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Interview with Mary Ann Lama, November 12, 2008 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Mary Ann Lama, November 12, 2008
November 12, 2008
Oral history interview with Mary Ann Lama, Executive Director of Wilmington's Domestic Violence Shelter and Services.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Lama, Mary Ann Interviewer: Jones, Carroll Date of Interview: 11/12/2008 Series: SENC Notables Length 60 minutes

Jones: Today is Wednesday, November 12, 2008. I'm Carroll Jones with Kate Sweeney for the Randall Library Special Collections Oral History Project. We're in the Helen Hagan Room in Special Collections. Our guest this morning is Mary Ann Lama, Executive Director for over 20 years, of the Domestic Violence Shelter and Services. Mary Ann, I know it's over 20 years, but I've forgotten how many years, [laughs] so I figure you can correct me on that one. And Mary Ann, I want you to, first of all, tell us a little bit about you, where you're from, the interests, family, were you civic-minded, how you got into this kind of work, what motivated you. So start anywhere you want, and we'll be all yours.

Lama: Okay. Well, actually, we moved here in 1985 from Pennsylvania, and we moved here because my husband was working for Corning in Pennsylvania in the small town we lived in. And it didn't look good, it looked like the plant was going to be closing, so we pursued moving somewhere else where there was a Corning plant, and we looked at Wilmington and it looked good. And my husband is just an hourly employee, so it wasn't like a transfer. He had to be interviewed and rehired, lose his seniority and all that.

Jones: When was this?

Lama: 1985. But it all worked out, and then I started looking for employment. In Pennsylvania, I was the Executive Director of a nonprofit which ran group homes-- they were called group homes back then, but they became called residential care facilities for mentally challenged adults. So I had experience in residential work and special needs and all those things. And then I saw this as a great opportunity to continue you what I had a passion for, which was social work and things related to, I guess, helping people.

Jones: Was that your degree? Well, what was it?

Lama: Well, actually my degree was in Criminal Justice with a minor in Psychology and Social Work. And I'm actually in North Carolina a certified social work manager.

Jones: Okay, certified, all right.

Lama: Yes, I had to be tested and I have to keep up some training for that.

Jones: So this was in 1985. How did you learn about domestic violence? Or what was it called at that time? Because in reading some back history, not only that you people provide, but looking at church records from, let's say, St. Andrew's Covenant, it was interesting to see how this kind of came together in the period, too.

Lama: Well, it was interesting, especially for me, because at the time that I was hired is when a merger was happening between the Task Force Against Family Violence and the Women's Shelter of New Hanover County, so I was brought on to help facilitate that merger and start the new agency, Domestic Violence Shelter and Services. And the way it had been in the past, was that the Task Force Against Family Violence, which was started in 1978, provided most of the advocacy work and they did not provide the shelter piece, and that was provided by the Women's Shelter of New Hanover County that started in 1982. And when you mention, you know, the roots being with St. Andrew's Covenant Presbyterian Church, that happened a lot through the work of Mrs. Burney.

Jones: Betty Burney?

Lama: Uh-huh. And her friends, anyone that she could get to help her with that project, and we often say that the shelter was born in the basement of St. Andrew's Covenant Church because that's where a lot of the work took place to make it happen. And she was still-- she continued to be involved with me during the first few years, and I admire her so much.

Jones: Oh, she is something. So was he.

Lama: Right. Right. And he was very involved as well. I mean, it's almost like every meeting that she went to with me, he was there, too.

Jones: John and Woodry.

Lama: He was a great advocate in the early years. And it's interesting that St. Andrew's Covenant Presbyterian Church still continues to support us at such a grand level. So they're certainly someone that's there with us.

Jones: They are just celebrating their 150th year, and quite a to-do all week. My husband wrote the history and has put together a little museum, so he came home with these papers. He said, "Look here."

Lama: Oh, I'd like to see that.

Jones: And you can, you know. And so I took a look at it and then I called Louise Gorham. I said, "All right, now tell me, what's going on here?" [Laughs.,]

Lama: Right.

Jones: So anyway, I wanted to bring that up because that is-- it shows when you first came here in mid-'80s, I guess, Wilmington was still just, I guess, on the cusp of growing-- it was still a small town, so that I think something like this must have been a big impression. You know, needed, but a big impression. All right, now I know how you became involved in this work. Tell us what it was like at that time? Was the population not what it is now, facilities not what they are now? Did you start in as Executive Director? Did you work you way up? Tell a little more about it.

Lama: Actually, I was brought on as Executive Director, and when I think back on it now, I mean, they were taking a really big risk with me.

Jones: Oh, no.

Lama: Because I had just moved here and wasn't familiar with the community and it was quite different from where I had come from before, and also the structure of the agency was so different. This was very grassroots oriented, and in my other position we were totally state-funded. I did one funding proposal a year, and that was it. And when I came here-- and I have to say it was a risk for me, too, taking the job, because I really didn't know what I was in for, and it was so different because it was so grassroots. There really wasn't a budget. There wasn't any money. I remember walking in on my first day, and of course, Louise Gorham was there to greet me, and she showed me my office, and there was nothing in it. And I said--

Jones: Where was this located?

