Sue Kirber Interview
This is file #27, cycle 4. This is Jean McMillen. Today’s date is Oct. 29, 2019. I am interviewing Sue Kirber who is going to talk primarily about Women’s Support Services as well as other town activities in which she has participated. But first we are going to start with…
JM:What is your name?
SK:My name is Sue Kirber.
JM:How did you come to this area?
SK:My husband and I had both spent some time in New Hampshire. His parents had a cottage in New Hampshire when he was a child. He would go there from Philadelphia. I have several friends in New England. We wanted to move to New England. We had friend who moved here and we stayed with them to explore the area. We borrowed the money and came here.
JM:When did you come here?
SK:We came here in 1982. (Bill Kirber would set up his eye doctor practice locally. Ed)
JM:What is your educational background?
SK:I have a BA and then I got a Masters in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania in 1978.
JM:After moving to the area how did you learn about the Women’s Emergency Services?
SK:Near the end of social work school in 1978, there were some early writings on domestic violence. One book I remember was by a British woman, named Erin Pizzey. She wrote a book called Scream Quietly or the Neighbors will Hear. I think it was shocking to a lot of people. That book had an impact on me. I had grown up with some domestic violence in my own family. It was one of the first times that I ever read anything about it. When I came here, I saw an advertisement in 1983 that the Women’s Emergency Services (as it was called then) was looking for someone to coordinate volunteers and do some public education. I met with the women who had started this organization, just by gathering volunteers and doing training.
JM:Who were the founding women?
SK:Donna Hoskins was definitely one of them from Sharon. She was a nurse at Noble Horizons. Joy Mortorell was another one, and then also a woman from Millerton named Lyn Barrett. They had also been involved with starting the Cornwall Child Center. Then they moved on to start WSS. They already had a group of volunteers that were trained in taking calls, but there was no one to coordinate it.
JM:That is what you did.
SK:Yes, I did that and did some speaking for public education.
JM:You must have gone to work for them in 1983?2.
JM:You had a fancy title I am sure.
SK:At first I was just called Volunteer Coordinator and then I became Director.
JM:Specifically what did you do as a coordinator?
SK:My responsibilities were to make the schedule of the volunteers, find people to cover all the shifts to handle phone calls, to train the volunteers, and then also to do as much education in the community as I could. Some of that was at the hospital like with the nurses and doctors. In the community I did Rotary, Lyons, Kiwanis or any other kind of organization who would be willing to listen to me.
JM:Did you also do women’s organizations at churches and things like that?
SK:I remember speaking to the Garden Club and some churches> I remember Terry Ryan who was a fairly new reverend in Sharon at the time. He was very helpful. I did any kind of organization that would have speakers in.
JM:What was the area that you were dealing with?
SK:Region One towns.
The Mission Statement : to create a community free of domestic violence and abuse through intervention, prevention, and education.
JM:The Hot Line was open 24/7?
JM:That is hard to get volunteers.
SK:Yes, I remember taking the night shift. It is hard when you are waiting for the phone to possibly ring and you want to sound alert when you answer the phone.
JM:You said that if someone needed a place to stay you had a couple of venues locally.
SK:Yes we at first used a couple of motels, the old Sharon Motor Lodge at different times we put people there. Then there is a little motel on route343 just outside of Amenia, New York: they were very good about that if we called them. They gave us a reduced rate. Then the Great smith House opened in 1981in Poughkeepsie, New York. We worked out something with them that after we had had a woman for a night or two, we could transport her to them. After that the second shelter was the Susan B. Anthony shelter in Torrington, Ct. Then we could transport women there. We also went on court days with the women.
JM:How did you get your funding?3.
SK:We did a lot of bake sales. The women who started it had written, and received a small state grant. Then we did a huge tag sale every year. We also did an appeal letter. A few years later we started getting more funding as we became more known. The communities were beginning to realize that it was a real issue.
JM:When did Trade Secrets start?
SK:I don’t know, but it was after I left the organization. I would guess 15 years at least.
JM:I would imagine about 15years as it is now a major fund raiser.
SK:It is incredible: it has opened up so new programs. They are now is the schools. The earlier we can educate young people the better.
