When four local women formed domestic violence agency RESPOND in the early 1970s, the organization was the first of its kind in New England and only the second in the nation. Since Jessica Brayden became the CEO of the organization roughly a decade ago, she’s noticed organizations crop up across the region and the country following the same model that RESPOND has employed since its inception.
According to Brayden, on just one day last year 316 requests for domestic violence shelters in the state went unmet due to lack of space. This is exactly the problem that RESPOND is trying to tackle with its services. The organization provides a 24-hour crisis hotline, free counseling, support groups, legal support, education programs, and emergency shelter for up to eight families at a time. RESPOND representatives are also embedded in police departments in Woburn, Reading, Malden, Melrose, and Wakefield.
“I think those women really were pioneers in that time in Massachusetts,” says Brayden. “I’ve seen other organizations replicate the model, and we need more. We need more organizations doing this work. We need more funding and support to do our work. What we have seen from the beginning of time is more agencies pop up, more domestic violence shelters, more prevention organizations. And we all kind of come together to create this system, but it’s still not enough. It’s just kind of keeping our heads above water.”
In 2010, RESPOND extended all of its services to men—a decision that was controversial at the time, but has since become integral to the organization’s mission.
“We realized that men were presenting as victims of domestic violence, and the message they were getting back was, ‘You’re not a victim, this isn’t domestic violence, this somehow doesn’t count,’ which was the same message women were getting in the early ’70s when RESPOND was started, and is the message that many women still get to this day, as well,” says Brayden. “It wasn’t a popular decision with everybody back then, but we now are thrilled to say we seamlessly serve men in all of our service offerings, which means men are welcome to attend any of our groups for D.V. survivors, they can have individual counseling here in our community service center, if they are at imminent risk they are welcome at our shelter.”
By opening its existing shelter to men, RESPOND increased the number of beds available for male victims of domestic violence in Massachusetts seven-fold; when the 21-bed facility, which now houses people of all gender identities, began sheltering men, only three other beds were available to men in the state.
One of the reasons Brayden, who has always worked in nonprofit organizations, began admiring RESPOND was its commitment to helping every person who enters the office or calls the hotline, regardless of what their problem is.
“We don’t turn anybody away,” she says. “We work with whoever comes to us. Oftentimes, we’ll get people who don’t fall in our wheelhouse, but we’ll find that person the right connection. And people often follow up with us and let us know how that worked out. I love that ‘turn nobody away’ feel of the organization.”
Brayden says the “tough and often tragic” work of RESPOND is only possible because of the support it receives from the Somerville community.
“We couldn’t do it without the city of Somerville,” she says. “We work very closely with our police departments, all of the folks in the city who have supported our efforts through donations of time and treasure and talent and in-kind things. RESPOND is truly a community organization, and I can’t say thank you enough or underestimate that. Without the help of any one of those entities, the house of cards folds. We’re genuinely, truly grateful.”
Anyone suffering from domestic violence, or worried about a loved one who may be suffering, can reach the RESPOND crisis hotline at (617) 623-5900. Live representatives answer the phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To learn more about RESPOND’s services, visit www.respondinc.org.