Lama: Well, at the time we were in a coalition with the YWCA and also St. Paul's Church. And we were in a little building, a little house behind the church, and that's where my first office was and there was nothing in it. And I asked about office furniture, and they said, "Well, you'll have to get that." And I said, "Okay. Well, what's the budget?" And they said, "Well, there isn't any money. You just have to get it." [Laughs.] So there was only one-- there were actually two other employees at the time; we started out with just three employees. So I went upstairs and asked the other person, like, "What do you think? Where would I go to find a desk for free?" And I called General Electric and they were throwing out some furniture. So I still have that desk today.

Jones: Do you? Good for you.

Lama: The throw-away desk from GE. And it was actually one of our elected officials, Joe Barfield, who was county commissioner at the time, who is the one who led me to my desk and delivered it for me. And I think it's interesting about Wilmington, how even though I've seen a lot of growth with it, I think it's still kind of a fishbowl, because you keep running into people, and now you're seeing the second generation.

Jones: That's true. That is true.

Lama: Because now I believe his son has been elected to the county commission. So, you know, you kind of see a lot of that, where you're just all so interconnected in so many ways.

Jones: Intermarried, too, a lot of them. [Laughter.]

Lama: But I can't even remember your question about, I guess, maybe the early days?

Jones: Well, you know, what you've seen. I suspected just what you've been telling me, that grassroots and no furniture.

Lama: No budget.


Jones: No budget.

Lama: No money. I don't think I asked that at the interview. I just assumed that there was money to run the program with.

Jones: But they had to have a way. I mean, they must have somehow, aside from going to the hospital-- and a lot of these people probably didn't go to a hospital-- but just how this thing really got under way so that it was a professional thing you were doing professional help and with the aid of a lot of volunteers. Or maybe not a lot in those days, either.

Lama: Well, there were a lot of volunteers, and that's a big change. What I see, you know, thinking about history and the purpose of this, is we had volunteers. We had women, they were retired women who moved here from up North, and they would spend a whole day, like one woman was Monday, one woman was Tuesday, and so on. And they would give their whole day and we could depend on them to be there that day every week, where now we don't have volunteers that give a whole day. I mean, we're struggling to find volunteers that have an hour or two to give in that way. So a change I've seen in our volunteer base is that it's shifted a little to be more like interns from UNCW. We're fortunate that every semester we can recruit about five or sometimes more, interns, so we're kind of seeing that shift. People just, you know, don't give full days to one agency anymore.

Jones: Now, tell me. What's expected of the interns? Since this type of work, as you were, is in a way, secret, I mean, it can't be spread around who's doing what, et cetera, how do you utilize your interns? What do they do, besides, what, answer the phone or run errands?

Lama: They can do that, but we want to make it a meaningful experience. I think another change that I've seen since the early days-- In the beginning, we were pretty much doing mostly direct services, and we didn't even have time to deal with the prevention. We were a small agency and I often think about, you know, this analogy of, you know, we were so busy mopping up the floor, we didn't have time to go turn off the spigot. So we were always dealing with a crisis. And fortunately, we have built a strong funding base and a strong base of support, and it is a different climate now, where there are many more collaborative efforts and people are not afraid to talk about domestic violence. Like in the early days, it was hard to even talk about it or find an audience to find the support you needed.

Jones: Did you also find that victims were not coming forth like they should have for fear?

Lama: Well, I don't-- I just think the word wasn't out there as much and there weren't as many protections, so I think that is true where they thought even if I come to the shelter, what good is it going to do because law enforcement is not going to respond, the courts are not going to respond in the way they need, you know, those type things, where I've seen a big change in the past 23 years in that way. So-- I'm losing my train of thought again, the whole question where we're going, because there is so much to tell about the changes and where we've come and how the community is responding in a totally different way now.

Jones: So tell me this. From a little house in the back of St. Paul's-- Was it St. Paul Episcopal or Lutheran church, do you know?

Lama: Episcopal, on Market Street, 16th and Market.

Jones: And no furniture and just you and some very goodhearted ladies. When did the reaching out, when did it become known that there was a place to go for people who needed help and how did you do this without becoming involved with-- I mean, it must have been very touchy, because, you know, for somebody to come forth and say, "Look, I need help. I'm being abused. My child's being abused," or whatever. And they can always turn around and say, "Well, they're crazy." You know. So this is what we'd like to know. The growth is one thing; the growth came with, I guess, the knowledge that there was a place to go.

Lama: Well, I think for us there were a lot of things, and I give so much credit to the women before me, the volunteers or other people-- Emily Nicloy is one who comes to mind-- and the way they could recruit their friends to help in the cause. And because there was no guaranteed source of funding back then, even before I was hired, they had a plan, and it was to start a resale shop. So our agency was launched in--

Jones: And that's before you came?