JM:There are some programs done on that by the Housatonic Youth Service Bureau. (See Laurie Collins, Linda Sloane #1, and Rebecca Sakl interviews) do you have a board?
JM:How many were on it when you were working there?
SK:I think about 12. In the beginning we were really struggling financially, in all honesty. Oh I don’t know if we can pay our electric bill, so we thought we should just give it up and hand it over to Torrington or Poughkeepsie. But the fact that they are so far from here for women to travel: it is hard enough for them to call in this little rural area. But to think about their children who will have to change schools and all that is too much all at once. That is very stressful. AS we became more well-known, we started getting more community support, privately. People would begin to donate.
JM:You start something like that and people see a need and then they are going to contribute. They will also spread the word. It feeds on itself but it explains itself too.
SK:I think initially it was women donating money; then as there was more education we had a presence in the public domain. Then donation came from people across the spectrum and that was good.
JM:How long did you work there?
SK:I only worked there a couple of years because I had really young children. I kept running into trouble with child care. Also the education part was difficult with my kids being so young. Most of the meetings were in the evening usually. If my husband had an emergency, what was to happen to the kids? I think I went on the board right after I stopped being employed there. I definitely was on the board for a number of years. I stayed on the board for a long time. Pam Boynton was one of the people on the board for a long time too.
JM:How many years do you think you were on the board?
SK:I think about 10.4
JM:It is a private non-profit at this point?
JM:What other services besides shelter did you offer?
SK:We offered legal and medical services. If there was anyone who came to the Emergency room we were trying to get them to call us to have the matter taken care of. There was a woman who helped with a medical rape event and things like that. With the legal part many times the women were afraid, really afraid of the court because if was often the first they faced their abuser. Many times children had to be involved in that.
JM:It is difficult even today when people are more aware of the issue.
SK: Oh my gosh am I going to be able to make it financially? I don’t know if it is true today but back then the most common time for women to begin to be battered was when they were pregnant. The husband would not want any attention taken away for him. The woman and her pregnancy were at fault. By the time the women got brave enough to leave, they had young children and how were they going to survive finically?
JM:At that point they were not as much in the work force as they are today.
JM:Many of women of my age never worked outside the home and had no training. What could I do? Well I could scrub floors. It has changed over the years to some extent, but it is still a major area of need.
SK:In this community even with much better day care now, but say a woman is a teacher in the school system; would her salary take care of the expense of day care and afford a place to rent on her own income? It is very expensive. There are many people who do not have high paying jobs but they like the work, yet in essence they are paying for the day care. There may not be much money left over after that so is it worth going back to work?
JM: When you were raising public awareness, were you talking mostly to women or was it a mixed group?
SK:It was not a mixed group because a lot of these organizations were all men like Rotary, Kiwanis. The Chamber of Commerce was somewhat involved in it, not nearly as many as now. There were just a lot of men.
JM:What were some of the types of abuses that you dealt with other than physical and financial?
SK:There was a lot of psychological abuse, first usually, keeping women separated from their families and friends. Abusers always want to know where they are, controlling actions, often that would happen before the physical abuse. It was easier to say, “Oh he’s just in a bad mood.” “He’s a very controlling guy, but other than that…” Lots of times abusers can be just lovely people, social people. You would never think they would hurt other people. “What? He wouldn’t do that!” Then you find out what he did do.
JM:Perhaps we are now more aware of the flags of an abuser than before. I would hope so.
SK:“He doesn’t want me talking to my sister. We laugh too much or we share things.” That does not make sense but it is all about control.
JM:Who is the President now of Women’s Support Services?
SK:Elizabeth Mauro is the Executive Director of the Program. I think Emily Vail, but if she is not President, she is on the board. I know she is very involved. (She is Chair. Ed.)
JM:What else would you like to tell us about Women’s Support Services before we go on?
