They Said It Couldn't Be Done
Either no one had ever told her “No,” or she simply refused delivery of the message, because Linda Axley did not understand, “You can’t do that here!” Sometimes I think it is better to be the newcomer who doesn’t understand “the way things have always been around here.” She showed up in Tahlequah, OK in 1979 and immediately began working on what she had learned how to do in Stillwater at Oklahoma State University. And what she did changed the system.
Linda Axley’s response to the word can’t was, “Well…anyone who says, ‘We don’t need a domestic violence intervention program in Cherokee County,’ simply does not understand the problem.” She rolled up her sleeves and rounded up a group of like-minded women and even a handful of men. Soon we were gathering regularly in the meeting rooms at the Elegant Farmers’ Restaurant or Go-Ye Village or the downtown Trolley Stop Cafe. The early adopters of Linda’s dream included: Sara Brown, Wathene Young, Gwen Grayson, Mary Jo Cole, Alicia Combs, Gene Ruth Brumback, Lynn McAllister and myself. A young preacher associated with the Ministerial Alliance was the first brave man to lend support. I wish I could remember his name. He was a welcomed presence among what became Founding Mothers.
First order of business: Linda explained how she would prepare us to educate the locals. Before we knew what had happened, we were all signing up to give educational programs at men’s service clubs, sheriff and police departments, women’s groups, churches, and health care providers. I’ll never forget being told before I could even finish my presentation at a men’s service club meeting, that we did not have a domestic violence problem in Tahlequah. How well I remember being brushed off, considered out-of-line, or just plain being laughed at for actually believing there was so much trouble in so many families. In fact, this group of guys thought the whole idea was preposterous!
Laughing back in the faces of those who wanted to ignore the facts, Linda Axley kept plugging away, keeping our group focused on the goal at hand, while organizing the mission ahead of us. Her perseverance and ability to engage others in this exciting volunteer venture is the very reason Help-In-Crisis became a reality. These empowered women became the “go-to” group for other women wanting to change the “John Wayne” mentality of a small western town. Her contagious enthusiasm and faith gave this budding organization the deep resolve to change hard-set minds. We began bringing domestic violence out of the closet and into the light. Little by little, we collectively made dealing with domestic violence a priority for the entire community. Over time, we succeeded in cajoling groups, individuals, and other service-providing organizations into joining forces with what we had now named “Help-In-Crisis.”
But I get ahead of myself. Our grass roots organization was gaining on the early deniers. No obstacle was too much for Linda’s growing crew of women (and a few courageous men). We thought we had “arrived” when we got our crisis line up and running. We had developed a training curriculum for volunteers, recruited and trained our first group of crisis line workers, begged enough money to set up a phone line and talked the Tahlequah Fire Department into letting us put our phone at their facility. Forwarding calls was the new technology which allowed us to work the crisis line from the comfort of our own homes.
We even had brochures to distribute at laundry-mats, the library, churches, the health and human services departments, at the university and in many retail stores—any place where a woman in crisis might happen to be. Attorney Greg Combs agreed to do the legal paper work required to become a non-profit charitable organization. The Tahlequah Pictorial Press was most willing to report on the progress of our budding organization and the services we could offer.
Our first board of Help-In-Crisis, Inc. was established. The Cherokee Health Department gave Linda Axley a six-month leave to get the organization organized. Her main responsibilities were securing state and federal funding while fielding issues as they emerged. She was expected to have things ready to employ a full-time director by the end of those six months.
Most of the Founding Mothers served on that first working board. Everyone had jobs to do. Some organized training and provided volunteer coordination. Others created publicity, secured safe homes, and devised fund-raising projects. And yet others used their contacts to develop relationships with the hospital and county prosecutor’s office. We were all career women with jobs and families. But Help-In-Crisis became our passion. We were “all in” and the excitement and adrenalin fueled our efforts. No one was telling us we couldn’t anymore. More and more frequently, those in power who had laughed when we started our work were beginning to call Help-In-Crisis to solve problems they had previously denied existed.
A woman of incredibly diverse talents accepted the position of director. Pam Moore carried Help-In-Crisis from one telephone at the fire station and a borrowed office to an organization with an office building and a shelter home of our own for survivors of domestic violence and their children. She and the Founding Mothers continued to engage others in the new force in Tahlequah—Women Helping Women—while influencing the social, political and educational fibers of our community.
When the Sheriff and his crew were uncooperative, we ran a woman for Sheriff in the next election. When “the new Sheriff” came to town, attitudes continued to change. In order to garner more legal support for survivors, our own, Dianne Barker studied law, opened a law practice and ran for County Prosecutor. With her in charge, support for protective orders and procedures for court advocates became more easily accessed. A new “norm” was developing. We were changing the system from within. No one was laughing any more.
Somewhere along the line, Pam turned the director position over to Deanna Franke, a woman of unsurpassed passion and energy. Help-In-Crisis continued to grow in programs, service areas and paid employees. When the time came to build a new shelter, Deanna embraced the daunting project with a fervor and a “Will-do” intention. A third full-time director, Attorney Margaret Cook, took the helm and today organizes the employees and volunteers in carrying on the expanded mission of Help-In-Crisis.
Yet, always in the background is Linda Axley with her unfailing support, service and experience. Linda has kept the dream alive with her own efforts and her “Pied Piper” talents. When difficult times came along, she never lost hope. She kept rolling up her sleeves, rallying the troops and finding solutions for the moment. Help-In-Crisis was seeded by one woman. It took root and grew up. Today, it remains a grass-roots organization, home-grown and home-operated. Much of the success is due to an ever-growing team of volunteers, financial support from more individuals and businesses than we could ever have dreamed for, and yes…a cadre of men who want others to know that they respect women. For many, it is the pride of the community—the very community who said it couldn’t be done.
Quite frankly, without Linda Axley, there would be no Help-In-Crisis. Victims of domestic violence may have never found the courage to take that first step required to change their lives. Law enforcement organizations would have been years even recognizing the problem and still longer learning how to help in the crises which were growing in number. And the existing but inadequate services for families in crisis would still be gravely over-taxed. It was Linda’s design that set up the initial immediate and long term goals that have since evolved into the current comprehensive survivors’ programs. Help-In-Crisis, conceived in 1980, has saved innumerable lives in Cherokee County. Linda continues to mentor, advise, and promote this organization founded to change lives.
Beyond a doubt, my own life was profoundly changed in ways which defy words. Never again will I fall prey to the notion that one person cannot change the world. Linda Axley’s dream, determination, hard work, and personal resources have led the charge to change the system in irreversible ways. And we are all better for realizing it COULD BE DONE!