Lama: They had the plan for it. It didn't open until after I came, but they were looking at that as a way to bring in some unrestricted funding. So there was a committee who was working on that before I came. And we opened, we launched our agency in January of 1986, and we opened our first resale shop in July of 1986. So within six months, not only had we started our agency, we had also launched a small business. So when I look back, that's remarkable. And at the time, our board member compared it to like having a baby during the first year of marriage. Because we were merging two agencies, and those two agencies that were merging had different philosophies, we had brought in an outside consultant to help with the merger, because our first Board of Directors was made up of a group of people from each of the two other boards.

Jones: Okay. Explain again. Two agencies, which were they?

Lama: It was the Task Force Against Family Violence.

Jones: Okay.

Lama: And the Women's Shelter of New Hanover County.

Jones: Okay.

Lama: So, they had different philosophies about what was the best way to serve battered women. The Task Force, you know, at the time I would say was more of the feminist model than the empowerment model where, you know, women gain strength from within and you don't do everything for the women.

Jones: Excuse me a second, it was Women's what?

Lama: The Women's Shelter of New Hanover County.

Jones: That's what I thought you said.

Lama: The Women's Shelter of New Hanover County is the agency that provided the shelter and the one that was worked on mostly by Betty Burney and her other friends from St. Andrews. And their model was more nurturing, taking care of, and you need both. So, I mean, it was a good blend, but sometimes [laughs] it didn't blend well in a Board of Directors. So we called that the Coordinating Council. And there were also representatives from the Junior League of Wilmington, because--

Jones: Now that I knew, yeah.

Lama: When I was speaking before about no money, it wasn't that there was absolutely no money. There was no money to buy furniture, things like that. The Junior League has stepped to the plate with the idea of the merger before I was hired to pay my salary for two years, so I owe a lot to the Junior League, too, because they knew that without funding for a director, the merger couldn't happen, the agency wouldn't grow. So, you know, there were some real visionaries at the time who knew how to plan.

Jones: Well, these are women that you were dealing with, obviously, who were not only sincere, but they did have a vision or they would not have been doing this kind of thing.

Lama: Right. Right. And I remember Mrs. Burney telling me how she would meet with the Chief of Police or just law enforcement officers, to find out what the needs were, and what do you do with battered women if there's no shelter, and they talked about how they just drove them around in their car all night. So, I mean, she definitely identified a gap in services in the community and then put all of her efforts into trying to find a way to make the shelter happen. And back to, you know, you asked about how did we get the word out, and a few things happened. We had a fire that destroyed the shelter in January of 1987, so that got a lot of media attention, so some people said it was a blessing in disguise. I mean, luckily it was a Sunday morning; the women were at church or were out, when the fire happened. So that got some media attention and got the word out that there even was a shelter in Wilmington and, you know, got us some new supporters, I think, and some new interest in the issue.

Jones: This is, okay, I'll just ask it anyway. With all the nonprofits in town, so many of them geared toward taking care of children, whether they're living in an abuse situation or whether they have birth defects or whatever, children seems to be a main focus along with women. And you just mentioned Junior League. They've been involved in a number of things like that; most churches are. Most churches are isolated, I think, in taking care of, especially, their own congregation, except with the Townston Center, which now is doing wonderfully. Did you find it difficult, or were people hesitant to come to your little house behind St. Paul's or whatever was built after that, or you moved into? How did they find out where to come on their own, without a neighbor, a parent, the police, a teacher saying, "You must go"?

Jones: Right. Well, early on, we started working with entry points for where battered women might be referred from. For example, the hospital. And we would go and do trainings at the hospital, especially the emergency room staff. We had our business cards and brochures out there. We did law enforcement trainings from day one. I remember-- [laughs] I have so many stories to tell, you know?

Jones: Yeah, I know.

Lama: The first law enforcement training I did, it was really funny because there were two different groups, and their response was identical, only they used different words, and I quote what they said. When the court advocate and I went in to do the training, the first thing we said was, "Okay, when you get that call and you hear it's a domestic call, what's the first thing that goes through your head?" And the first group of officers said, "Oh, crap." So then the second group-- [laughs] We said, "What's the first thing that goes through your head?" And they said, "Oh, shit." So it was the same response, like they did not want to respond. So we did trainings, to try to work through some of that, and to let them know that we were there to help them, because I think they had that response because they didn't know what to do with the victim. So then we were able to tell them, "Well, you can bring them to us, and that's the best thing you can do." So I mean, I think just by going around to all those places in the community and building those partnerships and coalitions is how we were able to chip away at all those barriers.

