Kelly White has seen some of the worst things that humans can do to each other.
She has seen women who have been beaten by their partners. She has seen children who have been abused or neglected by their parents. She has heard their stories and understands, probably better than most.
The 58-year-old executive director of the Austin Children’s Shelter and the former director of SafePlace, the center for women who have experienced abuse and sexual violence, knows what abuse is. She experienced an abusive marriage and escaped.
“I married a man that was troubled,” White said. “It happens. And here’s the thing; it happens to your mothers and your sisters and your neighbors and your cousins.”
White was one of the lucky ones. She lived in Wyoming, a state with good social services, when she decided to leave her abusive husband for a shelter. Her education, her socioeconomic status, her race and her communication skills all gave her an advantage in navigating the system, she said.
“What’s kept me doing this particular type of work for so many years is that things worked for me that didn’t work for other people,” White said. “I looked right. I talked right. I had an education. I had a job. I had a supportive family. I had friends that had power, and they made the system work for me. It didn’t always work for other people. I saw how unfair the system is, and I thought I would work to level the playing field.”
Her experience navigating the legal and social services systems with two young children in tow made her realize just how much work had to be done to change it. That was a challenge she was willing to accept.
The Kansas native had always known that she wanted to make a difference. She thought she could do that with an occupational therapy degree from the University of Kansas. Nonprofit work eventually offered her the opportunity she wanted.
In an effort to get away from her abuser, White left Wyoming in a blur, quit her job at a children’s nonprofit, signed a quit-claim deed on her house and answered a blind newspaper want-ad in a Denver newspaper for an unnamed nonprofit agency.
“I was the sole support for two little boys,” White said. “I sent off my resume and got a phone call.”
It was from Safehouse for Battered Women in Denver. It might seem a bit like serendipity, but White omitted her experience with abuse from her interview. She got the job, but years later, when she was speaking publically about her experience, some of the board members told her that if they’d known about it back then, they probably wouldn’t have hired her.
“You don’t necessarily want to hire someone in the process of leaving,” White said. “It was, in fact, the best thing that could have happened. It was great for me, and it was great for the organization.”
In her work with the organization, she realized that people think partner violence happens to other people. She was living proof that it can happen to anyone, not just poor women or minority women. She was able to give a voice to the survivors of abuse.
White has always been a fixer, a healer. It was a gift that led her into occupational therapy and nonprofit work. It was also a curse and part of what kept her in an abusive relationship; she thought she could fix him, heal him.
As the head of the battered women’s shelter in Denver, White was able to take a struggling nonprofit that had briefly closed before she arrived, and turn it into a model for other groups, change reporting procedures with the Denver Police Department and improve the lives of countless women.
And through helping those women, she was able to heal herself.
In her 2011 book, “A Safe Place for Women,” White writes:
“As I began to see how my experiences mirrored the experiences of women entering Safehouse, I blamed myself less and felt more comfortable speaking out. When I quit blaming myself, I also quit expecting others to blame me. Many people still looked at me and at other victims and assessed blame. I no longer accepted that judgment. I finally started speaking out because it was clear to me that the general public believed domestic violence didn’t happen to people like me. Men battered women who were poor, black or brown, uneducated, unassertive, and dependent. Blaming the victims is so much easier when those victims can be categorized as different or in some way less able than oneself.”
In 1993, White interviewed in Austin at the Center for Battered Women. She was open this time about her experience with abuse and promised to bring her experience as a former shelter resident and survivor of abuse to the new job.
While Safehouse in Denver had been struggling, the Center for Battered Women was a nationally recognized program, the first of its kind in Texas and a national model for a women’s center. But it was going through its own kind of changes.
The Center for Battered Women would soon merge with the Austin Rape Crisis Center to form SafePlace, recognizing that services could be combined to better serve clients. That’s no small feat in the world of nonprofits, where some cities have multiple agencies that duplicate some services and compete for a limited pool of donations.
