Twenty-four years ago, Angela McGraw spent two months living out of her car to keep her and her then-18-month-old daughter safe from her abusive husband before a blizzard drove her back home to him.
"No one ever told me then that there was a domestic violence shelter in place or that there was Section 8 housing or WIC or any of those types of things," says McGraw, from Salina, Kan., who had barely heard about domestic violence before she was living it.
McGraw made the best of the situation, dropping her daughter off at daycare early in the mornings before reporting to work at the local hospital. She left her daughter in daycare until 6 p.m., attempting to minimize the effects of homelessness on her. She knew about a back door at the YMCA that was left ajar, and she sneaked in that way to shower at night.
As executive director of Women and Children First, McGraw has made it her mission to see that survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault know that there is help. For years she has envisioned a Family Peace Center, one place staffed by multi-disciplinary, multi-agency professionals working together to provide coordinated services for people experiencing family violence.
"Did you know that victims literally have to make six stops in the courthouse just to get an order of protection? If we put ourselves in the victims' shoes for just a moment, I'm sure we could all agree how scary that must be," McGraw says.
Cathy Browne, past chairwoman of the Women and Children First board, is leading the capital campaign to raise money to build and open the Family Peace Center and a new shelter facility on a four-acre lot in southwest Little Rock.
"Right now we're in a 112-year-old antebellum home. For the last 10 years -- really more than that -- all we've been doing is patch, patch, patch," says Browne, who has also served as facilities chairwoman. "It would take several million dollars to refurbish it, but it's on a zero lot line, and it's not enough space, and we just have to get out of there."
The past year has been challenging for Women and Children First, with the shelter having to cut back to half capacity because of the covid-19 pandemic along with the difficulties of fundraising during a pandemic.
Women and Children First's biggest annual fundraiser, Woman of the Year, will be a virtual event on Saturday, Feb. 6, honoring Arkansas first lady Susan Hutchinson.
Since McGraw took the helm in 2013, the budget has increased from a little over $600,000 to $1.7 million, and the staff has increased from 16 to 38, McGraw says, but she isn't sure how the organization would have fared this year without the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
"We had to reimagine our whole mission," says Browne of the past year. "We went from 54 beds that were full most of the time to 26. Well, the need is still there."
McGraw arranged for temporary housing for some people seeking shelter.
"There are people that we're having to put in hotels, or we're having to ask them to call us back," she says. "But if somebody would end up dying because they can't get into the shelter, that would just rip me in half."
The organization, using the CARES Act and covid-19 federal funding and private donations, has helped 170 families move into transitional housing this year, up from the usual 30-50.
"The community has really helped us try to reimagine this organization, but it's Angela's leadership," Browne says. "She's clocked in 24/7. If I need her on the phone she answers, and other people are calling her, too -- clients are calling, people in law enforcement are calling or attorneys are calling her to testify as an expert witness, and she's got a lot of people wanting her expertise. She has been able to keep it all together."
McGraw's personal history drives her dedication to the organization and the people it serves.
"I had to hit my rock bottom and find my way up on my own," she says. "I say to women all the time, 'You could be right here, you could be the director of Women and Children First someday. If I can do it, you can, too.'"
McGraw grew up on a farm in Salina, Kan., the oldest of three children. Her family raised sheep, chickens, goats, buffalo and cows.
"My sister was in charge of making sure that the chickens got fed and watered and I helped milk one of our cows," McGraw says. "I was in 4-H. I showed steers and sheep, pigs and the whole works."
In school, she was active in family and consumer sciences classes and Future Homemakers of America, now Family, Career and Community Leaders of America. Juanelle Garretson of Salina, was her teacher and adviser.
"She was a state officer and district officer, and we got to travel to national conferences together, and she helped organize, even at a young age ... events for our district, and then helped organize for the state," Garretson says. "We would have 1,500 people come to the state of Kansas. She was always really mature and responsible, taking a leadership role on as a young person."
McGraw's father was killed in a car wreck on an icy road when she was 12, and for a time her mother was lost in the shuffle of grief and the responsibilities of caring for her family and their home. She later remarried a man for whom McGraw babysat.