And then one thing-- I mean, there were a lot of milestones along the way, and one of them was in 1992, when we brought Ellen Pence here. She is one of the foremothers of the battered women's movement out of Duluth, Minnesota, and they have the model program for intervention and prevention. And they were also doing a lot of work with batterers, too, long before anyone else was, and they had a great model of running a coordinated community response. So we brought them here to the university; the university partnered with us for a two-day workshop where there were continuing education credits for people who participated. And out of that came our local Domestic Violence Advocacy Council, because there were so many people that attended the conference from all the various disciplines in the community, that then we were able to get their interest, and to hear from the national experts on why that's the best community approach. And that Council continues to meet monthly at the Open Gate every second Wednesday of every month, so we continue in our efforts to kind of infiltrate the community with the knowledge of what needs to be done to help prevent domestic violence.

Jones: Is it easy to, once somebody is referred to you-- I'll put it this way, first-- what happens? Do you wait for them to come to you because it would be awkward or not legal or whatever, to go to them? And these people who are referring those in need of help, do they sometimes miscalculate and find there was no need, maybe there's something else there, a mental problem or something like that? It must be like walking on eggs, really. Do you interview them? What do you do when you first have a referral or somebody walks in or you get a phone call? I'm sure you have to check it out first.

Lama: Well, we do. And I think that women who come to us are like the strongest people in our community, because if you think about it, they're placing their lives in the hands of strangers. And how hard that must be because it's such a personal, intimate issue. And when they're telling their story, I mean, they're talking about abuse by someone that professed to love them, and that's such a betrayal. And they're telling us things that they don't want to tell anyone, but they're telling strangers, so we really admire them and support them and believe them. I don't think anyone's going to come to us and make that up; you just wouldn't put that out there. And I don't know that we've ever found someone who wasn't abused in some way that reached out for help to us.

Jones: Are there different kinds of abuse, not all physical? Are there other types of abuse? I mean, for example, a parent with a child? I don't know, just in different ways?

Lama: Right. There are a lot of different definitions of domestic violence, and we do find where it's not just like the intimate partner. It can be another family member.

Jones: How about men?

Lama: Yeah. And that's a whole other topic. Men are abused and we serve men, but when we talk about how hard it is for a woman to reach out for help, for a man to reach out to an agency that is seen as a women's organization, it's extremely difficult for them. But we do have some, some that do. I think last year there were 36 different men in total that reached out for help.

Jones: Do you have a group of men that you can count on to talk with them? Would they feel more comfortable talking to men?

Lama: We do have a male on staff. He doesn't do direct services. He is very trained in the issue of domestic violence, but the funding source that pays his salary prohibits him from doing any intervention. He can only do prevention work. So we don't. We have some therapists in town that will accept referrals, some of them at a reduced rate. We have some other resources in the community, but we don't have anyone on staff right now.

Jones: No volunteers after-hours?

Lama: We don't. Our agency doesn't have a volunteer that does that.

Jones: This is fascinating, but unfortunately one of the things, when you have children come along with their mothers, let's say, they still have to go to school. How do you approach that issue with the schools?

Lama: And that's another--

Jones: And not make it so the other children can taunt these kids?

Lama: We do have a lot of relationships that we've built with the school system where they will let them go to a different school for awhile. Like the shelter's district, it might be a totally different district, and they make special arrangements to help us out. I think one thing about Wilmington, is that we are so fortunate to have the level of support from other colleagues and professionals and allied professionals who do understand. And I think it's because a lot of awareness that has been raised. I think over the years, a lot of awareness has been raised on a national level. I think back to the O. J. Simpson case, and I see that as a turning point in the country, for where people then felt it was okay to talk about domestic violence. I don't remember a case being on TV as much as that ever, I mean, any type of case, criminal case.

Jones: Because it was a celebrity thing. And, yeah.

Lama: And it's sort of like a lot of people remember where they were the day the verdict was read, like they remember other historic events. And I remember that day especially, because TV 6 sent a news team into our living room at the shelter, and all of us advocates and some of the people staying there who didn't mind being shown. They didn't show them on camera, but they wanted to be in the living room watching the verdict read. And the TV camera wanted to film our faces as the verdict was read. And I will tell you, they had the same reaction we did.

Jones: I think the whole world did.

Lama: I just remember the dead silence and the disbelief and the mouths dropping open. And then they wanted to interview us, and people were speechless. So, I mean, I think a lot of people remember where they were, there was so much attention to that case. And I think there were still things that weren't made public. I know there were things that never made it to the trial for various reasons, you know, but still we use them as ways to teach about domestic violence and how a woman is at more risk once she decides to leave. And that's why we make it a sincere point to do a safety plan with every woman who comes to the shelter, because your chances of harm increase once you leave. And that was so clear in that case. And we believe that she knew something was going to happen. She went and made her will, I think it was a week or two before the crime. She actually went to a shelter one week, and that was never admitted.

Jones: That was not brought out.

Lama: But as advocates, we were getting all this information. And the reason they said they couldn't allow that to be admitted at the trial, is because she wouldn't be able to testify to that or to talk about that, so they wouldn't even let the shelter release its records. There were so many other things that were clear indicators.

