The SHERO

The woman said her legs were as scrawny as a chicken’s, so she always wore slacks to hide them. Her arms were so spindly she couldn’t wear short-sleeved blouses. Or tuck her hair behind her ears, because they stuck out so far from her head. Ellen Siler demonstrated how the woman frequently tugged at her hair to make sure her ears were covered.

As the CEO of Hubbard House in Jacksonville for the past 19 years and CEO of Quigley House for seven years before that, Ellen Siler has helped tens of thousands of women and children escape domestic violence. Hubbard House provided shelter to 883 women and children and a handful of men in 2015-’16 alone. Siler oversees an annual budget of $4.7 million. The Center helped more than 5,000 victims of domestic violence last year. 

As she prepares to retire now at 70 years of age, Siler says she’ll never forget that 67-year-old woman with the chicken legs, a woman who’d so internalized the hate and violence rained on her during her 49 years of marriage, she believed her body had to be covered to hide its hideousness. The woman’s story is one of horror, certainly, but Siler describes it as also being an emblem of strength and resilience. Like thousands of other women who’ve been beaten and abused, this woman recovered.

“She completely turned her life around. She found a wonderful life that she didn’t know she could have,” says Siler.

For 49 years, that woman’s husband beat her. He unplugged the telephones in the house and took them with him to work so she couldn’t make any calls. He told the neighbors that she suffered from dementia and to call him if they saw her outside the house.

She didn’t try to escape. The call for help came from a surgeon who telephoned Quigley House in Clay County when Siler was the CEO in the early ’90s. The doctor was scheduled to perform gall bladder surgery on the woman, but she was so incapacitated by anxiety, he wasn’t sure it would be safe. When he broached postponing the surgery, the woman bluntly told him that if he didn’t operate, she’d be dead.

Her husband didn’t want to pay for her surgery, so he turned it into a sadistic game. He loaded a single bullet in the barrel of a pistol. For each of the four nights before she’d entered the hospital, he’d spun the barrel, stuck the gun to her head, and pulled the trigger. If she went home without having the surgery, the woman was convinced he’d kill her for sure.

After the surgery, and after Quigley House transported her to safety, Siler remembers how the woman began to regain herself in the simplest ways. She wore dresses and skirts and short-sleeved blouses. She tucked her hair behind her ears. It may have been only fashion, but for the woman it symbolized far more.

“She changed. To see someone who lived with violence for that long reach that point in life. So many people just give up.”

Sometimes people ask Siler how she can manage to do this work. No matter how many women are helped, there are always more. They tell her it must be depressing.

“I say, ‘No, it’s joyful,’” she says.

Some women arrive in hospital gowns. Others arrive with all their belongings in garbage bags. Many keep their eyes cast down. Ashamed. And then …

“To see that same woman standing tall and looking you right in the eye and having a confidence that they didn’t have before … 

“They become the person they were meant to be. They come to a point where they realize what they experienced isn’t who they are,” she says.

The shelter doesn’t track people long-term. Siler says it’s understandable some people want to forget that moment of crisis in their lives when they ran to Hubbard House, and the center never hears from them again. “We have others,” she says, “who will call years later and want to volunteer. Or some will call at a special moment in their lives, to say, ‘My son just made honor roll,’ or ‘I just got my law degree.’”
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When Siler joined Hubbard House as CEO in 1998, the shelter had just completed a $4.6 million, 30,000-square-foot state-of-the art shelter. Siler says that Hubbard House believes it was the first shelter in the U.S. built specifically for domestic violence survivors. It was also the first shelter in Florida to offer an intervention program for batterers, and it was the first shelter in the state to house a licensed childcare facility onsite. All of those innovations predated Siler. In addition to fundraising and managing budget and staff, Siler regarded her mission as making those 30,000 square feet a welcoming place. She thinks she succeeded.

“When I go any place,” she says, “I’m looking for the feel of a place. This place feels good. Kids love this place. It has a really good feel. That’s really important to me. Nobody’s yelling. Nobody’s fighting. They know the rules. The kids are scared when they come in here with their moms, but they love being here. It feels good.”

Even today, 21 years after the new facility opened in 1976, Hubbard House is impressive. There’s a situation room with a bank of phones where the center staffs a hotline 24 hours a day. There are classrooms where Duval County teachers provide instruction for students in kindergarten up through eighth grade living in the shelter. There’s childcare for preschool children and babies. There’s also a closet stocked with supplies—like toothpaste and toothbrushes, shampoo, diapers, tissues, feminine hygiene products—necessities food stamps won’t buy. Each child receives a small handmade quilt, and they can pick books to keep from the well-stocked shelves of the center’s library. For teenagers, there’s a game room with a dance video machine and a vintage Pac-Man.

While leading Folio Weekly on a tour of the facility, Siler explains that Hubbard House focuses on empowering women and keeping families together. Women do their own wash in the laundry room. They share full kitchens where they plan meals, stock the fridge and cook, and where they can eat together as a family. That empowerment and independence extends to staff, she says. She wants the people who work there to feel trusted to make decisions and act. She also believes female leaders need to be comfortable with financials, so each department head at Hubbard House manages her own department budget.
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Siler became involved in domestic violence issues through the women’s movement in the 1970s. She grew up on the shores of Lake Erie in LaSalle, Michigan. After completing two years of college, she married and had two daughters. When her daughters were 2 and 3 years old in 1971, she and her husband Cliff joined the Peace Corps. They were stationed for two years in Jamaica, where Siler taught swimming. She says she probably had the best job in the Peace Corps, but adds that it was important work because at the time, only four percent of the population of the island nation knew how to swim. She also explains how the experience helped her understand how much work is involved when one is without money and modern conveniences. She did the family’s wash by hand and walked to the grocery store and carried the groceries home, with a daughter on each side.

