Longtime workers, former clients plan to join Stepping Stones in celebrating 30 years of helping women
Robin Burke once studied to be a commodities broker.
But her true path was set when the staff of Faith House in Phoenix hired her "temporarily" in early 1980 to set up the books for a domestic violence shelter the organization operated in Prescott.
The Prescott Chapter of the American Association of University Women helped to open the shelter to serve women and children in West Yavapai County, according to Mayra Enriquez, who handles community outreach and education for Stepping Stones Agencies.
The entity came to be known as Stepping Stones, and the temporary job for Burke has lasted 30 years.
Burke, 53, has spent most of her adult life with Stepping Stones. Her job title changed from "house mother" to "executive director" in 1988 with government oversight of the nonprofit entity.
Stepping Stones grew from a nonprofit that operated a shelter with 10 beds and three cribs to a shelter with 16 beds and five cribs, according to Enriquez. It also has five two-bedroom transitional apartments for women who leave the shelter.
"Probably by now 6,000 families" have lived in the shelter, Burke said. "That is just how many have been in the shelter. That does not count the other 20,000 or more that we talked to on the phone and don't come to the shelter."
Former shelter advocate Alice Saunders, who retired in April 2009, recalls going to work part-time in 1987 after answering a help-wanted ad that sought someone knowledgeable about the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Saunders, 82, of Paulden said she knew about 12-step because she joined Al-Anon as the wife of a "quiet alcoholic."
As an advocate, she said she talked to the shelter residents, helped them fill out forms and made sure they attended Al-Anon meetings once a week - even if their abusive relationships did not involve alcohol.
"One of the rules when they come in (is) they are not allowed to have any contact with the abusive husband or boyfriend," Saunders said.
Two former shelter residents credit Stepping Stones with helping them to leave abusive marriages - and saving their lives.
Susan Filer, 51, of Phoenix said she left her marriage of 14 years to her high school sweetheart because she feared he would have killed her.
She moved with her children from Flagstaff to live in the shelter about 20 years ago. She initially stayed a month but moved back in after her estranged husband hired a private investigator who tracked down where she lived.
Shelter employees taught her that she was not at fault for an abusive marriage and not to return to it, Filer said.
"They helped me with resources to become self-sufficient," Filer said.
Terry Stoneburner, who moved into the shelter about nine years ago, experienced similar results.
"I think that those ladies helped empower me not to live in fear," Stoneburner said. "One of the things I learned there is being a victim is a choice."
Stoneburner, 38, of Prescott Valley said a friend from Phoenix helped her to move into the shelter with her four children nine years ago.
"I just packed up and left," she recalled. "I had garbage bags full of clothes."
Stoneburner said her three-month stay at the shelter helped to transform an uneducated woman with no money, no car and no job to one who studied to become a paralegal - and independent.
Stoneburner now manages a print shop, and Filer works as an assistant escrow officer for a title company. Both women, who have remarried, said their children are well-adjusted and want nothing to do with their biological fathers.
Shelter staff has sought to change women from an "entitlement mentality" to that of empowerment and self-sufficiency, Enriquez stated. And by 1997, Stepping Stones opted to reduce its reliance on government financial support.
Since then, Stepping Stones has opened two thrift shops off Highway 69 in Prescott Valley.
Stepping Stones opened its community center inside an 8,200-square-foot building on Windsong Drive in Prescott Valley in 2003, and its coffee house raises money to pay for Stepping Stones' services. Stepping Stones has 40 employees, including at the thrift shops, and an annual budget of $375,000 per year for community service, Burke said.
Eighty percent of its budget comes from the thrift shops, the coffee house and donations, Burke said. Only 2 percent of its budget comes from violent crime restitution fees.
"In 30 years, we have never closed our doors," Burke said. "We have answered those phones 24/7 365 days a year for 30 years."
Burke acknowledged some setbacks. The Daily Courier reported in May that Stepping Stones lost about half of its financing from the Arizona Department of Economic Security, and cut 12 employees over the previous six months.
Stepping Stones officials also put off plans indefinitely for a new community center in a 30,000-square-foot building on 3 acres in a business park off Highway 69 and Truwood Drive in Prescott Valley.
Meanwhile, Stepping Stones has made plans for its 30th anniversary on Oct. 15 at the Prescott Resort to honor women and children who have sought help over the years. Filer, Stoneburner and Saunders said they plan to attend.
"What keeps me for 30 years?" Burke asked rhetorically. "I really believe in people's capacity to change their lives. I've seen it hundreds of times. You can see where the person has made a conscious decision. You can see it right from the moment of clarity."