Jones: Do you feel if that had been brought out and they'd known that, there might have been a different feeling with the jury?

Lama: Well, I do, because there was so much more that never made it to that case, where she knew she was in danger. She wouldn't have gone to a battered women's shelter, someone in her position, unless she felt she was scared, and at risk, and things were going on to lead her to believe that she was in that much danger. And I don't know if a lot of people are aware about her sister, Denise Brown, who is still out there as a spokesperson. In fact, she called us before October. She wanted to come to Wilmington and do some speaking. That's a whole other story, but she does that now. It's quite expensive to have her come into a community. And it's interesting because shortly after the murder she came to Raleigh for an event that I was invited to, and I met her then, at that time. She is the one who launched the Hands Are Not For Hitting program, and that's where I found out about it and that's when we started doing the Hands Are Not For Hitting program with the younger children in Wilmington. And that reminds me of something else you asked about: What do interns do for us. Because we have so many outreach and prevention and awareness programs now, they can involve themselves in those type activities versus the direct services. They help with those programs, like the Hands Are Not For Hitting, and anything that we might be doing in the school system, or an awareness booth at the schools, or here at the university. So there are many other placements we can utilize for interns.

Jones: Have you found, or have you heard, or read about-- Is there any particular profile that seems the prototype of somebody who is an abuser? Is there any way for a woman, or a man, or a child, or whoever, to become more aware that this person that they're living with is not rational, is not doing normal things, and warning signs, things like that?

Lama: Right. And we do that with every woman also, and we have a handout. Well, actually it's a lethality review, you know, what are the chances that it could get that bad, and there are just all these indicators. Domestic violence is all about power and control; it's when someone wants to maintain control over another person. And one of the teaching tools that we use is called the power control wheel, and it lists all the tactics that people use, like intimidation; the economic abuse, withholding money, so of course they can't leave if they have no financial resources; sexual abuse; all of the other tactics that they use to maintain power and control. And often when those tactics aren't working any more to keep her in her place, that's when they resort to the physical violence. So it's all about the power and control, and you can see this in so many ways, if you think about it. You know, a lot of people say, "Oh, it's caused by drinking. He gets drunk. That's what causes domestic violence. That's when he'll be drunk." But he chooses, a conscious choice, he chooses to beat his wife. When he gets drunk, he doesn't beat his boss; he doesn't beat his buddy that he's out drinking with. So it just goes to show that it is all about the whole power control and being intimate partner violence.

Jones: Is this something that manifests itself in a relationship as the relationship goes on, and the abuser feels more comfortable in his behavior or is it something that could be, that you could possibly see when you're in the dating relationship or prior to?

Lama: Well, that's one thing that we want to do with young girls, and we are doing more programs in the schools.

Jones: Because you mind is a little bit screwball then anyway.

Lama: Right. We do a program called the Stars program at two of the high schools right now for young girls, and it talks about that. And it's still alarming to me about young girls, and how important it is for them to be accepted and to have a date. And young girls will say, "It's better to go to school on Monday and talk about a bad date than to have no date at all." And that's just so sad. And we try to go over those warnings signs with them, where a lot of things that they view as, "Oh, he does that because he loves me so much." They don't see it as the controlling behavior; they see it as love. Like, "If he won't let me talk to my friends, he wants me all to himself."

Jones: They just don't want to feel left out.

Lama: "He wants to alienate me from my family. It's because he loves me so much." But those are all ways that he is isolating her from all of her connections so that she does become dependent on him and he has the control that he wants. And then, once she tries to go against that, that's when the abuse usually starts.

Jones: You know, it's just absolutely-- so this really isn't something that starts through, let's say, disappointments in jobs or disappointments in a marriage or whatever, money woes, but I guess all that kind of works into it.

Lama: There are contributing factors, but those aren't causes.

Jones: The one I think about, because she belonged to a group that I also belong to as a realtor here in town, was brutally murdered here a few years ago. And she did, though, she knew this man was abusive.

Lama: And she had a restraining order; she did everything she was supposed to do.

Jones: That's what's frightening.

Lama: And one thing-- and we talk about changes, I mean, there have been so many pieces of legislation passed in North Carolina over the past 23 years that it's amazing. And out of that case, it's interesting, because I sat in on some of that and looked at some of the gaps, and one of them was with gun legislation. And we're seeing more and more bills drafted to put stricter restrictions on guns, but a lot of those don't make it far enough, unfortunately. But one of the things that happened in that case, was that if you have a restraining order you have to turn in all your weapons, but he still went to Shooter's Choice prior to killing her to try to buy a handgun.

Jones: So he was determined.

