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Newsmaker: A friend at their fingertips

Wednesday, June 13, 2001

By Michael J. Dongilli

The hotline at Crisis Center North in Ross answers every hour of every day. Grace Coleman and her 12-member staff receive 700 calls a year, none of them pretty.

When the phone rings, the person on the other end is too often someone being battered by a spouse, or someone trapped in solitude by a spouse determined to cut off all outside contact.

It's too often someone like a woman Coleman called Mary, whose face once became so swollen from beatings that doctors couldn't tell whether the bones were broken beneath the skin.

"There's a bridge I cross every day when I go to work, and I sometimes say 'I'm leaving all this emotional energy at the end and I'll pick it up tomorrow on the way to work,' " Coleman said. "It certainly makes me grateful for the wonderful family life I have."

She and her husband, John Chapin, live in Center, Beaver County, and have a 10-year-old daughter.

In her business, victories are slow. On average, it takes a woman or man -- 3 percent of the center's victims are men -- seven attempts to leave before the victim is successful.

When something works, Coleman and her staff share optimism and rejuvenation.

Last week, Coleman received a 2001 VITA Wireless Samaritan Award from the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association for using wireless technology to help save lives.

She accepted it at a dinner in Washington, D.C., along with 56 other winners. Coleman was honored for her program to give abuse victims recycled cell phones preprogrammed to dial 911.

Verizon Wireless approached her with the idea two years ago after seeing it succeed in the New York/New Jersey area in 1995. The company programs the phones to dial at a single touch. The calls are free. Other numbers cannot be called and the phones are unable to receive calls.

The center distributes the phones to victims so they can summon help instantly.

Two years later, with nearly 1,200 phones handed out and numerous tales of abuse thwarted because of them, Coleman was overwhelmed at the honor.

"I just didn't anticipate that we would win, and I never envisioned when we started this that we would get the level of community support we did for this project, from businesses and corporations offering to be collection sites to the outpouring of people who've donated the phones," she said.

Coleman takes little credit for changing anything when it comes to her clients' turnarounds.

"One in three women have been or will be victims of violence in their lifetimes," she said. "That starts seeming very real to you when you see client after client call or come into the center."

Coleman got involved while she was a communications instructor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She participated in Project Smile, a program to expose Hispanic and African-American youth to math and science.

"There were myriad issues students faced, and one of them was domestic violence," she said. "It was my first exposure to the dynamics of abuse in the family setting."

Seeing the damage brought her out of the classroom and into the crises of battered victims.

Coleman has been running the crisis center for the past three years, balancing administrative tasks such as grant writing and lobbying legislators with answering hot-line calls.

"[Answering the calls] reminds me why I'm doing this work to begin with," she said.

Still, someone has to solicit funds and persuade lawmakers to take more notice -- work that is made harder by the affluence of the northern suburbs.

"There's a lot of misconceptions about domestic violence," Coleman said. "It's the one crime that crosses over all socioeconomic and racial groupings. Yes, this is a middle-class community, and we don't service anyone in the inner city of Pittsburgh, but [statistics show] the levels of domestic violence in my community at 1 percent above the national average."

The frustration doesn't last. When Coleman talks about those seven attempts her clients go through, her own perseverance seems painless.

"When you realize [the victim is] taking baby steps, building support groups and each time expanding her support network, it becomes easy for you to have patience."

And to take comfort in the triumphs. She's proud of the results of the cell phone program, especially the story of the woman she called Mary.

Mary's assailant remained at large and police contacted the crisis center. "We equipped her with a phone, and she was extremely grateful because he had removed them all," Coleman said.

"Three days later, he emerged at the home, broke down the fence, door and windows," Coleman said. "He had a gun and was threatening her life."

Mary pressed the "1" key on the cell phone that had been given to her to call 911. Police arrested the man in minutes.

"The officer told Mary, 'I don't know who gave you this phone, but it saved your life,' " Coleman said. "I look at the cell phone drive and say if all we accomplished was we saved that one woman's life, well, then that would have been worth it all. But, I know there were many other people affected by the program."

Verizon nominated Coleman for the honor because of outcomes such as Mary's and Coleman's zeal. "Grace has done an outstanding job implementing our recycling program and if you read [her] story, it's just wonderful the work that they do and the help [they gave] to save this woman's life," says Christy Sebastian, a Verizon spokeswoman.

In addition to nominating Coleman, Verizon also donated $1,000 to the Crisis Center North and paid travel expenses for her D.C. trip. She'll have a full agenda while there this week including a White House tour and meetings with legislators to discuss domestic violence issues.

The center serves more than 5,000 clients a year and Coleman is trying to bring more technology into the mix. Through another Verizon initiative, HopeLine, her clients can get free voice mailboxes and a secure messaging system only they can access. AT&T has donated $100,000 worth of phone cards that victims can use so their calls can't be tracked by their perpetrators.

Amid all the technology, her primary goal is to voice one simple message: "That there's no woman who's immune. At some point, you're going to know someone, or that person may be yourself, that experiences a violent relationship."

Michael J. Dongilli is a free-lance writer.

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