When she returned to Michigan, Siler worked as an aquatics and physical education director for the YMCA in Bay City. She became involved in women’s issues when the Y asked her to serve on a newly formed women’s coalition. It was a time when women all over the nation began organizing to address violence against women by creating their own institutions to fight it. In Jacksonville, a group of women organized a rape crisis hotline. When they received calls for help from battered women, they expanded the hotline to address the larger need. In 1976, the women bought a cottage in Springfield on Hubbard Street to use as a domestic violence shelter and staffed it with volunteers.

Meanwhile, in Bay City, the women’s coalition started a hotline. When they realized the need for a domestic violence shelter, some of the women began opening their homes as temporary shelters. Siler made her home available to women with children. At the time, she says, she didn’t think about the danger she might have put her family in by doing that.

“I might get a call at 2 a.m. saying … ‘We are putting a woman and two children in a taxi and they will be at your house in 15 minutes’,” she remembers. “I would get my children out of bed, put them in sleeping bags on the living room floor, change the sheets and be ready to welcome them.”

Women in Jacksonville and Bay City and all over the country began rape crisis centers, women’s shelters and hotlines in the 1970s because there was little help for victims and little understanding of rape and domestic violence as a crime. The women’s movement didn’t just open shelters and staff hotlines, they began a re-education campaign to change attitudes and lobbied for changes in laws.

“It is really fascinating to me that within a short time span, all over the country, a great awareness was growing about this issue and women were stepping up to address it.

“We didn’t have the laws to protect women that we have now,” Siler explains. “Domestic violence in and of itself is against the law now. Police can arrest on probable cause. It used to be [that] if no one saw what happened, it became a he said/she said. She said he broke her arm. He said she fell down the stairs.

“The problem is that people are still dying. Most of those people never called Hubbard House. There is no way to intervene if you don’t know what is happening in that relationship. That’s why education is so important. We’ve been around for 40 years, but there are still people who don’t realize that help is available, who don’t realize there are laws to protect them.”

A few years after Siler’s family moved to Jacksonville in 1985, she saw an advertisement for an assistant director position at Hubbard House. She thought it would be ideal for her: Get paid to do work she loved. She stayed at Hubbard House for a year and then Quigley House hired her as CEO. She worked at the Clay County shelter for seven years before returning to Hubbard House as CEO in 1998.

Siler says she wishes the anti-domestic violence campaign had the same funding the anti-tobacco people received from the court case settlement with the tobacco industry.

“Who knows? If we did, we might have more people openly speaking up and condemning somebody who talks in a demeaning way to a woman or when someone witnesses anybody treating somebody inferior,” she says.

Siler promised herself when she turned 70, she’d retire. Siler says she’ll remain involved in what she still describes as “the movement” and will continue to serve on the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the organization that brings together Florida’s 42 domestic violence shelters into one entity. Siler is a past president of the organization. When the board picks the next CEO, however, board president Bob Baldwin says Siler has made it clear she won’t stick around for the transition. He says that’s a sign of her humility and insight. She wants the next CEO to come in and feel empowered to make improvements.

“She wants the new leader to come in and establish themselves. That’s the kind of wisdom and guidance she has,” says Baldwin. “She knows it’s important for a new person to establish themselves and to move Hubbard house to the next level.”

While Siler was CEO, Hubbard House completed a 5,000-square-foot addition to the facility. In 2006, board members raised $5.5 million for an endowment fund that now holds $7 million and insulates the shelter from economic uncertainties. The shelter also opened a 10,000-square-foot thrift store on Beach Boulevard and a 5,000-square-foot drop-in center that’s open to the public.
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Shelter manager Stacey O’Brien keeps a photograph on her desk at Hubbard House of the day in 1998 she came in with her three-year-old daughter, seeking shelter. The building had just opened and everything was new. “The draperies all matched,” she recalls, but she doesn’t remember anybody she met. “I remember just a feeling that I loved this place, and I loved that this place was here to help,” she says. After she began working at the center, she learned one of the women she supervised was the one who welcomed her that day.

O’Brien describes Siler as quiet, as a person who listens. She doesn’t talk much, and you might not know what she’s thinking, explains O’Brien, but then a change will happen—sometimes a huge change.

“Back when I first became an advocate, we expected people to be in at a certain time if they were staying here,” O’Brien explains. “I went to Ellen and said that I
had a concern about women who were grown adults not being fearful of losing their space in the shelter if they were out after midnight.

“She didn’t give me a lot of feedback in the moment. But the next day when I came in, the policy was gone. She never told anyone I was the one who went to her. She never outed me as someone who came to her to talk about it. But I’m confident if I go to her and if it is something valid, a change will be made.”

Board president Baldwin says he’s seen Siler use her quiet leadership to guide staff to solve problems with an employee who isn’t doing their job, to address a problem with an air-conditioning unit, or to solve some issue that the board is facing.

“She is a quiet, strong leader who is able to lead through listening,” says Baldwin, “through guiding, through supporting. She’s not the kind of leader who feels the need to direct. She’s the kind of leader who feels the need to guide and support and reach consensus and agreement.

“From a board perspective, she is always first to listen and second to offer her opinion, and I think that allows the board to think big and think creatively.”

O’Brien agrees that Siler has been an extraordinary leader.

“She is a rock to a lot of people here, and I am really sad to see her go,” says O’Brien. “Talking about it, I start to tear up.

“She is a true Shero for me.”

Although the woman with the chicken legs and her husband have died, she was a Shero to Siler as well, as are the countless other women who sought safety and found self. She remembers the moment that, for her, marked the 67-year-old’s new life.

“The day we took her to get her ears pierced, the joy and pride on her face is something I will never forget,” says Ellen Siler.

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