Lama: But that information did not get out, so we need better notification. And Ben and John David are also working on that, to get stricter legislation. I think some things have been passed since that trial, but not to the level that I think we need to prevent things like that from happening, because that should have been a violation of that restraining order, that he was trying to buy a handgun after it was clear he wasn't supposed to possess one. But in every case, you can look at gaps and then you can learn from it and try to improve the laws. And when you talk about the year that she was murdered, that was 2004, when we had four domestic violence homicides that we know were related to domestic violence. So that was, you know, another time. When I talked about the O. J. Simpson case and other celebrity cases being a point where people tune in and want to learn more about it, there are local cases that were those turning points, and I think 2004 was a turning point locally, for awareness because of those cases. She was a prominent realtor. She was an older woman. We saw the range. We had two college students, we had a professional older woman who lived in a gated community, we had a young African American high school student who was killed that October; Gail was killed in September and the students were killed in the summer.

Jones: Does that trigger something? If one gets publicity, does it sort of in a way empower somebody who's of that bent to think, "God, look, they got themselves in the paper." Do you ever find that that happens?

Lama: I really haven't given that much thought. I'm not sure.

Jones: It just crossed my mind, sometimes, things like that, you know.

Lama: But it does, when things like that happen, though, it does spur the community to take action. You probably know, here at the university those murders happened in, I think, May and June, and then the chancellor put together a taskforce in July. I was honored to be selected to work on that taskforce. We submitted the final report that January, so in a short amount of time we did a tremendous amount of work to pull together a plan. We've seen a lot of changes through the university. The one victim's mom is still very involved in this community with efforts to help end abuse. She just came back to our annual Take Back the Night march and rally and read the Silent Witness narrative about her daughter. And she's doing all she can to be an advocate so it doesn't happen to anyone else's daughter so, you know, you see a lot of that. The family, Gail's family, continues to do work as advocates. So I think it's horrific; it's very sad, when those things happen, and the community does rally around the issue and see, "It can be my daughter, it can be my mother, it can be my sister."

Jones: Recently on campus, in fact, just in the last couple of weeks, there was a young lady who claimed that she was being stalked, et cetera, et cetera, and of course there was a shutdown on everything around here. That's why everybody listens and talks by e-mail. It can get to you quickly. And I guess it was soon discovered that that was kind of a-- it didn't happen. She was looking for attention, evidently. And you think, "Oh, darn," because things do change. They do kind of cut down here. This is another type of situation. This was not abuse, this was not an attempted rape, and she said it was. There are always those, I guess, that are looking for attention but kind of screw things up, frankly. Mary Ann, I know, of course, I'm a newbie to finding out all about this group, and it is totally amazing. But what amazes me is I suppose, with the growth in population, there's a need, because there will be a growth in this type of thing. Have there been any studies that show that during certain times it's more prevalent than at other times, times of upset, times of war, times of depression, recession, whatever, in our country, economically or in any way? Because it does seem that not a day goes by, you pick up the newspaper and there's something. Is there any truth in that?

Lama: Well, I think that's just hard to say. The thing that we know is that it happens every day and we have never seen any patterns. You think you might be onto a pattern where it goes up in the summer, but then that can all change. When you look at every year and the numbers by month, it's all over the board. I don't believe in following those patterns. The media always calls us, like, at Christmastime or during the Super Bowl. That's a big thing. They just always want to call and say, "Have you seen more violence on Super Bowl Sunday?" It's just every day we see violence, unfortunately, and we're just working every day to help end it. So I don't know. And I do know that they say that all crime increases in the summer for a number of reasons.

Jones: I've heard that.

Lama: Kids are out of school. There's just more free time; the pattern changes. And for a while we did see our numbers go up in the summer, but not every summer. So I just think it just depends on who's out there seeking help. I think domestic violence is there all the time.

Jones: Tell us about some of your success stories, you feel are success stories, whether they're among the people who you have as volunteers, working with others in association with other nonprofits, hands together, that kind of thing. But let's have a little good news, what you've accomplished.

Lama: You mean like, from victims when they go on?

Jones: Yes, success stories with your victims or in any accomplishments, even in your growth, which I find to be just phenomenal, and people becoming more and more aware. It seems that no family really is not touched, either in their family or somebody they know that hasn't been affected, in some small way, maybe, with this kind of thing. But as Wilmington or southeastern North Carolina grow; I'm sure the need is going to grow, particularly if the economy gets worse.

Lama: I see a lot of successes at our local level with individual people. We've had people who have stayed in our shelter who have gone on to leadership positions within the agency, to be on the Board of Directors, to be staff supervisors. Women do use all of their strengths to turn their life around and to rise above the abuse, and it is always very rewarding to see that in people. And in the individual people that I see are elected officials; I don't know that everybody knows the great strides our local officials are making in Raleigh. For example, Julia Boseman is on the Joint Legislative Committee on Domestic Violence. She's the co-chair of that, actually. And they propose legislation every session, and have been successful with having legislation passed that helps victims. Another local representative, I think she had a leadership position on the-- I'm trying to think of the name of it-- it was the House Select Committee on Domestic Violence. And they actually worked and had great success with a piece of legislation called House Bill 1354. It was passed in 2004, and it was the most significant piece of legislation ever passed in North Carolina, to remedy a lot of issues surrounding domestic violence. Our state coalition at the time, said that that piece of legislation moved North Carolina in the ranking, nationally, as one of the top five states for proactive domestic violence prevention legislation. So there are great things being done locally and at the state level to help eradicate domestic violence.

