On any given day, Margo Priebe can most likely be found attached to her telephone headset, working YWCA Clark County’s 24-hour hotline for domestic violence.
Her office at the YWCA is cozy, with several seats reserved for those seeking help by walk-in, too.
It’s not a job with a light workload. According to data from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in four women and one in nine men experience physical abuse. In Clark County from 1997 through 2018, there were 49 homicides and 22 suicides related to domestic violence, according to numbers provided by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The group also reported in its Domestic Violence Fatality Review that American Indian and Alaska Native women in Washington die at rates 2.8 times higher than white, non-Hispanic women.
And for many, the first stop in getting help is the local YWCA.
Having experienced abuse when she was young, Priebe, a Eugene, Ore., native, made it her mission to help others who have experienced similar trauma. She started as a volunteer in 2004 and was employed by 2005. She’s one of 25 employees in the YWCA Clark County’s SafeChoice program, which receives the largest portion of the organization’s funding. They operate a domestic violence-specific shelter, the only one in the county.
Priebe, 54, also has taken an interest in helping people in her demographic, which she often feels is more invisible than others. She started a group called “Finding our Gold” for women over 50, which starts meeting in the fall.
YWCA Clark County
3609 Main St., Vancouver
Budget information: The SafeChoice program takes up 42 percent of the organization's program expenses. Fifty-nine percent of the YWCA's funding comes from the government, and 26 percent from philanthropy and grants, according to a 2017-2018 financial statement on its website. For that fiscal year, its total operating expenses were slightly more than $4.3 million.
Number of employees: 76 employees at YWCA Clark County; 25 SafeChoice employees.
Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Outlook: According to the bureau, employment of social and human service assistants is projected to grow 16 percent through 2026, "much faster than the average for all occupations. A growing elderly population and rising demand for social services is expected to drive demand for these workers. Job opportunities are expected to be good." As of May 2018, the annual mean wage of social and human service assistants was $38,440 and $18.48 an hour for the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro metropolitan area.
“I have to say, as a woman over age 50, I am now invisible in my culture. To millennials, invisible. When I go to the grocery store, invisible. It’s a weird, weird dynamic,” Priebe said. “I had heard about it, and then it started happening. I’m like, what the hell?”
Her daughter, Madeline Thompson, is the shelter’s assistant to the executive director and also works with children at the shelter. Thompson, 27, started volunteering when she was 12.
“It’s just kind of a family thing, it’s great,” Priebe said.
The Columbian caught up with Priebe to learn a bit about her job.
Tell me about your background.
I’m from Eugene and went to the University of Oregon for a while, and moved up to Portland. I worked at the YMCA as a prekindergarten teacher for a long time. Then I went into massage therapy, then finished my degree and started volunteering here. I did everything a little bit backwards. I think about Benjamin Button. But it’s worked out great.
So what drew you to this role?
When I went and finished my degree, part of it was with a focus on domestic violence. I volunteered at the Raphael House (in Portland) when I was 20 years old. I come from a family with some domestic violence, (and) considered myself a survivor. It just always was a part of who I am. It’s what I really needed to be around in order to heal. So with lots of therapy and healing work and going into massage therapy, working on healing arts, I realized that the most important thing I can do in my life is help other people who have experienced domestic violence or sexual assault.
You briefly touched on your experience. Are you willing to share with our readers anything about what you have endured?
That’s a really hard one. I don’t know if that’s going to hurt or help me being in this role at the Y. I think people feel very comforted knowing that I’m a survivor, that I’ve lived through a lot of similar situations. No one’s path is the same, certainly. However, I understand gaslighting and crazy-making and loving your abuser. The vulnerability and the conflict of loving someone who’s hurting you. I feel as though I was a cycle breaker in my family. And if I can be of any hope and service to anybody who’s trying to break cycles in their life, that’s what I’m here for. I don’t want to make this about my process and my story because it’s about their story.
Can you explain what you do in your position?
I am the legal advocacy specialist. I don’t have any legal abilities, I’m not an attorney. We don’t give legal advice. One thing we’re able to do legally is help with protection orders (commonly called restraining orders). So when program participants come in, we figure out what they’re wanting, what they need, what they’re looking for. Oftentimes people don’t know what they need until they’re verbally processing it. Safety planning, resources, helping people to connect people with — we do an address confidentiality program through the state of Washington. Sometimes we have that conversation: What is domestic violence? A lot of people don’t know the nuances.
Have you observed any noticeable trends lately with regards to domestic violence reporting?
We track … through Department of Social and Health Services (and have observed) that we are having more unduplicated reports, meaning they’ve never come through our door before.
So do you think it’s getting worse?
I think maybe people are starting to feel like people will take them seriously.
So maybe not that it’s necessarily getting worse, but people are more empowered to report what’s happening.
I think so. I think with #MeToo, more women are talking about abuse and it’s giving confidence to people to say, “They’re going to hear me. They’re going to listen to me. They’re going to believe me at the Y.” Give somebody a little bit of hope and it just opens up the skies. It’s so simple. My job is so easy but hard at the same time.
How are you able to balance the emotionally demanding work in your life?
Another reason I love the YWCA and SafeChoice, my direct supervisor is about self-care. We’re encouraged to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves. I think the reason I can do this work is I have a very strong meditation practice and I get a massage every two weeks. Otherwise I couldn’t sustain it, because there’s this trauma coming in all the time. You have to be Superwoman, blocking it all. Years of taking on people’s energy — I can’t be sustainable as an advocate if I do that.
You and your daughter both work here. Does your work intertwine at all?
She is the assistant to the director, part time, and she’s the children’s advocacy program coordinator at our shelter. She works with children who have been witness to or victims of trauma. On Tuesdays, I have a group at shelter for the adults. We work across the hall from each other. We do cross paths. She’s been a volunteer since she was 12 years old then she graduated from The Evergreen State College and started working on child care for our support groups at SafeChoice. We live around the corner. My husband is the one who wanted to go through training. He was at CASA for a while. It’s just kind of a family thing, it’s great.