March 2022 marks Empower Yolo’s 45th Anniversary.  Empower Yolo has a rich history of providing services for survivors of abuse and helping families in need. Over the past 45 years, Empower Yolo has had a strong presence in Yolo County, and services and programs have expanded to meet the changing needs of the community.

“45 years ago there was no hotline, no rape crisis center, no shelter for victims of abuse, there were no safe places for victims of intimate partner violence to go, but a group of women from Davis changed that and founded the Yolo County Sexual Assault Center,” says Lynnette Irlmeier, Empower Yolo executive director. “It wasn’t long before the agency became the Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Center (SADVC). The newly formed agency taught the community that for some women in our county, the most dangerous people were not strangers but the people who claimed to love them. Those women also started a movement in this county,” says Irlmeier.

In 1980, the agency received a federal grant to open Harper House, the county’s first shelter for battered women and children.  In November 1999, the Wallace and Vanucci Shelter, the current, confidential facility opened to residents.  To meet the increased need for shelter, the building has been renovated and expanded to include 35 beds.  In December 2020 Empower Yolo’s shelter kitchen remodel project was completed. The staff and clients love the new kitchen as it dramatically improves our ability to support individuals and families who come to us at the most difficult times of their lives.

“As a board member, I’d like to expand Empower Yolo’s outreach to notify our local community that we offer FREE services to clients during their most vulnerable life experiences. I’m particularly proud of Empower Yolo’s confidential shelter that offers a safe place for traumatized victims of domestic violence to heal. Domestic violence and abuse affect individuals, especially women and children, in all socio-economic situations. Empower Yolo has the resources and ability to help and it’s gratifying as a board member to be part of this community effort,” says Susan Gefter, Empower Yolo board secretary  (board member from 2012-2018; rejoined in 2021 for a new term).

In 2010, the agency moved into the Dowling Center, the former Maxwell school building in Woodland named after principal Rhoda Maxwell. The building that was generously donated by Dan Dowling has been Empower Yolo’s home since then providing services such as a 24-hour crisis line, emergency response to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, legal assistance, and counseling services.

“I am grateful that 45 years ago the founders understood the problem of sexual assault and domestic violence and the need for a safe place for survivors to go. I am amazed at the breadth of services Empower Yolo now provides to Yolo County residents in need, far beyond those that started it in 1977,” says Cathy Farman, Empower Yolo board member, past board chair (board member from 2014-2019; rejoined in 2022 for a new term).

Children have always been important to SADVC.  In 1982, the agency began offering a child abuse prevention program and in January of 1994, the agency added a child abuse treatment program (CHAT), partnering with the Yolo Family Resource Center (YFRC) and the Multi-Disciplinary Interview Center (MDIC).

In January 2014, in an effort to more effectively encompass our vast programs and services, as well as highlight the connection between client, organization, and community, the Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Center became Empower Yolo. The new name, Empower Yolo, is a reminder that domestic and sexual violence doesn’t define who you are, not as individuals, advocates, and survivors or as an organization.

“The name change was for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, stalking, and child abuse.  We wanted them to know that this county is behind them. Empower Yolo is here to help victims heal and most of all, to find the strength that makes them survivors,” says Irlmeier.

The new name also allowed the agency to expand in many other ways.  On January 1, 2016, the Center for Families, a non-profit established in 2002, whose mission was to engage families in accessing support and resources promoting health, stability, and self-sufficiency merged with Empower Yolo allowing it to expand its reach by including more services and resource centers in Davis, Woodland, Knights Landing, and West Sacramento.

Through the merger Empower Yolo remained dedicated to helping survivors but added services to help families stay healthy, stable, and self-sufficient – such as health insurance enrollment, food distribution, homeless prevention, rapid rehousing assistance, financial coaching, income tax assistance, case management, exercise classes, playschool experience and the After School Safety and Enrichment for Teens (ASSETs) program which partners with schools and communities to provide academic support and safe, constructive alternatives for high school students.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, Empower Yolo has been unwavering in providing services to victims of abuse and vulnerable families throughout Yolo County. Empower Yolo has risen to the challenge of supporting the community’s increased need for services in almost every department. Domestic violence rates were higher because shelter in place and quarantine at home was not safe for victims of abuse. The board of directors has supported the agency throughout this challenging time, and staff members have been working tirelessly for nearly two years to support clients in any way possible.

Empower Yolo has seen an increase in the need for basic necessities such as food, clothing, and help with rent, utilities, and childcare. There is also an increase in need in several program areas including food distribution, counseling services, legal services, and other services for survivors of abuse, vulnerable families, homeless and immigrant clients. Empower Yolo continues to grow and improve to meet the needs of its clients.

Empower Yolo revamped its housing department in 2021 to meet the increase in the need for housing services, a problem that was exacerbated by the pandemic. Empower Yolo’s Housing Team is focused on program collaboration and wrap-around housing advocacy for Yolo County residents fleeing domestic violence, experiencing homelessness, and those affected by COVID-19. Housing advocates are available to provide case management and emotional support during the process of assisting clients in finding and maintaining permanent housing. Empower Yolo’s Housing Team also provides application assistance for clients and landlords eligible to apply for Housing is Key, the California COVID-19 Rent Relief program.

As Empower Yolo starts a new era we take a moment to remember the innocent victims. “Last week’s tragic murder-suicide in Sacramento, reminds us that there is still work to do. While we celebrate our accomplishments, we know that Empower Yolo does not do this work alone.  It takes all of us working together, faith communities, health care institutions, schools, media, law enforcement, neighbors, and friends to address this problem. We all have a role to play in keeping our friends and neighbors safe,” says Irlmeier.

Empower Yolo is thrilled to be kicking off its 45th-anniversary campaign in mid-March – celebrating its history of providing services to survivors and families in need for 45 years in Yolo County. Our anniversary theme will be “Welcome Home.”  Empower Yolo will continue to focus on making our safe house feel like a safe home for clients staying with us during the most difficult times in their lives. We also ask our supporters to invest in expanding our housing programs, which assist clients in finding and maintaining permanent housing. Our goal is to raise $145,000 through the end of the fiscal year and to move 45 victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, or human trafficking into permanent housing during our 45th year.  The April “Shower for the Shelter” will be a “rooms-to-go” drive so that every one of those 45 households receives the necessary items to complete a bedroom, bathroom, or kitchen.

Just as the Dowling Center has become Empower Yolo’s home, help us support 45 survivors and their children in finding their new, permanent, safe homes. “My hope for Empower Yolo moving forward is that we are able to continue providing the services that support safety, stability, and health for individuals and families in Yolo County – making our communities stronger and more resilient. Empower Yolo has grown and evolved over the years and has become Yolo County’s key service provider for individuals and families in need. I hope that Empower Yolo will keep evolving to meet changing needs while still delivering on the promise to help people become safe from violence and more equipped to live healthy, stable, and self-sufficient lives,” says Evan Schmidt, Empower Yolo board chair.

Celebrate and support Empower Yolo’s 45th Anniversary year by donating $45 or more, following our campaign in the spring through “Shower for the Shelter” and Big Day of Giving on May 5, and help us continue in our mission of promoting safe, healthy, and resilient communities.

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