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The Rev. Jo Warren

Director of The Safe Place offers compassion, hope to abused women

By Tammy Keith

This article was published April 20, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

The Rev. Jo Warren of Morrilton is executive director of The Safe Place, a domestic-violence shelter that opened in April 1995. Its largest fundraising event, the annual Administrative Assistants’ Day Luncheon, will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Conway County Fairgrounds. “Parts of the building are needing major repairs,” Warren said.

The Rev. Jo Warren is a compassionate woman — after all, she’s a minister — but as executive director for The Safe Place in Morrilton, she’s a strong advocate for women standing up for themselves.

Warren, 63, who grew up in Kansas, said she saw her father physically and emotionally abuse her mother.

Her parents divorced when she was a teenager, and her father has since died.

Warren said she remembers one particular incident — the only time the police were involved.

“He picked up a two-by-four, and he hit her in the head and knocked her out,” Warren said. “My sister and brother and I called the police. We didn’t have a phone in the house; we had to go a quarter of a mile to my grandfather’s house.”

Warren said that in one of her earliest relationships, the man was emotionally abusive.

“I continued the cycle,” she said.

Warren said he left, but later asked to reunite with her. She told him no.

“I have compassion, but at the same time, when I’m done, I’m done,” she said.

Warren, who said she has been happily married to her husband, Gordon, for 42 years, wants abused women to know that it can get better.

“He’s a good husband, a good man,” she said.

She took the position at The Safe Place, a shelter for abused women and their children, 12 years ago. It serves Conway and Perry counties.

It’s not at all the job she thought she wanted.

“Right after I married my husband, he went into law enforcement,” she said. Warren said her husband told her that he learned in family-violence courses that it’s beneficial if spouses have equal education.

He suggested that she go to college, so she started majoring in social work while living in Kansas.

The couple started their own business, a company that sold explosives for oil fields.

“I’ve driven 18-wheelers and hauled dynamite,” she said, laughing.

After about five years, in the early ’80s, business wasn’t booming, no pun intended.

A customer of the explosives business said he had a research-and-development company in Arkansas that needed a general manager and an accountant.

Warren said she already had switched her major to accounting, so she and her husband moved to Nashville, Ark., and took the jobs — he as general manager, she as the accountant.

The couple moved again, this time to Hampton, when the business relocated.

Warren said her husband did lay-minister work in Kansas, and they were unofficial youth ministers in their church.

“We built a swimming pool so we could bring the kids over. It was nothing to have 15 to 20 teenagers in our house,” she said, even though the couple’s children were younger at the time.

Warren’s husband became an ordained minister and was placed in a Cumberland Presbyterian church in Louisiana.

Warren said her family went to church sporadically when she was growing up, but she felt called for something special as a child.

“I knew at the age of 11 there was a call on my life — to some type of ministry. I did not know what it would be,” she said.

After her husband was ordained, she thought she’d found her calling as a pastor’s wife.

The Warrens left Louisiana after five years, in 1994, because her husband was asked to become a pastor at Trinity Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Morrilton.

“In 1997, I realized I was also called to pulpit ministry,” she said. Warren received a Master of Divinity degree in 2001 from the Memphis Theological Seminary.

She’d been serving on The Safe Place Board of Directors for about two years.

Bill Seliskar, who has since died, was chairman of the board, she said.

The Safe House director had left, and Seliskar approached Warren about taking the job.

“He said, “I think you can do it.’”

“I said, ‘Uh-uh. I do not want to do this,’” she said.

Warren, who was a co-pastor at a church, thought she would get her own church.

Seliskar came back two or three weeks later.

“He said, ‘I know you can do this. I think you’re the person for the job,’” she said.

Warren said she told him she’d pray about it and to give her a couple of weeks.

“Two weeks later, he came back, and I said, ‘Bill, I can’t wait — I am so excited,’” she said. “I was 100 percent turned around.”

Warren said she knew that the change of heart was God telling her to take the job.

