Forty years ago domestic abuse did not happen in Warwick. That was the belief of many – domestic abuse was something that happened in the inner cities, not the suburbs. Why would Warwick need an agency to protect these women and children and go on to develop services addressing all forms of domestic abuse?
Linda Sullivan and the Warwick Junior Women’s Club that she chaired encountered such skepticism when she suggested Warwick could use a safe house for abused women in the late 1970s.
Mayor Joseph Walsh was not one of the skeptics, although Sullivan may have wondered at times. She didn’t get an immediate “yes” from Walsh on her request for city assistance.
Walsh told Sullivan to go back to the drawing board and work out the details. She would return and he’d tell her to go back again. With each revision, the concept took shape, and Walsh saw Sullivan and the club’s commitment to making a safe house work.
“You have to do more work. You have to come back,” Walsh remembers telling Sullivan. She listened and was relentless.
“She did the work to take it from a thought to a reality,” Walsh said Thursday at the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center 40th anniversary celebration at the Warwick Country Club.
“She was so passionate about it,” Walsh added.
Walsh provided the vacant Conimicut School to the Junior Women’s Club, which he noted had the backing of the late Walter Santos, who was the Ward 4 councilman at the time. It was a start, but hardly a place to house women and children seeking to escape abusive relationships. It needed a lot of work before the newly formed organization, the Elizabeth Buffum Chace House, which later became the center, could operate.
Walsh steered Community Development Block Grant funding into the project and Sullivan and the Junior Women through their connections rallied support. Sullivan, now living in Florida, gave a lot of credit to her husband Fred, who took on the work with contractors and volunteers of transforming classrooms into living spaces.
Judith Earle, executive director of EBC Center, said Walsh “was extraordinary in this support for the women.” She also spoke of successive mayors and how they helped the agency move forward. She noted how Francis Flaherty assisted in procuring two homes acquired by the Rhode Island Airport Corporation as part of the runway extension that would have otherwise been demolished and relocating them to lots owned by the city that became transitional housing.
The Ferris Health Center, actually the original Conimicut grammar school in front of the newer brick school that Walsh made available for EBC, was then given to EBC and became the focus of a $1.3 million campaign, making it the center it is today. Former president of the Rhode Island Senate William Irons and his wife Mary were honored for their work on the capital campaign.
Earle also recognized former Mayor Scott Avedisian for his commitment to the EBC mission and to the advocacy fund started in the name of her late husband and city solicitor John Earle in 2010. Avedisian, who served on the City Council with Sullivan, praised her and Judith Earle for their leadership. The advocacy fund that Avedisian was instrumental in starting that pays for legal representation for EBC clients during court appearances.
Earle thanked Mayor Joseph Solomon for his assistance as EBC faces the latest transformation of the former school into permanent housing, which is happening now. Tenants will be “able to stay as long as they need to,” Earle said.
Both the Junior Women and the Rotary Club of Warwick were honored. Rotary Club members not only took on the physical challenge of building out – they did a lot of painting – the old school but also members served on the EBC board. Earle further noted how Rotary has annually financially supported EBC grant requests. Club president Mark Arnold and past presidents Tom Celona and Joseph McGair stepped forward for the presentation. The Warwick Beacon was also recognized for its coverage and editorial support of EBC and its mission.
With each presentation, Earle presented the recipient with a brick inscribed with their name, but then took it back. The bricks will find a place in a peace garden to be built at EBC. Then EBC Board Chair Martha Machnik presented Earle with a brick applauding her leadership.
“I thank you for your fierceness and your fearlessness,” she said.
In the final presentation of the evening, the audience stood to honor Tom “Toby” Rose for his “tireless and infectious” passion for the center. Rose, who Machnik described as “a magician extraordinaire,” has rallied his friends in the entertainment business and contacts to stage numerous shows for the benefit of EBC. EBC has established the Toby Rose Humanitarian Award in recognition of Rose’s dedication.