Center's director works to end domestic violence

June 04, 1995|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,Sun Staff Writer

Luellen Matthews, the new executive director of Howard County's Domestic Violence Center, is aiming to be unemployed.

"I'd like to think that in five years I'd be out of job because there would be no more domestic violence in Howard County and no more of a need for my position or the agency," said Ms. Matthews, 42, who has spent 20 years working in nonprofit organizations.

"Call it a 1960s mentality or pie-in-the-sky thinking; call it what you want," she said. "But I'd like to think public awareness about abuse will be at an optimal level. I hope to see it end someday."

The center's board chose Ms. Matthews, who began work last month, from among more than 120 applicants. Board members and center staff said the 19-year-old organization can benefit from her administrative, communication and business skills.

In her month as the center's director, she already has begun reorganizing its 24-person staff. Another key mission is to increase public awareness about domestic violence.

Over the next five years, she would like to see the center, which is renting office space on Route 108 in east Columbia, move into its own offices, expand the number of beds in its shelter and offer more services to children who come to the center with their mothers.

The center's client load -- women in counseling or staying at its shelter and transitional homes -- has soared, from 379 women at the end of last year to 495 in April. Ms. Matthews expects the center to have more than 500 clients by the end of this year.

The number of calls to the center's 24-hour help line increased about 60 percent between 1991 and the end of last year.

In line with that, the center's budget has grown in the last three years from about $330,000 to more than $800,000, said Terence Farrell, president of the center's board. The number of staff members has doubled in the same period.

"The first task Ms. Matthews was faced with was to look at the internal workings of the organization," Mr. Farrell said. "Within the first three weeks she was making plans for the future and consolidating programs, all work we thought would take 90 to 120 days."

Ms. Matthews said that is just the beginning.

"I'm not satisfied with the status quo," she said. "I'm always willing to change to improve."

Ms. Matthews said she hopes that within five years the center will open its own building. By eliminating rent costs, she said, that would free $50,000 that could be put to use serving clients.

"It makes sense when you're in the human services industry that you put money into humans, not buildings or landlords," she said.

Ms. Matthews said that with its own offices, the center could have its administrative offices and its shelter in the same building and could expand the number of beds in its shelter to 16 from eight.

She said she also plans to expand the services offered for children at the center because of a growing need to help children in abusive homes.

"When people come here to seek shelter, they come in with the clothes on their back," said Ms. Matthews. "It's unbelievable how they make it. And when you see children in here and understand what they've had to endure, you just want to reach out and help them."

A few days ago, Ms. Matthews said, a little boy came to the center's emergency housing shelter with his mother, who had been abused by her partner. As the van pulled up to the shelter, he turned to his mother and said, "Mom, I feel safe here," Ms. Matthews said.

"It lets me know the hard work that all of us are doing is paying off," Ms. Matthews said.

"It also shows that we can't ever give up," she said. "Those small success stories keep us all going. And it's the mission of this agency to help anyone who's being abused."

In a previous job, Ms. Matthews helped people with disabilities find homes in Fairfax County, Va. She said she applied for the Howard County job because she had been "extremely impressed" with the service two of her female clients received at a domestic violence center in Virginia.

"The domestic violence center never said 'we can't work with these individuals,' like so many agencies had," she said. "It told me a lot about the domestic violence organization.

"I remember how my clients were treated years ago, and I decided to give it a shot."

Before coming to the Howard County job, Ms. Matthews was director for a year of Options In Supported Living Inc./The ARC of Montgomery County, which provides community living support for the disabled.

"Ms. Matthews comes here with a good background to be director" of the center, said Manus O'Donnell, director of Howard County's Department of Citizen Services. "She's intelligent, dedicated and eager to work with improving the DVC.

"It's important for any executive director to be dedicated to the cause they're working for and to have a commitment to others in the community," he said. "Ms. Matthews has that."

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