"One Saturday I was babysitting and he sat me down and he said, 'So tell me how your mom's doing.' I said, 'My mom is really sick and she's really depressed and she needs help, no one is helping her with the farm,'" McGraw says. "They became friends and then they married. He's been wonderful for my mom."
McGraw's first husband grew up in Florida and served in the military before moving to Kansas. They met at the fast-food restaurant where she worked. The relationship red flags she warns people about were all there -- jealousy, quick involvement and isolation.
"It was happening really fast," she says. "He was saying, 'I love you, and that's why I want to know where you are all the time and that's why I keep checking the finances and stuff so I can make sure we don't overspend.' It was bizarre. It happened little by little and it was always recovered by this, 'I love you, and that's why we're going to do this,' and I didn't even realize it was happening."
They married shortly after she finished high school and he began standing over her, yelling and intimidating. He forbade her from buying paper towels and other cleaning products.
"He didn't want me to be able to clean my house because, of course, if my house wasn't cleaned who would want me?" she says.
The abuse escalated after he lost his job and she discovered he was building explosives in a closet in their home.
"He told me he was making a bomb and it freaked me completely out," she says.
A tug of war escalated as he began trying to grab their daughter from her arms.
"There were these guys that were working on a house across the street and no one would help me," she says. "That was the first time he hit me, and he busted my lip open. I begged him to go with me to my pastor and talk about this and my pastor just said, 'You know, he just got laid off and you just need to go back and support him. He's just going through a really hard time right now.'"
She can't be sure what she would have done differently if her pastor had validated her distress, but she suspects it might have helped her identify the danger of the situation and sped up the process of her getting out.
"No one had ever laid their hands on my mom or anything like that. I knew it was wrong, but I didn't know that people knew about that kind of thing or that I could tell somebody about it," she says.
She didn't have a plan the first time she left. She knew that when she left the second time, after five years of marriage and with two daughters then, she needed a support system and a strategy.
She also needed motivation to leave. She was the breadwinner, but while he wasn't working he was taking care of their daughters while she was at her job.
"I fought so hard to have my family accept him. I felt like a failure in not making it work," she says. "In domestic violence, we always kind of talk about how people have their rock bottom moment or kind of epiphany."
For McGraw, that epiphany came with news that a high school friend had been shot by her husband, who also shot their three daughters and then himself.
"I had just seen all of them a couple of weeks prior at the dentist's office and they were all under 5 years of age," she says. "I think that that was kind of probably my moment when I was like, 'OK, so this really isn't all about me, that my two little girls here are in this situation."
She had changed jobs within the hospital since the first time she had tried to leave, and she had forged friendships with two or three women in her department.
"They were the ones to start telling me about domestic violence shelters and Section 8 housing and food stamps and telling me that this was domestic violence and I didn't have to live that way and just really encouraging me to make me feel like I deserved better," McGraw says.
People ask her on occasion what it's like to live in a shelter.
"It's like the worst thing in the world," she says. "But it saved my life. Really it's all about perspective and in making the decision on whether or not you're ready to be out."
Her ex-husband tried to intimidate her into returning, leaving black roses on her car and stalking her even at the daycare when she went to pick up their daughters, but she got an order of protection and this time she stuck to her resolve. She remembers the judge presiding over her case asking to see her in his chambers.
"He sat me on the couch and he said, 'This might be the last time I'm able to help you. Either you help yourself or you don't, but I can't promise I'll be able to help you the next time,'" she says. "I realized I probably should take this kind of serious because I really want this guy to be on my side."
On her 32nd day in the shelter, she and her daughters moved into Section 8 housing. Her ex-husband moved away and she has not seen him since.
Two years after her divorce, she was asked to serve on the board of DVACK, the shelter in Salina where she found refuge.
"An advocate was born at that moment," she says.
She married Mark McGraw, who she met through her job at the hospital, in 2000, and they moved to Little Rock in 2001 when he began working on the Clinton Presidential Center project. Shortly after arriving in town, she contacted Women and Children First about volunteering. She was hired as an advocate instead.
McGraw was with Women and Children First in 2003 when they moved from their former location on Battery Street -- which, she points out, "is a horrible name for a domestic violence shelter." She resigned in 2005 and stayed home for a year with her youngest child, and then went to work with Safe Places, overseeing that organization's domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse programs.