SK:I think the main thing is that it was just such a shaky beginning back then. It really was. We were working on a boot strap and trying to keep going, but it definitely was a challenge. It is just amazing how it has grown. I went to WSS a couple of weeks ago to hand in old cell phones with chargers that have been wiped of people’s private information. If abused women have cell phones they are not checking them, and their husband can track them that way. I was looking at a list of the programs and it is really amazing what the organization is doing. It is incredible. Really a lot of that is due to Trade Secrets. I believe it was totally Bunny Williams through her creation of it and her connections with people like Martha Stewart. Through that funding it provides a lot of education now. It is a lot of work to put Trade Secrets on, but it is worth it. It takes a lot of volunteers. I think in general now that we have heard of the issue, and have heard of it happening to other women, if it begins to happen to them and they know that women have gotten out with their children, there is a way to do it. You just have to get help. There is a Mr. Rogers book, he always says to the children, “If you are in a bad situation, always go to the helpers. There are helpers somewhere.” I think there are a lot of women feel like there is somebody out there now to help.
JM:This is special from what it used to be. People aren’t alone: there are people to help.
SK:We hope there is not the shame attached as there used to be. “Perhaps there is something wrong with me and I deserve the abuse.”
JM:We often take upon ourselves that it is my fault.
SK:When you feel that way and someone tells you repeatedly that it is your fault, you begin to believe it. At least now with all the education of young people, they know about the issue and that there is help out there.
JM:You have been involved in the community in many different ways, I may not have this is the right order. Tell me about the shop that you ran.
SK:Oh that was back in the 1990’s. I started it in 1993 Riga Traders.
JM:Where was it located?
SK:First it was located on Academy Street in the building next to the dog groomers, (It used to be AT Home in the Country, #7 Academy St. now vacant. Ed.) and across from what used to be The Country Bistro also vacant. First it was there and then as soon as I could I moved to the Eliza Peet Building where Sweet William is now, 19 Main St. Salisbury.
JM:What kind of merchandise did you carry?
SK:It was mostly hand crafted things, then I added jewelry, I had a whole room of children’s things, pictures, and pottery.
JM:Did you start the shop or did you buy it from someone?
SK:I started it from scratch.
JM:How long did you run it?
SK:About 8 years
JM:Did you sell it to someone?
SK:I sold it to Tanya Tedder who took it over from me so that would be 2001. She had it maybe 5 years.
JM:Tell me about the board of the Visiting Nurses.
SK: I think I joined about 2005.
JM:How many years were you on that board?
SKI was on for 2 terms or about 6 years.
JM:Were you on the board for Habitat for Humanity?
SK:I was on that board the longest period of time. About 4 or 5 times I was involved with their fund raiser which was an annual wine tasting. First we did it in individual homes: I think the first one was in
Sally Gevault’s back yard on Wells Hill. We also so did one at the Volstad’s house on route 41. They have now moved to # 8 Main St. Salisbury which used to be the Ragamont Inn.
JM:When were you on the board for Habitat?
SK:That was back in the 1990’s.
JM:How long were you on that board?
SK:I think I was on the board there for a couple of terms. Then they would come to me when it was fund raising time to do an event. I would help with the funding.
JM:Why Habitat for Humanity?
SK:I felt there was such a need for any kind of affordable housing around here, especially back then. Then there wasn’t much to offer. Yes, there should still be more, but at least we are trying to provide some. Sharon and Salisbury and a lot of other towns are making more of an effort. There is very little to rent around here for as little as $1,000 a month.
JM:It is really hard. People who are retired sometimes do not understand that we need you young people to fill the rolls of the ambulance and fire department and other areas where younger people are needed.
SK: Many people drive in from Torrington or elsewhere for work because they cannot afford to live here.
JM:Were you ever on the Housatonic Child Care Center board?
SK:No, I worked there. I worked at the day care center after my store, in the early 2000’s after my kids were grown. I did not have a teaching degree. I just really liked kids. I worked at the Cornwall Child Care Center for a couple of years. I did that first then I came up here to the Housatonic Child Care Center on #30 Salmon Kill Road for at least one or two years. I was with the three year olds. Then I even worked in the baby room for a while.
JM:That is not my level at all. Are there other things that you have done that you would like to share?
SK:I used to be on the Democratic Town committee at some point for a couple of years.
JM:Did you ever run for an office?
SK:No. I can talk to a small group of people, but not a large one. There are a lot of people who do it. A lot of women can do it now a day.
JM:Is there anything else that you would like to add before we close?
SK:Not that I can think of.8.
JM:Thank you so much.
SK:It was a pleasure.