The woman who walked into the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County was someone Stephanie Sites would not forget soon: She had been beaten, raped and set afire by her husband.
"She was one of the most horribly beaten-down women I had ever seen," said Ms. Sites, 31. The woman came in three years ago, when Ms. Sites was supervisor of the center's residential shelters. "She came in and was kind of like a walking zombie."
That memory continues to spur Ms. Sites in her work as executive director of the center, which provides shelter and assistance to battered women and their children and counseling for abusers.
Tomorrow night through Thursday, Ms. Sites and workers from the center will seek support for their programs through their annual "Phone-a-thon," the center's largest fund-raiser.
Donations are solicited from those who have supported the organization in the past. The donors are kept on file in a data base of more than 2,000 names. The fund-raiser is expected to generate about $13,000.
Although that makes up only a small portion of the center's $400,000 annual budget, Ms. Sites said the money helps operate the center's programs, created through governmental grants and other funding sources, including the United Way of Central Maryland.
The fund-raiser comes as the center seeks to expand services. Goals include adding a fifth transitional shelter and increasing clinical services, for example, adding another legal adviser.
From last July until the end of last month, the center provided shelter to 45 women and 76 children who were victims of `D domestic violence. In Howard County, domestic violence has been one of the leading causes of homelessness, according to the Howard County Department of Citizens Services.
Ms. Sites' goal is never to turn away a client.
"I really would like to see us serve everybody who knocks on our door," she said. "But how do we make the people in Howard County realize that, 'Yes, we have a problem'?"
Since Ms. Sites began her career in social service work, she has tried to let people know that there are others who need help.
"She lives and breathes her work," said Pamela Dello-Russo, director of residential services. "She wears her beeper and keeps it on 24 hours a day."
Ms. Sites learned compassion in her hometown of Spring Grove, Pa., a small paper-mill town of about 1,900, between York and Hanover.
It was there that her mother, Bonnie Warren, raised her and her sister Kimberly, sometimes with little more than food stamps. So Ms. Sites understands the financial hardships of women who come to the center, often with children and making less than $10,000 a year.
"I have a lot of respect for women trying to raise children on their own," she said.
Ms. Sites also knows about the importance of helping children.
One of her uncles, Michael Lee Altland, was mentally disabled. The boy's father opened a residential center to help Michael Lee and other disabled children.
"They're weren't going to drug the kids. They weren't going to strap them into the beds," Ms. Sites said. "I used to play with those children."
Before coming to the center, Ms. Sites worked for the Methodist Board of Child Care in 1987 and Family and Children Services of Central Maryland about a year later.
In 1989, she came to the Howard County center.
Manus O'Donnell, director of the Howard County Department of Citizens Services, which oversees county funding of the center, said he "can remember the first time I met her" and how impressed he was with her vitality. "I said, 'Who is this bubbly, blond-haired, curly-haired person?' Then I talked with her. . . . She really knows the issues.
"So often, people get burdened by the mission they have," he said. "Yet she sees things can be improved. I've always been impressed with her optimism. She tries to reach the stars."
Ms. Sites' efforts have won thousands of dollars in grants, which have enabled the center to expand services from two shelters in 1989 to five today.
She sees her primary responsibility as keeping women and children safe from abuse. She thinks back frequently to the woman who walked into the center three years ago.
That woman spent a year in the shelter program before she was kidnapped by her husband while at work. Before she was rescued by police, the woman was forced to reveal where she had been staying.
No longer safe in the Howard County shelter, she had to be sent out of state.
"I don't know whatever happened to that woman," Ms. Sites said. "I'll probably think about her for a long time. Is she safe?"
Victims of domestic violence can call the center's hot line at 997-2272.