During her 11-year tenure with SafePlace, White would oversee the merger, expansion and an exponential increase in the size of the organization.
“I’m a change agent,” White said. “If I was in the private sector, I could make a fortune on stock options. I’d be known as the turnaround person. But in the nonprofit world, it means you get the crappy office, you don’t get paid as much, you work terrible hours, and you get all the satisfaction of doing well.”
Twenty years after White left her abusive marriage, she was surprised to find out that SafePlace was naming the 105-bed family shelter she had spearheaded the effort to build after her.
But she also recognized that SafePlace had grown and changed and finally needed a rest. It was time to hand the reigns over to someone else.
“I take jobs, go in, and fix things for the next person,” White said. “My strong suit is getting everyone to move in the same direction as an organization. I recognize talent. I recognize good ideas.”
White left SafePlace in 2003 and ran against Todd Baxter in the District 48 State House race. After an arduous year on the campaign trail, she garnered tremendous respect for anyone willing to step up and run for public office. During the race, Baxter’s wife famously blasted White for being a “man-hating liberal” in an email that was leaked to the press.
“You go from being smart and respected to being stupid and not respected,” White said of the campaign process.
White lost the race to Baxter, a well-funded incumbent, by 147 votes “and that was OK,” White said. “One of the things that absolutely proved was that it could be done, and we don’t have to accept the status quo.”
After the election, White took a job with the Chicago Foundation for Women, where she got to write checks to women’s causes, a dream job for her. But two years ago, she got the call. She was needed back in Austin.
The Austin Children’s Shelter was about to undergo major changes. The shelter was moving to a new campus. Staff would more than double. White’s talents as a change agent were needed again.
“It’s been a blow-your-hair-back kind of experience,” White said. “In the last two years, everything changed, but at the core we are still dedicated to providing a safe, nurturing environment, safety and security and education for kids that have been abused or neglected.”
The shelter houses children ages birth to 22 years that have been removed from their homes or are orphans. Demand for the shelter’s services has exploded in the last few years.
In 2009, the shelter provided 5,600 nights of care. In 2010, it was 13,000. In 2011, they are on track to provide 20,000 nights of care.
The shelter sees so many different children. White points to a cottage with brightly colored playground equipment outside – that’s for the littlest ones. There’s an area for teen moms. The shelter also has a program for teens and young adults that have aged out of foster care but are still in school, a lifeline that may keep these young people out of jail or the morgue.
Each child has been traumatized, suffered grief or experienced loss. Each one is special, White said.
It’s not her job to comfort them, although she does that. It’s her job to make sure that each of the hundreds of regulations are followed to the letter, that there are enough counselors, and most importantly, that there is enough money to keep the lights on.
The center’s budget has increased dramatically with the expansion, but administrative costs have been severely slashed. How do you justify another fundraiser on staff when you need more caregivers? White wrestles with these questions every day.
“I’m used to raising money, but generally, I wasn’t raising money that was needed for utility bills and to put food on the table,” White said. “We all do three jobs around here so that we can put everything back into programs.”
And, yes, it’s difficult to see the hundreds of children that pass through the shelter each year.
“In this job, my heart gets broken every single day,” White said,
But she also sees people at their absolute best, and it keeps her coming back, day after day. She has seen children, victims of severe abuse who have floated through as many as 32 foster homes before aging out of the system, pick themselves up and lead successful lives. She has seen women with horrible physical and emotional scars go on to help others. She is still surprised by generosity.
There are days when it all gets to her. On those days, she talks with her three adult children and retreats to the arms of her husband, Bill McLellan, or to her carefully tended garden, her writing or a good book.
And she comes back the next day, ready to heal, ready to fix something, ready to change something.
“I get to see the best, the absolute best,” White said, pointing out her office window at a young man in the courtyard below, a resident of the shelter’s transitional program for young adults who is mentoring younger children. “You’d never think that he was going to make it, but you see people accomplish things all the time that you wouldn’t think are possible.”
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