“I’d never written a grant; I understood how to operate a business — administration, that was a snap,” she said.

The Safe Place board members who were gathered around the kitchen table at the shelter praised Warren.

Ish Lienhart of Morrilton, the longest-serving board member, said Warren is a great ambassador for the shelter.

“She can go to city council or any group — the schools, state meetings. We’re just proud of her,” Lienhart said.

“She never meets a stranger,” said John Payne, chairman of the board. “She opens up her arms and heart. We wouldn’t have a shelter without Jo.”

Even though she’d grown up seeing abuse, Warren said, she didn’t connect domestic violence to what her mother had gone through.

“Working with victims early on, I would have some flashbacks,” she said.

Warren said she used what she’d learned in psychology classes in college, as well as her pastoral training, to do some self-healing.

She started her job at the shelter in January 2002.

“I depended heavily on my staff,” she said, particularly Patricia Davis, who now is a legal advocate for the shelter.

One of Warren’s first goals was to make the center brighter and cleaner.

“It was dark,” she said, and not up to her standards of cleanliness.

Warren said that starting with a $1,000 donation, she and the daytime staff painted and performed the manual labor to make improvements to the center.

Thanks to grants — which she wrote — the kitchen was remodeled.

“We need a new building, after all this work. We really do,” she said. “We really need another bathroom.”

The shelter is large enough for 14 women and their children, but it has only two bathrooms.

In January and February, the shelter was full, Warren said.

The shelter’s biggest fundraiser, the sixth annual

Administrative Assistants’ Day Luncheon Fundraiser, is set for 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Conway County Fairgrounds.

Warren said the event is designed to raise money and awareness.

“One of the most eye-opening things is that domestic violence is not just physical abuse,” she said. “All of it creates emotional abuse.”

She said women need to recognize that “when somebody calls us names or says ugly things, that’s abuse.”

Abusers often say they’re just joking when they make negative comments, Warren said, but “somebody who really cares about a person wouldn’t disrespect them in that way.”

“I tell women, ‘Find someone who cherishes you,’” she said.

Warren said she knows it’s a process for women.

She said the shelter offers a 60-day program, and part of it includes classes on goal setting and building self-esteem, as well as understanding the dynamics of abuse.

“You can’t get out of something if you don’t understand how you got there in the first place,” she said.

Sharon Kornas, board vice chairwoman, said Warren is the right person to help the women.

“Jo inspires confidence in everyone, especially the clients at the center. A person has to have or find that self-confidence to break away from an abusive relationship. And Jo helps the clients find that,” Kornas said. “It may be buried, it may have been nearly crushed, but with her help, they find that inner confidence and it blooms.”

Warren, a self-described analytical thinker, said that when she saw so many women were going back to their abusers, she took a step back.

“I said, ‘What’s wrong? Why is this not working?’”

She figured out that women, especially single mothers, were struggling to make it on their own.

The shelter started helping the women re-establish a home by providing furniture, kitchen items and everything they need to start over. “The community has been generous,” she said.

Warren and other staff members help the women set up their new homes, too.

“We like to decorate,” Warren said, laughing. “It’s so much fun to go and help them rebuild their homes. We don’t do things for them; we do things with them, because they need to have ownership.”

The approach has made a difference, she said.

“Many we keep in contact with for two, three, four years,” she said. “We’ve seen many of them go on and meet some really nice guys and re-establish their homes.”

For the past five years, Warren also has been pastor of Mars Hill Cumberland Presbyterian Church on Crow Mountain.

“I had the privilege of officiating the wedding of one of [the center’s former clients]. She went all the way through our program, re-established her home, met a fellow, and they dated for two years because she wanted to be careful and be sure. They were engaged actually for a year,” she said. “It was exciting.”

Warren said women who are abused often don’t believe their situations can improve, but she is proof they can.

“They see things so bleak and so hopeless sometimes and think, ‘Will it ever get better?’ Yes, you have to want it,” she said.

Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501)327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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