We were thrilled to be able to chat with Mary Ann Mailman, one of the early members of Sanctuary’s Board of Directors, who served four 3-year terms, culminating in the position of Board President. Mary Ann’s leadership and vision have been instrumental in Sanctuary’s growth, and in the agency’s ability to serve the thousands and thousands of families who turn to us for assistance each year.
You have been involved with Sanctuary for Families since the beginning. Can you tell us how it all started?
Founding members of Sanctuary, Sarah Burke and Alisa Del Tufo, were in social work school together and came to realize that survivors of gender violence had no options to get help. There were no city or state services, and the only option for a survivor of domestic violence was to go into one of the city’s homeless shelters. They said, “this cannot be; we have to change this,” and they decided to form an organization.
Their first idea was that other families would take in survivors, and Sarah and her husband Gil took in the first family: a mom with three children. That family lived with them for three weeks, and during that time, they came to realize that this was not going to be a long-term solution.
Alisa and Sarah began to look for a more permanent option. Alisa, who became Sanctuary’s first Executive Director, had been in theological school, so the first shelters were in convents and churches. Sanctuary’s first office was in the attic of one of the churches.
Sanctuary was three or four years old when I came on the Board to help with fundraising. I didn’t know much about domestic violence, but I knew how to raise money from initiatives at my sons’ school. There was very little structure, and the budget was only about $100,000 per year, but even that amount, was difficult for us to raise.
One of the things you were very involved in was the purchase of our transitional shelter, now named Sarah Burke House in honor of Sarah Burke, in 1988. Can you tell us how that happened?
It was during a time when landlords all over the city had abandoned buildings and were not paying their taxes. The city took those buildings back, and they had to figure out what to do with them. They had the brilliant idea of making them available to not-for-profits. Alisa came to a Board meeting; I’ll never forget it — she walked in and said, “We can have a building for a shelter, and it will only cost us a dollar.”
So, we became the owners of Sarah Burke House for one dollar. It was a totally bombed-out building at the time. We had to climb ladders up from the first floor to the fifth floor because there were no staircases. There was nothing – it was an empty shell.
Now that we owned the building, we had to figure out how to turn it into a shelter. Our initial idea was that it would be an emergency shelter, but the state was concerned that an emergency shelter for domestic violence victims would present too many security issues. So Sarah Burke House instead became the first transitional shelter in New York State, where families could stay for six months.
It took every Board member and every volunteer we could find to get it open. When the construction finally finished, it was the Board and volunteers who were there painting apartments, assembling furniture, and trying to make the building habitable. We wanted it to be a wonderful refuge for families who were coming out of emergency shelter.
At Sarah Burke House, each family has its own apartment. Those first residents were over the moon that they had their own residences. We also tried to make it a shared space – with common areas on each floor and a beautiful playground in the back.
What have been the most gratifying changes to you in the agency since the early days?
“We now have at Sanctuary all the tools that can really help people rebuild and move on to new lives — to be safe and to have hope for a future.”
The most satisfying thing in terms of Sanctuary’s growth for me was the evolution to a holistic model in serving our clients. Just providing a bed was not going to be enough. So first, we developed a clinical program so that we could provide counseling to help families move beyond their trauma. We also began to recognize that we had an obligation to the entire family – not just to the person who was being abused.
When Dorchen Leidholdt came on as the Director of the Legal Center, we began to provide legal representation to every client who needed it. There were so many different types of legal needs — orders of protection, child custody, immigration — but we didn’t have the budget or the staff to care for them all. That was when we began to get the attention of the legal community, and developed what is now an incredible team of pro bono lawyers.
We also knew we had to help with housing, and that became another piece of the Sanctuary wheel. And finally, the Economic Empowerment Program — our workforce training program — to me, completes the picture. We now have at Sanctuary all the tools that can really help people rebuild and move on to new lives — to be safe and to have hope for a future.
I’m so proud to have been part of the creation of the Career Advancement Network or “CAN” which allows volunteers to serve as a network for EEP graduates. CAN members provide and facilitate job and internship opportunities as our clients enter or reenter the workforce. It’s a wonderful collaboration between staff and volunteers that enriches the client experience.
Over the years, you were instrumental in growing our end-of-year fundraising campaign, the Annual Appeal. How did that initiative start?
Today we have a wonderful base of donors, and we have support from thousands of people. But in the beginning, there wasn’t any of that. I remember the day the Annual Appeal started — Sarah Burke came over to my apartment with a pack of index cards, and that was going to be our first database of fundraising solicitations!
We asked every Board member to give us a list of any name that would give us a dollar. Of course, we didn’t have a computer at the time, and used a typewriter to create and then mail each letter out. When someone made a contribution, I would write it down in a notebook, and a volunteer would send a personal note to thank them.
One of the many ways you’ve supported our work is by including Sanctuary in your will. Why do you think it’s important to do this?
If you believe in what Sanctuary is doing, and you want to do your part to make sure the organization lasts, why wouldn’t you include them in your will? Why wouldn’t you invest in its future, even after you’re no longer there?
Nobody knows what the future will hold after we’re gone, but sometimes new programs need to be started. Even if I can’t underwrite a program, I can do something that will help ensure Sanctuary’s good future.
Why does Sanctuary’s mission still motivate you to stay so involved?
“We are giving adults and children who have been victims of abuse hope for the future.”
It’s because of the client service. To me, that is the essential thing that Sanctuary must continue to do. It’s something that we should be really proud of. When I think of the number of lives that have been changed over the years, and I think about other things in life that we can’t control, I know that we have been able to do something really important at Sanctuary. We are giving adults and children who have been victims of abuse hope for the future.
In the beginning, we used to say that we were going to get rid of domestic violence. All these many years later, we haven’t been able to get rid of partner abuse. But we have been able to help people escape from abusive relationships, and I think that the children in those families realize there is another way to deal with interpersonal relationships, not violence.
For now, it’s enough that we can help a family to rebuild their life.
Is there anything you wish people knew about domestic violence?
Domestic violence affects everyone in our society. When I first joined the Board, I said, “I used to think, ‘it’s not part of my world,’ but the truth is that it’s a part of everybody’s world.”
I had not been exposed to abuse in my personal life growing up, but I came to know many people who had been. I think we have a responsibility to recognize that it’s happening because, in a lot of cases, people have no support system to turn to.
Anything else you want to add?
“I am so proud of what has been done, and how many lives have been changed.”
I just love the organization that Sanctuary is today. One of the reasons that Sanctuary is so vibrant has to do with its beginnings. I know that organizations change as they grow, but I think that Sanctuary has continued to be a community that is effective because of its partnership with staff, volunteers, and supporters.
People laugh at me, but I always think of being involved with Sanctuary as a calling. I am so proud of what has been done, and how many lives have been changed. I think that’s a gift that Sanctuary gives to me. I am just lucky to be involved.
Join Mary Ann in standing with our clients. Your gift supports Sanctuary’s life-saving work with survivors of gender violence.