Jones: There is a need. I know you're always looking for-- Of course, so much of this can't be discussed, I realize that-- the need for volunteers to do these different things. When a woman's taken in and she has small children, the children can stay with her for a certain period of time, is that not right?

Lama: Right.

Jones: And that's important. That's very important. Does this cause a problem later in life for the kids, or do they feel safer being with their mother and know that they're out of a situation that was not happy anyway? I imagine age has a lot to do with it. And you spoke of some of your women who've been abused working for you, either as volunteers or in other capacity. They must be the best ones to go out and spread the word. But I'm getting to this: Do they help in getting the funding, too, after they've come out of your homes, your group homes and so forth, and get themselves on their feet? Who is best able to help do this or is it just the general public? Or what?

Lama: Well, we see where a lot of women just move on, so there aren't a whole lot of women that we stay in touch with. And it seems the ones that do stay around are the ones who do want to get involved with us. I don't think it's so much in the fundraising role, though, unless they go on to be on the Board and then they fundraise as a Board member. But you asked about the children, and does it affect them, and it just has to affect them, at every stage of their life, as far as relationships as well. And our offices used to be in the shelter before we moved to the Open Gate in 2000, but when our offices were there, I mean, I learned so much from the children, because they would wander off into the office wing. And they were totally delightful, and some of the things they said were inspiring, and I learned from them. This one little girl came up one morning and she said to me, "Well, I was sitting in the kitchen last night talking to the women," she goes-- or maybe she said "the moms," "I was listening to the moms, and you would have thought they were all married to the same man."

Jones: How insightful.

Lama: I know. And if you think about that, I mean, I was like she's so wise.

Jones: She felt free enough to say that to you, though, so maybe this is a good thing, that their memories might be that, oh, they were separated from a household, but they're better off. Are there any statistics on kids growing up in an abusive home, that they become abusive, too, or anything like that?

Lama: Well, it's just like everything else. It can go either way; either they're more attuned to it and profess to never let that happen to them and they learn the warning signs and they know how badly they felt when they were going through it as a child, and they don't want to go through it as an adult or don't want their children to be in a violent home. I mean, studies will tell you about males who witness their fathers abusing are more likely to abuse as adults, so we do have children's programs, and we try to do the best we can to talk about positive behavior and how to control anger and how not to get into those typical patterns of power and control. But, you know, we're surrounded by it still, in our society. Like, I think until we can make some major breakthroughs in our media, and just how we raise boys, we're still not getting that right. And there are some great national programs. In fact, we brought Jackson Katz here to the university, once again, was our partner on that. He has this series called Tough Guys, and he talks about how boys are conditioned to be violent at so many levels, you know, the toys we buy for them, the guns, the army figures, sports. And personally, I say this to people, and they look at me like I'm crazy, but I still don't understand why, when you're watching something on TV like a sporting event and a fight breaks out, why aren't they arrested for assault? They are assaulting another person. There may be a penalty; they may have to sit a game out, but they are committing a crime in my eyes. But as long as we let things like that go on, where we let violence happen, it's always going to be allowed at some level.

Jones: Well, I think a lot of men watching: grown-up men, middle-aged men, older age, it doesn't matter-- this is a very macho thing that they don't engage in, therefore, you know, they're reliving some kind of a male thing through them. But I agree with you. Getting back to the shelters and counseling and so forth, you personally, you've been associated with this for 23 years. That's a long time. That's a long time to see heartbreaking situations and to deal with people who are constantly in need of help. That's on the one hand. On the other hand, trying to keep everything together, whether it's with chewing gum or what, you know, so that you can continue. And I imagine that there are times-- Or are there times, or are you superhuman, when you think, "I've got to get away from this. I've got to get away"? I don't know how you manage to continue unless you have found such acceptance, or partly indulgence, but love, from these people you've helped. How do you go on with it? It's the toughest thing I think you could burn out with.

Lama: Well, I think one thing that's unique and special about our agency, is that people stay for a long time.

Jones: It seems that way.

Lama: Our shelter manager has been there almost as long as me. So when you share these experiences and, like, we always laugh about when we retire we're going to write a book, because we have so many stories we can't tell now. We know way too much. And like, sometimes, she and I are the only two that know it, so like, you know, you just develop bonds with your co-workers and you have that support. And I'm very fortunate to have a wonderful homelife and can seek my sanity and support there.

Jones: You must.

Lama: And my former dog, I thought, "My dog knows too much," because in the early days when it was really hard, I would just come home and tell my dog everything. If she could ever talk, I'd be in a lot of trouble, because she knows a lot of confidential information.

