Greenwich Time 29.December.2019: When Sareeta Bjerke joined the Greenwich YWCA’s domestic violence task force, as it was forming six years ago, there was little dialogue about the issue in town. At the time, the YWCA had already been serving domestic abuse survivors for more than 30 years, but Bjerke and other local women still felt the issue needed more attention.
Bjerke was working as an OB/GYN at the time, and had grown increasingly concerned about the number of survivors who were seeking services in her office. When she got an invitation to join the YWCA’s efforts and raise awareness about the issue, she jumped at the opportunity.
“The task force at the time was a new concept,” she said. “There was really no structure or goals … since it was so new. So, we really probably set the mission of what this committee should be and probably got the ball rolling on the concept of prevention and education in town.”
Bjerke and other task force members began speaking around Greenwich at local events, in an effort to educate the public.
“When things happened nationally … we made sure to have an opinion and speak out in the community,” she said.
As the Greenwich YWCA brings to a close its 100th year of service to the community, organization leaders and members are reflecting on the agency’s mission and accomplishments.
“The most important is, of course, our domestic abuse services,” said Mary Lee Kiernan, president and chief executive officer of the Greenwich YWCA.
The organization’s mission resonated with her when she took on her role three years ago and it aligned with the advocacy work she had done in the past on behalf of women and girls.
“The issue of violence against women is an enormous barrier for girls and women throughout their lives,” she said. “So, it really spoke to me that the YWCA was the only provider. Not only are they providing services, but they are also doing prevention throughout the community to really break the cycle of abuse that unfortunately is present in a very substantial way here in Greenwich.”
The Greenwich YWCA formed in 1919 with seven women who raised $50,000 to purchase the original property. Some fathers and husbands had not yet returned from fighting in the war and women and girls were often left alone. That year, the YWCA provided its first auto mechanics and electrical repair courses, which drew in 500 members to the building at the time, then located on Milbank Avenue, according to the nonprofit’s 2017-18 annual report.
In 1937, the organization expanded programming to include health, education, business and public affairs. Eight years later, in 1945, organization leaders asked the NAACP to advise its board members on fair employment practices in Connecticut. By then, the agency was running more than five programs and the building at the time was running low on space. In 1965, 18 families collected $1.5 million to purchase 6.5 acres for the current Greenwich YWCA building, according to the annual report.
By 1970, the “Interchange” program launched to provide a formal way to exchange viewpoints on topics including morality, student unrest, law and order and race issues, among other concerns.
In 1981, the domestic abuse services advisory council was formed and served its first 47 clients. In the years since, the Greenwich YWCA has become a top Fairfield County provider of programs and services for victims of domestic violence. In 2018, it launched a legal clinic to provide free legal advice to survivors of domestic violence.
The agency also has been active with advocacy. Last year, it advocated for the Times Up bill, which lengthened the statute of limitations on sex assault and strengthened training requirements on workplace sexual harassment for employers in Connecticut.
The Greenwich YWCA also championed the dominant aggressor statute, which states police must arrest the individual who has shown through a set of criteria to be the dominant aggressor in a domestic violence situation. In the past, Connecticut police had often arrested both parties, re-victimizing survivors, according to domestic abuse prevention advocates.
As the YWCA Greenwich nears its 101st year of service, agency leaders are looking to become a service provider for sex assault survivors, as part of the organization’s strategic plan, said Kiernan.
“We are already providing services to victims in the intimate partner context where sexual violence has happened,” she said. “Eighty percent of sex assault happens within the intimate partner context, so we’re already dealing with sexual assault. But we want to officially become a provider — which takes certification and accreditation. We have to move through those requirements in order to officially launch those services. But we’re looking forward to a time when we can be doing that.
“It’s too early to say when it will happen,” she continued. “We’ll make a big splash when we do.”