We have the opportunity to go back in time with one of the founders and first Executive Director of the Verde Valley Sanctuary, Anne Cunningham, serving from 1993 through 1998. She has a master’s in counseling, is a licensed professional counselor, and is a licensed substance abuse counselor. She is a survivor of severe domestic violence and a lifetime activist. She is one of many activists in her family’s past generations.
Just over 30 years ago, Anne attended a community conversation to gauge if the Verde Valley needed a domestic violence shelter. A grassroots group was immediately formed, called Women Helping Women.
Several women accompanied Anne and drove to Phoenix to speak at the Governor’s Coalition on Domestic Violence telling them of the critical need for a shelter in our area. This group then formed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 1993 that was named the Verde Valley Sanctuary. Anne borrowed from the best practices of the Sojourner Center located in Phoenix Arizona; she took a ream of paper and $20 donation to obtain all the paperwork necessary to establish a shelter program in the Verde Valley.
The first fundraiser was a very successful fashion show that raised $5,000. The first year they raised $40,000 and the next year $100,000 with the help of a wonderful grant writer. Anne joined a Director’s Roundtable and collectively sought grants and support letters for each other’s work. Each nonprofit represented in the Director’s Roundtable collaborated on these grant opportunities, and they nearly always acquired the grants for which they applied.
VVS submitted articles to the newspapers frequently and held public meetings in Sedona, Camp Verde, and Cottonwood. Local resident, Lois Thompson, wrote weekly columns on typical cases of domestic violence based on her work for a California shelter. “We were so grateful for the support of the local newspapers. These articles and meetings were opportunities to explain the need for a regional domestic violence shelter,” Anne shared. They also held a 1996 Winter Symposium on Family Violence, bringing professionals and community members together from across the nation and the Verde Valley.
After so many urgent calls to our volunteers following a high-profile celebrity murder, the men of the board searched with realtors and rented a double-wide mobile home with four bedrooms and two bathrooms; one bedroom was for a house manager. Local women were fearing for their lives and the lives of their children as they watched the drama on TV. Even the rented mobile home had damages due to prior domestic violence within the home. As Anne shared “We transformed this home from a house of hell to a house of healing.” Anne and supporters blessed this shelter, prayed over the land, and buried healing crystals on the property. Native American women performed ceremonies and special blessings. Anne was asked by the board to become the first Executive Director. They hired additional staff for $5 per hour; some were Ph.D. level counselors wanting to get experience working at a domestic violence shelter. The Shelter provided safe refuge for up to 60 days.
Anne’s hopes and dreams for the Sanctuary were to give every level of support to the survivors, so that they would not return to the abusers. She wanted each woman to get a good job, affordable housing, quality childcare, and ample support to maintain their personal security and well-being. Anne believes that we are on this planet to serve. She knew she was supposed to do this work. “Listening to the women and witnessing all they did to survive was a daily inspiration,” says Anne.