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Chapel Hill group taking novel approach to helping survivors of domestic violence

compass center

In fall 2019 the Compass Center held a fundraiser to rent apartments in Orange County to use as emergency housing for survivors of domestic violence and their children. Attendees wore purple in support of domestic violence awareness. Photo courtesy of Alex Lassiter/Copper Key Photo.

Since its founding in 2012, the Compass Center for Women and Families has provided services in prevention, crisis and long-term self-sufficiency for women in Orange County and surrounding areas. But the Compass Center is taking a novel approach to helping women who have experienced domestic violence.

Located at 210 Henderson St. in Chapel Hill, the Compass Center was the result of the merger of two nonprofit organizations: the Family Violence Prevention Center of Orange County and The Women’s Center. 

With the merger, the Compass Center provides all services from both sides in one organization, focusing on the themes of gender equality and economic justice. 

Cordelia Heaney, executive director for the Compass Center, said she joined the organization five years ago because its model is different from most other agencies. 

“What I’ve found in my previous jobs is how interconnected issues of prevention and crisis and long-term self-sufficiency are,” Heaney said. “So by being able to have all those services in one organization, we are better able to connect with people to promote gender equity and economic justice in a variety of ways.”

The center gives presentations and does outreach about domestic violence and its services to businesses, churches, community groups, schools and anyone who would like them to present. It provides a 24-hour hotline, crisis counseling and emergency housing, support groups, court advocacy and housing microgrants. 

To help with self-sufficiency, the agency offers financial and career counseling, as well as legal information services focused on family law. The center is also the only diaper bank in the area.

Heaney said the center is working on implementing new programs this year, like a lethality assessment protocol in a partnership with law enforcement. She said on the scene of a domestic violence incident, officers would ask the victim a short series of questions to help determine the likelihood of lethality. If the victim scores high, the police officer can speak directly with Compass Center advocates or have the victim directly speak to them. 

The center is also in the middle of a fundraising campaign to be able to rent apartments to provide emergency housing for survivors of domestic violence because Heaney said Orange County has not had this kind of resource for the last 20 years. They hope to launch it in the fall.

Morgan Johnson, a volunteer who helps with outreach, said the center can benefit everyone. 

"The Compass Center is really trying to change the conversation around a lot of things," Johnson said. "I think it's a really wonderful resource, but no one knows what it is, and they think it is just a domestic violence agency.

Overall, Heaney said the agency worked with about 7,500 community members last year and more than 200 volunteers. 

Volunteers can work in several different areas of the organization. Emma Halker has been volunteering as a hotline advocate since February 2019. She said one setback of working for the organization is the stress put on volunteers by the situations they help people through. 

“Some are in an emergency and they need to leave tonight. Their abusers are going to potentially kill them, so it’s definitely a life or death situation,” Halker said. “In those cases, if we’re able to, we provide emergency hotel placement or emergency homeless shelter placement.”

However, she said sometimes people are looking for general advice or support, and she is able to help by connecting them with resources.

While the work is intense, Halker said it can be rewarding. 

“Sometimes I’ve seen some of my clients out in the community,” Halker said. “To see women who I have worked with having flourished after escaping a situation and to see them on the road to doing better is incredible.”

Another area for volunteers is information and referral. The volunteers welcome people into the center and help them access its programs and services, or refer them to other services within the area. 

UNC senior Claire Kern has been doing this work since January. She said the Compass Center is different because there isn’t another organization in the Triangle that centralizes information on all services for women. 

“I feel like that’s why people who are sometimes confused come to us because they just want to know about the resources as opposed to directly going to a legal service or shelter or therapy,” Kern said.

Because of the work they do, both Kern and Halker said it can take an emotional toll, but that the center is very good about taking care of its volunteers.

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“They have so many resources for you to deal with your emotional processing, which is good because you wouldn’t think that all places have that,” Kern said.

Heaney said the agency continues to grow and find ways to support the community.

“We are focusing a lot this year on engaging with other community partners, particularly in traditionally underserved communities of Orange County, so that we can help ensure that our services are meeting the needs of everyone in our community,” Heaney said.


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