program] and we had this group of teen girls that said, ‘That’s great that you finished your program, but we’ll be back here next week,’” said O’Brien-Rojo, chuckling. “They owned the center now. It was their space.”

The kids kept showing up and WAWC staff kept coming up with more programs to provide for them.

Eunie Del Rosario — or “Ms. Eunie,” as her eighth-grade science class calls her — was so affected by the “family life” class the WAWC provided for the local Shoreline Middle School as part of their Youth Development Services that she joined the board of directors at WAWC.

“I call [the program] ‘family life’ versus ‘sex ed,’” Del Rosario said. “When I hear about [sex ed], it sounds like [it’s only about] an act and the relationship is not even considered. [We] give them the opportunity to look at what the facts are and they make the choices from within.”

The program was popular with the eighth graders, who on the first day were allowed to “get their giggles out” by saying out loud every sexual slang word they could recall. UC Santa Cruz-trained volunteers from the WAWC helped to teach the program. Del Rosario said the eighth graders responded well to the volunteers.

“These young [volunteers] are so passionate and [it’s] contagious to have that energy in my classroom,” Del Rosario said. “They’re a gift to come into my room with all the up-to-date information and give these kids tools to make good choices.”

Originally, WAWC provided additional programs for sixth and seventh grade classes that taught students how to have healthy relationships and friendships with their peers; however, those services were cut due to lack of funding.
Since the cuts, the WAWC have had to replace their full-time director of Youth Development Services with a half-time staff position.

Recently, the Youth Development director was eliminated completely. Volunteers, primarily from UC Santa Cruz and Cabrillo College, have picked up the slack — but their time is hindered by their school schedules, which include breaks.

In 2006, the center received an award for the highest teen mom graduation rate in California, and in 2008, the center received a second award for highest rate of teen moms continuing on to higher education.

“When we started, Santa Cruz was a hot spot for teen pregnancy, and in our 10-plus years of having the funding and doing the work, it is no longer a hot spot,” O’Brien-Rojo said. “But we really need to continue that work, because if we stop, then it’s going to climb right back up again.”

Two years later, $70,000 was cut due to a state decision to allow school districts to use California School Age Families Education Program (Cal-SAFE) money that was intended to support programs for pregnant and parenting teens on general expenses.

A state Community Challenge Grant, which finances teen pregnancy prevention organizations, had helped finance the program. However, in 2011, the state ruled to eliminate the grant funding.

Due to the budget crisis, WAWC is now unable to provide childcare for the teen moms, or home visits, which the center provided to make sure the parents attended school.

The Even Start Family Literacy Program, which provides resources for the preschool-aged children at WAWC to begin a steady academic career despite instances of abuse in their past, was unable to survive the elimination of its $140,000 grant.

The program worked with many English as a Second Language (ESL) children and was so successful that many of the children tested out of ESL classes — and some students were even recruited by local private schools.

“If we weren’t here, the worst-case scenario [is that] people die,” O’Brien-Rojo said. “On the other end of the spectrum — but to me, just as grave — is people never reach their potential. They never get to be who they were put on this planet to be.”

Rhonda Rhodes, a current employee with Human Resources at UCSC, was a domestic violence survivor and a member of the WAWC in the early 1990s. After completing her own healing process, she stayed at the center and supported other women by facilitating the same support groups she joined when she first came to the center.

“It’s kind of like we always know there’s a home to go to,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes has two adult sons who were part of the WAWC childcare programs, and now has a 10-year-old daughter. Rhodes said it was “unfortunate” that the Youth Development Services and Family Literacy Services funding was cut, especially since she plans on sending her daughter to GirlZpace, a WAWC youth empowerment program.

“I always knew that the [WAWC] would be a place [my children and I] could go to for support,” Rhodes said. “It’s really sad that there’s no funding for that youth program. Sometimes you need [a] resource other than your school.”

Fundraising for the WAWC has been a difficult process. O’Brien Rojo said the center is currently trying to generate more money from the community so they will not be as vulnerable to the “whims” of the state in the future.

However, throughout the turmoil, WAWC still succeeds in keeping the meat of their programs alive by using innovative methods to fill the financial gaps left by the state.

“You’re either going to sink, float or evolve,” Del Rosario said. “[WAWC] has evolved with their ingenious ways of making ends meet.”

On March 3, WAWC hosted their third annual unique tequila tasting fundraiser, called Agave Agape, at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz. The event has grown from 45 guests at the first event to 150 guests this year.

Former member of the WAWC Laiaa Johnson* attended the event with her son, now a UCSC student. Johnson had used the free childcare services the center provided while working as a family law attorney in Santa Cruz County.

“[Working with the WAWC] was the best experience of my life,” she said. “It is totally a group worth supporting, because they do so much for families in our community. We are so lucky to have them.”

Members of the WAWC and domestic violence survivors from other organizations attended the event.

Nine months after she sought help, Jones sits with her friend after a support group for domestic violence survivors as they reminisce on the WAWC’s effect on their lives.

It took two years for Jones’ friend, Sarah Walker*, to admit that she needed help healing from her past of domestic abuse.

“You are so isolated that you can’t believe [it — you wonder,] ‘How did I get into this situation?’” Walker said. “And then you come here and it’s just … big hugs.”

“My life turned around for me,” Jones said, wiping tears from her eyes. “[The WAWC] started a path of healing, recovery, education, information and support in a place where I didn’t think I would be able to make it, honestly.”

The two women hugged outside the center before parting ways.

“I’m a possibilities broker,” O’Brien Rojo said. “Being the bridge, as the executive director, I give people that opportunity to be part of someone else’s possibilities by being donors. By financially supporting us, you get to be part of that person thriving. The returns on that investment are never-ending. There is never going to be a recession on human potential.”

*Names have been changed