She returned to school, earning a bachelor's degree in human services with an emphasis in victim/survivor services from Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., and a master's degree in marriage, children and family counseling from the online Walden University. In 2011, she joined Arkansas Coalition Against Domestic Violence as education coordinator.
She returned to Women and Children First in 2012, this time as shelter manager. Six months after she started that job, the job of executive director opened and she was tapped for the job.
Mark McGraw marvels at his wife's patience, compassion and dedication.
"She actually is angel-like. She does some things that the average person would throw their hands up at and say, 'I just can't handle it,'" he says. "She has the passion to, when women go back that fifth time, that sixth time, she loves them the same way as if it's their first time. It's all about allowing people to overcome. It's something they have to do when they're ready."
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Angela McGraw's oldest daughter Kiah Hall is the state advocate training director for the Arkansas Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
"I remember a lot more than I think people would anticipate a younger person knowing," Hall says of her childhood. "That's probably why I went into the field. I always knew that I kind of wanted to follow mom's footsteps, but in college is when we realized that I did hold on to a lot of that trauma that happened in my childhood."
Hall is buoyed by the messages her mother gets on social media from people she helped 10 to 15 years ago, showing her pictures of their children and letting her know how much they appreciate what she did.
"They say, 'This is what I'm doing now,' or the kids that she's helped will show her pictures of their kids and they'll go, 'This is all because you helped my mom get out of this situation when I was a kid,'" Hall says. "It gives me a different appreciation for my mom, because I do remember what she's gone through, and for her to be the woman that she is today is amazing."
McGraw is quick to point out that her survivor status isn't unique.
"There are so many survivors I've met through the years that have allowed me the honor of walking beside them during some of their darkest moments," she says.
It's true, Browne says, but not all can or will share their experiences.
"The glorious thing about Angela telling her story, or anyone that's gone through it that is strong enough to tell the story, is to bring it out of the shadows," she says. "People have got to know what has happened to people and then they will attach a face to a person to those experiences. It's a really hard mission to [raise funds] for because no one wants to think about it, [and they] don't want to look at it. In reality, if you get five people together ... probably three of them either know someone or have been touched by this."
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Dec. 27, 1972, Holton, Kan.
• A BOOK I RECENTLY READ AND LIKED: I read books to my grandchildren. I like "A Little Spot of Emotion Box Set" that helps kids identify with their emotions.
• SOMETHING I DO EVERY DAY IS: Give my husband a kiss and hug.
• IF I HAD TO EAT THE SAME THING EVERY DAY IT WOULD BE: Pizza.
• MY MOST PRECIOUS CHILDHOOD MEMORY: Watching my mom and dad sing at one of the restaurants my mom owned. My dad would play his guitar, sometimes there would be a person on the organ. My parents could really sing and had a good time doing it.
• TO MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY, I WOULD INVITE: My husband, my dad, my mother-in-law, Michelle Obama and Jesus.
• MY BIGGEST ACCOMPLISHMENT TO DATE IS: Becoming executive director of Women and Children First.
• TO RELAX I: Enjoy a glass of Hot Springs White Wine, coloring on my phone and binge-watching movies.
• MY KIDS WOULD SAY I'M: Always there for them.
• MY FAVORITE INDULGENCE IS: Starbucks' White Chocolate Mocha.
• THE BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT: Be grateful and humble in whatever role you play.
• I THINK EVERYONE SHOULD: Appreciate everyone's differences. It makes each of us special and beautiful. It would be a boring world if we were all the same.
• SOMEDAY I WANT TO: Cut that purple ribbon to the first Family Peace Center in the state of Arkansas, making it possible to provide services to all victims of domestic violence and sexual assault under one roof.
• MY PET PEEVE IS: Personally, it's holes in socks; professionally, it's the phone ringing more than three times.
• SOMETHING FEW PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT ME: I love jazz and I used to play the trombone in my school jazz band.
• THE MOST FUN I'VE EVER HAD: My honeymoon in Orlando, Fla.
• I WISH I COULD: Make violence in the world go away.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Grateful