In the mid-1970s, when concerned citizens tried to convince churches and local governments to help victims of domestic violence, they weren’t exactly received with open arms—or generous donations.

“We had a difficult time getting funding,” recalled Susanna Botts. “People weren’t aware of the widespread problems there were.”

“If they were aware, they didn’t admit it,” added Natalie Davis.

One Spotsylvania County official accused the group of trying to break up families, remembered Becky Reed.

Others would give the typical response that “what a man does in his own home is his business,” said Florence Ridderhof.

Still, the residents persevered and created the Rappahannock Council on Domestic Violence in the summer of 1977. Incorporation followed a year later.

Several of those founders gathered Monday—40 years later—to see where their efforts had led. They toured the newest shelter operated by the group, which was renamed Empowerhouse in 2012.

As they gazed at the living areas, set up like hotel suites instead of crowded bunkhouses, they were awed by the open spaces, modern amenities and how much money it costs to fund such an operation these days.

“Oh, my,” was all Ridderhof could say as she walked into a brightly lit playroom filled with comfortable chairs, children’s books and a rug decorated with letters of the alphabet.

Empowerhouse Executive Director Kathy Anderson explained how women can keep an eye on their children as they do laundry at the nearby machines or job searches in the adjacent computer room.

“This is amazing,” Davis said.


The 10,000-square-foot building is a far cry from the humble origins the founders recalled. According to Anderson, those who were involved from almost the beginning and stayed active for more than 15 years include the aforementioned women plus Natalie’s husband, Ray Davis, Becky Guy, Vashtye Ferguson and the late Sue Hanna and Alice Rabson.

In those days, many of the founders worked as volunteers, answering a hotline for people in crisis. As they heard more and more stories about women being battered—and having nowhere to turn—they eventually created their own hotline for domestic abuse, and then the council.

Ridderhof, a Fredericksburg resident and longtime supporter of the arts and the University of Mary Washington, did more than talk to those in need. When she heard about a woman in harm’s way, she offered shelter in her basement.

Others did the same, to the point the council feared the volunteers were putting themselves in danger.

They scratched together enough money to rent a home on Lafayette Boulevard.

Council members held board meetings around the kitchen table, and volunteers scrubbed the living spaces. It seemed like a paradise at the time because they were so happy to have a shelter, but founders also came to see reality.

“It was a fire trap,” Ray Davis recalled.


The group eventually moved operations to a bigger building in southern Stafford County, and the facility on Lafayette was torn down. As the years passed, the agency tapped into more federal grants and local funding sources, hired advocates for children and victims and employed workers who supported the women throughout their emotional and legal ordeals.

The Stafford shelter opened in 1988, the first in the state built from the ground up to provide a safe place for victims of domestic violence.

The agency outgrew that space, too, and more state and national programs came along that recognized the connection between domestic violence and child abuse. In 2014, Empowerhouse received a $1.5 million gift from Doris Buffett to purchase the commercial building it now operates.

It raised another $2.4 million to renovate the facility that offers more than three times the space of the old building. Empowerhouse can shelter as many as 40 women and children, though Anderson prefers to limit capacity to about 35 people.

The building includes nine living suites and large common areas, an expansive playground and a kitchen with three different cooking stations, refrigerators and seating for about 40.


Ridderhof said she’s asked if domestic violence is still a problem in the 21st century, given more people have been made aware of it.

“We’d like to think it’s less of a problem,” Anderson said, but that’s hardly the case.

In fiscal year 2017, Empowerhouse helped more than 3,500 people, including 300 women and children who received shelter in its new building.

The agency’s $1.47 million budget covered its facility and 48 workers, most of whom are part-time. The agency usually gets about 70 percent of its funding from federal, state and local governments and grants and the remainder from local individuals and groups such as the Rappahannock United Way.

“It amazes me how much you raise now,” Ridderhof said. “What we did were piddling amounts.”

Bill Botts, husband of Susanna Botts and a retired lawyer who spent a career helping low-income clients, put it all in perspective.

“It shows you have become a part of the institutional fabric of the community,” he said.


Even though the founders no longer answer hotline calls, the impact of their long-ago actions continues.

When Empowerhouse sold the Stafford property, it cleared $250,000, said Chris Rooney, a member of the agency’s board. The money won’t be used to pay monthly bills, but will be set aside for something the agency never had before: a fund for future growth.

“Your legacy here has now been invested and will only be used for strategic purposes,” Rooney said, “to continue the good work you all started 40 years ago.”

In fiscal year 2017, Empowerhouse helped more than 3,500 people, including 300 women and children who received shelter in its new building.

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

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