By Jessica Bruha
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — After 33 years of working at Women’s Resource Center, executive director JoAnn Smith has officially hung up her hat.
Smith began working at the shelter for battered women in 1980, which was only one of five shelters in the state at the time, she said. During those 10 years at the shelter about 5,000 women and children were helped.
“That’s something that I was always really proud of. We always kept track of how many women and children were in there every day,” Smith said.
On top of that, a 24-hour crisis line helped about 1,000 people every year.
Through working at the Women’s Resource Center, Smith has had some of the most amazing experiences of her life.
As part of a national domestic violence coalition, Smith served as a
representative from Oklahoma going to Washington D.C. every fall to talk to legislatures. She also remembers taking a trip to Mexico City to talk to women in Mexico about how to handle domestic violence in their country.
“I learned more from them than I have ever learned (here),” Smith said. “They had different ways of dealing with domestic violence.”
She also remembers being invited to go to the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota for 10 days.
“They were so gracious to us. They held a pow wow in our honor and it was the most meaningful experience in my life,” she said. “There were drums in the background and the president of the tribe told his story of the Little Big Horn and it was amazing. I’ll just never forget it. I wouldn’t have had any of those experiences if it hadn’t been for the Women’s Resource Center.”
Smith has been with the center, nearly from the start, beginning work there only five months after it had opened.
“We didn’t know what were doing at the time, we just knew we needed to do it. We just kind of learned as we went along,” she said.
But there is a lot to be proud of. At one time, she said they believed they were the oldest, continuously operating independent women’s resource center in the nation. However, someone in California said they’d been doing it longer, Smith said with a laugh.
“We’ve been through some really rough times financially. We’ve been funded, de-funded and had funding get cut,” she said. “The Women’s Resource Center started at OU, so it’s been really important to us, but we are independent.”
As an independent center, they don’t receive the same funding as other centers that are part of the YMCA or a university. While OU has helped a lot, Smith said they are still independent.
Smith started her work with battered women when she lived in Colorado in the early 70s, volunteering for a rape response team as part of a battered women’s task force. The community she lived in at the time was just starting to talk about a shelter, but Smith ended up moving to Oklahoma to finish her degree and continue her work here.
“I remember there was an ad in the paper and they were hiring shelter workers. I couldn’t believe it, I could absolutely not believe it,” she said. “I was doing this for free in Colorado so I was thrilled I was going to do what I wanted and what I was educated to do.”
Smith said after she applied, she remembered asking what her salary would be at the end and remembering feeling like it was a million dollars.
“I couldn’t believe I was going to get paid for what I wanted to do,” she said.
Looking back and talking with her family, she said it is funny how families cover up domestic violence and her family was no exception to that. Her aunt, who had five children, had been severely abused.
“Her story was a horrible story and I had grown up around it, but I didn’t know,” Smith said. “When you open your eyes you see it, but when you don’t want to see it you don’t have to.”
As friends, family and co-workers came together to celebrate her retirement Friday, she said many people had a lot of very nice things to say. She particularly remembered someone saying that she herself was the WRC, but Smith said that is not true.
“It’s all of those women that are ever working there,” she said. “The women that go there become the women that work there. It goes round and that circle is what the Women’s Resource Center is.”
Smith said the Women’s Resource Center gave more to her than she ever gave to it.
“The Women’s Resource Center is always going to be in my heart,” she said.
Harry Smith, president-elect on the board of the WRC, said his impression has been that there was no separating JoAnn Smith from the shelter and the center. She has had an extraordinary passion for the work she started doing over 20 years ago in the shelter and has consistently done good things with the shelter over the years.
“She so owned it in the sense that it was a very personal experience for her,” he said. “I just celebrate the goodness that she has given us all these years and wish her well.”
There are two things Smith said she will miss the most –– the staff and the women and children there.
“(The staff) is so compassionate, not only to the people that they work with who come in for shelter or as a resource of sexual assault, but they’re also compassionate with each other,” Smith said.
It truly feels more like a family, she said. They argue, they disagree, they makeup, but they always have each other’s backs all of the time.
“It’s a sisterhood and that’s what it’s supposed to be,” she said.
Smith will miss the women and children because she has seen so much courage and so much creativity in the way they cope with the situations they’re in.
“I admire their strength because I just don’t know if I’d have that much courage and strength to leave the situation. I don’t think I’m that brave,” she said.
While her career at the Women’s Resource Center is now at an end, Smith plans to continue having amazing experiences through traveling.
“I want to have many adventures. I absolutely love to travel,” she said. “I just want to go adventuring.”
She and her husband have already traveled to many places including the Caribbean, Bahamas, Europe and more.
But those are all places she wanted to visit, she said. Next on their list is the Panama Canal, where her husband has been wanting to go, she said.
Also being a Disney fanatic and having stock in the company she said she would love to be a fairy godmother.
“That would be my next dream,” she said, laughing.
After 33 years of work, maybe Smith hasn’t hung up all of her hats. Maybe she will just be wearing a different one for her adventures to come, however fantastic she may choose for it to be.
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