Love thy neighbor

From left: Earl Berner, Susan Vignola, and Gwen Berner helped open the area's first battered women shelter in 1980 in Culpeper. Today, the five-county effort operates as Services to Abused Families, Inc. (SAFE) ALLISON BROPHY CHAMPION/STAR-EXPONENT

It was a neighbor’s love and concern that prompted the opening of the area’s first battered women’s shelter in 1980 in Culpeper, an ongoing effort and outreach that today serves five counties as Services to Abused Families.

The founders of SAFE—Gwen Berner and her husband, Earl, and Susan Vignola—recently met in the agency’s administrative office in downtown Culpeper to recall those early days as part of awareness efforts in October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Mrs. Berner, who now lives in Texas, was working for Culpeper Social Services 38 years ago when her 9-year-old daughter said she wanted her to meet a new friend from around the corner who had recently moved from New York. Berner arranged to have the mother over for coffee.

“She was pregnant with her fourth child and this was a second marriage. She called me at social services about a month later, said I need to go to a shelter,” Gwen Berner recalled.

The closest shelter at that time was in Fredericksburg, which was not an option for her neighbor since she had three children enrolled in elementary school.

“She told us her husband had been locking her in the kitchen and hitting her in the head at night and he was drinking,” Berner said. “So I said let me call you back, and I called Earl and said, ‘How’d you like to have some company?’ They came and stayed with us for a week.”

Earl Berner, a town planner at the time, said a box of Cheerios never went so fast with five kids in the house, including their two.

“We just tried to provide a nice, calm comfortable place,” he said. “We parked her car in our garage, which was underneath the house so it wouldn’t be seen by the husband. He did have weapons he had brandished at her.”

Mrs. Berner was there when her neighbor had the baby, and she was there when she went back to her abusive husband, as so often happens.

“He had promised to stop drinking. He wasn’t going to hurt her anymore,” she said.

A month later, Berner received another phone call from her neighbor: She ready to press charges for spousal abuse. Soon after, the woman returned to New York to stay with family.

The experience left a lasting impression on the Berners, who mounted resources to ensure that women and children in crisis would have a safe haven in the future.

“We just got people together for a meeting and said we got to get a shelter in this town,” Gwen Berner said. “I think it was a total God thing because everything was so easy. For a small-town in Virginia, you wouldn’t always expect that people would be so open to the idea of a domestic violence program, but they were.”

Six months later, the region’s first shelter opened in an old tenant house in town that a farmer agreed to let them use for free if they fixed it up. Local businesses donated the supplies and volunteers painted, cleaned the yard and ran the shelter for the first few years it operated, eventually becoming SAFE.

“It fell into place,” said Vignola, who at the time was director of the Culpeper mental health clinic. “I created the first manual to train volunteers because we worked strictly with volunteers. It was needed.”

In those first years, the group did whatever they could to raise money to keep the shelter open, including cooking and selling turkey dinners.

“There was no should we, shouldn’t we, it was forge ahead and people were ready,” said Berner, who still works in domestic violence prevention as a board member of an agency in Texas that operates two shelters.

SAFE Director Cindy Hedges made it a point to offer her appreciation to the founders.

“We as an agency want to make sure we publicly say thank you. We are so grateful. You led the charge, you stepped up to it, so thank you,” she said during the recent meeting.

In addition to running a shelter, SAFE—with its 14 employees and numerous volunteers—has justice system advocates serving clients in Culpeper, Fauquier, Madison, Orange and Rappahannock counties.

The agency runs various support groups, including in the jail, in addition to offering outreach to the local Hispanic population and programs in the school teaching students about healthy and unhealthy relationships. The agency works to combat human trafficking in the area and mans a 24-hour hotline.

In fiscal year 2018, operating primarily on donations, SAFE answered 686 hotline calls, assisted 147 new survivors, provided 2,697 nights of shelter for 68 adults and children, assisted 126 survivors in navigating the judicial system and provided 3,645 hours of advocacy services. It costs the agency $500 a day alone to operate the shelter.

“Community collaboration continues to be pivotal in the work that we can do today,” Hedges said.

Building relationships outside of the home is also crucial, Berner noted.

“These women are typically so isolated that they don’t even know what’s out there. I always tell the women I work with, look around here, you might not want to be friends with everybody, but you need some friends you can stay in touch with you’re out of the shelter,” she said.

Allison Brophy Champion can be reached at or 540/ 825-4315.

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