CONWAY — One evening this spring, Joy Tarbell opened her computer to find an email of interest. The non-profit Starting Point: Services for Victims of Domestic & Sexual Violence was searching for office space in the Conway area sufficient to accommodate 15 staff plus conference space and parking.
Tarbell has been involved with Starting Point in a variety of capacities since 1994, volunteering as a crisis line responder, hospital advocate and board member, in addition to assisting with fundraising and supporting the organization financially.
In 2009, when Starting Point’s original shelter was bursting at the seams, Tarbell, a Realtor, helped them find a new property for the shelter and administrative offices. She negotiated the sale of the old property and the purchase of “Grace House,” donating both commissions to Starting Point.
Starting Point had since outgrown its operating space inside the shelter, and early last year, when COVID closed down the state, the administration went remote to protect both staff and shelter residents.
Executive Director Deborah Weinstein says, “Not only had we outgrown that space — it wasn’t a great dynamic to be operating from within the shelter as the services we provide have been expanding. Shelter guests need more anonymity, more security, more confidentiality.”
With COVID came the dark reality of victims being isolated with their abusers, and need for services skyrocketed. In 2019, Starting Point provided 5,400 bed nights for people in imminent danger of harm. In 2020, that number tripled to 15,575.
Starting Point is the victim advocacy agency for the county. It covers a wide geographic area and works in courts, hospitals and with multiple town and county law-enforcement departments.
Desperate for an operations center where they could function as a team and orchestrate a coordinated response, the agency accepted a generous offer from Chuck Henderson to utilize space in his Chuck Roast warehouse.
Still, as the need for services escalated, the agency was expanding and outgrowing even that space. So Raetha Stoddard, Starting Point’s outreach, education and prevention coordinator, sent an email appeal to the community, which is what Tarbell found in her computer’s inbox that evening.
Stoddard says, “I just knew there was somebody out there who would come forward. Our community is incredible.”
Tarbell called Weinstein to learn more about what the agency needed. She listened, and then said, “OK. I’ll find you a space. We got this.” Weinstein reports jumping for joy in her kitchen.
Tarbell came to realize, however, what Weinstein and Stoddard had already learned. There were no adequate rentals to be found within the agency’s means. But she recognized the potential in a Pleasant Street building listed for sale and convinced Weinstein to take a look, The space was perfect, as was the central location in Conway Village so near Grace House. Ample parking was a plus, as was room for future expansion.
Although Starting Point didn’t have the funding for a purchase, Tarbell did not hesitate. She and her husband, Eddie Minyard, an equally enthusiastic Starting Point supporter, bought the building and worked with Weinstein and the board of directors on an affordable three-year lease with an option to buy.
Stoddard is still astounded at how quickly this came together. “Thanks to Joy, these things got done in a heartbeat. She cuts right through and gets it done.”
Starting Point’s Tarbell Minyard Advocacy Center was born.
Again, the real estate commission was donated to Starting Point to help cover the costs associated with launching such an operation.
The course of Starting Point’s tenure in Carroll County has taken the agency from meager beginnings as essentially an underground railroad for victims to a highly regarded multi-faceted advocacy organization.
While the shelter is a critical component, the work involves so much more. As the veil of secrecy and shame has been lifted from victimization, Starting Point is recognized as a key component in becoming a healthier community.
Direct services advocates continue to be based out of Grace House. They work with victims both in and out of the shelter, addressing temporary and transitional housing along with all the services necessitated by trauma. Advocates formulate safety and parenting plans, accompany victims to court, provide job search assistance, and make arrangements for social services and mental health and addiction services.
Community advocates are based in the Advocacy Center. Their work encompasses response, crisis intervention, prevention, legislation, community awareness and education, relocating victims either within the community or to external agencies per lethality assessment and protocol.
“When partners such as the Children’s Advocacy Center or DCYF call with an urgent need, or when police call with lethality concerns, we’re able to respond much more quickly which goes a long way toward breaking the cycle,” Stoddard says.
The Advocacy Center provides Starting Point a space in which to connect with the community.
Because of the many security and privacy concerns, Grace House was not accessible to the public. “This gives us a space people can walk into,” says Weinstein, excited at the prospect of opening the doors to community members, hosting forums and working onsite with partners.
Weinstein elaborates on the necessary safety systems that protect staff and visitors.
“We have a lot of infrastructure costs. Alarm systems, security cameras, secure and encrypted wiring are a few. … We’re visible now for the first time. The perps know where we are, but so does the rest of the community.”
As Starting Point turns 40, they’re gearing up for a $400,000 capital campaign to buy the building, fund infrastructure and address safety issues such as outdated wiring and vermiculite mitigation.
Stoddard has been affiliated with the agency for much of its existence, in various volunteer roles prior to joining the staff, and she has seen first-hand the many changes, both in the services provided and in the accommodations.
Still incredulous, she says: “We started in a basement, we were in a closet, a shed, an attic, a warehouse — and now this! This is testament to the power of this community.”