The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 4, 2012

Andra Bryan Stefanoni: Safehouse in Pittsburg has held on through good will of community

By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer

PITTSBURG, Kan. — It was what I think of as “journalist serendipity” that a certain Pink Lady would have been on duty at the front desk of Via Christi Hospital this past Thursday morning.

As I covered the presentation of a mountain of supplies rounded up by hospital employees and donated to Safehouse, a shelter for battered women and their children, I wondered how the place got its start.

Peggy Bennett, who watched the presentation with a smile, had reason to do so: She was involved in the creation of Safehouse, and she is proud of how far it has come.

Now retired, Bennett worked at the Pittsburg Police Department as an administrative assistant in the 1970s. She remembers being approached by two nontraditional (translation: older) college students from Pittsburg State University who had an idea.

Their names were Phyllis Baxter and Molly Tremain, and Bennett believes some kind of personal connection to domestic abuse, coupled with their interest in women’s studies, prompted them to want to start a women’s protective shelter.

“Working at the Police Department, we were well aware that there were women in our town who had no place to go,” Bennett recalled. “So the police chief, Jack Spencer, said, ‘We will do this.’”

Bennett was the first member of the Safehouse board of directors. She recalled Tamaris Huddleston from Legal Services giving the first $50 to register Safehouse for nonprofit status, and someone coming up with a simple logo.

“We put together money from our own pockets for business cards and stationery,” Bennett said. “In the beginning, we got people to agree to bring women and their kids into their homes because we didn’t have a physical shelter. It was very grass-roots.”

The shelter soon would take up residence in a downtown second-story apartment that a business owner contributed. Volunteers hung sheets and blankets from the ceiling to create separate living and office areas. Bennett recalled that Judy Westhoff, now the city’s downtown development director, drummed up funding from the United Way. She also recalled inviting a county commissioner, Joe Saia, to look at the shelter; he was shocked that it had no kitchen, a tiny bathroom and donated mattresses. Saia gave $100 from his own pocket.

Later, a county ambulance employee contributed a fixer-upper of a home for the balance owed on it. Longtime local businessman Gene Bicknell gave money to cover that cost, and Mark Turnbull, now the city’s economic director, helped Safehouse secure grant funding to pay for renovations.

“It turned out gorgeous; we had three big dormitory-style rooms, offices, a bathroom, a laundry, a kitchen,” Bennett recalled. “We thought we were on easy street.”

The community’s interest in the organization began to grow, and eventually Safehouse would move to its current location.

Since those early days, Safehouse has given shelter to thousands of women and children seeking to escape domestic abuse; last week, 23 were receiving services there — an all-time high.

“I was amazed,” Bennett said of the number of women who have come forward seeking help. “I knew we had a lot of problems, but I had no idea that many.”

That’s why she was especially glad to be present to see the contributions made by Via Christi Hospital employees, who are among numerous civic, youth and charitable groups that have adopted Safehouse throughout the years.

“We started with nothing. But women were glad to have it,” Bennett told me.

“It means a lot to know that people today want to keep it going, that it still is making a difference.”

FOLLOW ANDRA STEFANONI on Facebook at facebook.com/andrajournalist and on Twitter @AndraStefanoni.