Jones: I know that feeling, because we know that the day Smarty answers the telephone, we're in trouble. [Laughs.] That's too funny. Well, I know you're all doing a marvelous place. You're constantly recruiting, constantly growing. And as far as-- do you have corporations that are funding you or give you-- you're always looking for grants, too. But, you know, the money situation must be an ongoing struggle.

Lama: I think we're just really fortunate, too, because early on, like I mentioned, people had the foresight to know that we needed some unrestricted funding, and started the resale shops, the one shop on Castle Street. And then, you know, since then, at one point we've had up to four at a time; we have three now. And those are our salvation, financially. Without the stores, we would not be making budget, because we really don't have any guaranteed sources of funding. It's all competitive. The one piece of funding that is somewhat guaranteed, is our state funding, which is now up to $49,000. We still have to apply, but pretty much, if you don't mess up, if you just provide the services, you're going to get it if you do all the paperwork and everything. But you can't really run an agency on $49,000, so the rest of it, we have to go out, and raise somehow. So it is a challenge. It's a lot of pressure to know that each year you have to raise $900,000. We're just fortunate, though, to have the resale stores, and to have built a strong base of community support and to have Board members who are willing to work on things like fashion shows and chili cook-offs and sell raffle tickets and anything. So we're just fortunate that way, and to live in a community that will support us. I think of other shelters, our surrounding shelters, who are in rural areas and they can't put on a fashion show and raise the money that we can. So we are fortunate to have the resources that we do here.

Jones: How large an area do you cover?

Lama: Well, right now, we just cover New Hanover County, and we help other areas as needed. And in the beginning, when we started, we covered four counties. We also covered Brunswick, Pender and Columbus. And then over the years, we helped them to start their own shelters.

Jones: I imagine, with the tremendous growth of Brunswick County, which, until last year was the fastest-growing county in the country, that their time has come, I'm sure. Do you hear from these people after they get on their feet and go on to big and better things? Does anybody ever write you at Christmas or whatever, thank you or stop in?

Lama: Right, right. And we save every letter.

Jones: Do you really? That's wonderful.

Lama: And we use some of their quotes. I don't know if you saw them on the table tents at some of our events. We pull their quotes and things they've said.

Jones: And how about the youngsters, as they go on to bigger and better things, kind of thank you?

Lama: Mm-hmm.

Jones: That's terrific. How many Board members do you have now?

Lama: Our Board is supposed to be 18 to 24, and right now we're at 18, counting the folks on leave.

Jones: Well, it is probably one of the most rewarding things in town, if you're going to give some time. And I know that when I was first approached, I said, "No, I don't have any time, and I'm no good at things like that." And then I was approached again, and I thought, "Well, I'm getting rid of some things," and you kind of get into it. And I knew it existed, because I do know Betty Burney, for example, and a few others who have been very involved. And it just seems that special kind of people make it work, so I have to salute you. In the future, do you have just the one shelter or are you looking for others?

Lama: No, we just have one. And we've found that it's been adequate for what we need. To go back to our growth and what changed with the awareness, I think a big change was in the year 2000 when we opened the Open Gate, our administrative and outreach center on Market Street. We had been looking for, actually, a number of years to find another facility, because everything was in the shelter, so we couldn't hold meetings at our office or anything. So we found that wonderful property; it had everything we needed. And one of the big selling points was that it was very peaceful and serene.

Jones: It's wonderful.

Lama: I thought it was just what women needed who were in crisis, because when they walk in there, we have the hand painted murals and the water fountain and the winding pathways. And I just wanted to create a place where they felt welcomed, and that it was a place where they could get the support they needed. I don't know if you know Glenda Nichols. She's the one who did all that hand painting in the Open Gate to make it look so welcoming. So I think having that public facility, with the big sign out front and the name of the facility called Open Gate on Market Street, which is the second-most heavily traveled street in Wilmington was a big change for us, and it changed the way we did business. It was a place where women could not only come to seek support, but they could come to offer support. Before, we really didn't have a base where volunteers could drop in and say, "Hey, I want to get involved," or drop off donations or feel that they, as volunteers and community supporters, had a place that felt welcoming. So I think that was a milestone in our growth as well, to have that.

Jones: Mary Ann, thank you for coming and telling us more about this. You do know this will be on our national database on the web, and I think that it's something that a lot of people will find interest in. And I thank you, too, for the work you do with the University. I'm sure that someone like you, with all your expertise, is needed desperately. I'll do my best to get the word out. That's all I can do. It saddens me to know that there's a necessity for this kind of thing, and you're still smiling, so something's got to work. Thanks an awful lot.

Lama: I'm glad to be here, because I like to take every opportunity I can to get the word out.

Jones: Good.

Lama: So that not only victims know that they have a place to come, but also supporters know that we're here for them, too. So I welcome this opportunity and thank you.

Jones: Well, terrific. Terrific.

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