Gretchen Vapnar opposed Elgin domestic violence shelter in the '70s. Now it's named after her as she retires.
If Gretchen Vapnar had her way, the domestic violence shelter in Elgin that was renamed after her might have never happened, or perhaps not to the extent it did under her leadership for the past four decades.
Vapnar was part of a neighborhood group that in the 1970s opposed the new shelter, believing a different location was more appropriate. The effort failed, but Vapnar got a job offer from the shelter's director, who covertly also preferred another location and with whom she'd become friends, Vapnar said.
"You can imagine that her board was not exactly thrilled with that hiring of 'the enemy,'" she said.
Forty-four years later, the board honored 76-year-old Vapnar by renaming the center this month ahead of her retirement June 28. The Gretchen S. Vapnar Community Crisis Center offers a crisis hotline, temporary shelter for about 40 people -- mostly women and children -- in crisis, domestic violence and sexual assault programs, a food pantry, and medical, legal and financial assistance, among other things.
Vapnar's biggest contribution was a mindset that no matter what the obstacles, they can be overcome, board President Keith Brill said.
"She's been a great executive director for all these years," he said. "We've grown immensely over her time frame and we've done miracles with not a lot of resources."
The center employed five people with a $40,000 budget in 1975 and now has 68 employees and a budget of $2.8 million. It has relocated to a larger building, expanded programs and created one of the state's first abuser treatment programs for men. Vapnar participated in the creation of the 1986 Illinois Domestic Violence Act.
The center is housed in an 1891 building donated by First Congregational Church of Elgin. Raising the money to make the building suitable for clients entailed a $600,000 capital campaign to move in, in 1987, and a massive $2.4 million campaign for upgrades around 2000, Vapnar said.
"When I walk into this building every morning, it is still a miracle to me," she said.
The Elgin community has been "unbelievably" supportive of the center and its mission, said Vapnar, who has led the shelter since 1980.
"What I am proudest of is, I believe, the reputation we had in the community. ... I think people get what we do," she said.
Work has been a joy, but she's had health challenges this past year, she said.
"Everybody has told me that I would know when I needed to retire, and that's really true."
Clinical Director Maureen Manning will take over as interim executive director, Brill said. The agency's bylaws require a candidate search, and the board has received at least 46 applications to be examined by a search committee with final interviews by the board, he said. The process should be done by September, he said.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in three women and one in four men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner.
"When I go out to speak, though I haven't done that much lately, someone will say, 'I never knew a battered woman,'" Vapnar said. "I'll say, 'Yes, you did. There's no way, statistically.'"
Things have changed a lot in the last four decades, mainly because domestic violence was not talked about in the 1970s, not even among the first group that opened the crisis shelter, she said.
"We never heard of a battered woman when we opened our doors," recalled Vapnar, who said the shelter was aimed at women in marital and other crises. "About two weeks after we opened we met our first battered woman. We didn't know what to do with her, what to ask. We were naive."
People now are much more aware of domestic violence and there are more "gatekeepers," such as in hospitals and churches, trained to respond if someone discloses abuse, Vapnar said. School education is critical, she said.
"Abuser treatment definitely is the way the world is going to change," Vapnar said. "There are women who abuse men, but the majority are men. We need to change the culture, one man at a time."