Executive Director of Choices stepping down after almost 24 years

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Choices-Dart
Debbie Dart has served as the executive director of Choices since June of 1997.

By Randy Arrington

LURAY, Dec. 1 — It’s hard for Debbie Dart to estimate.

“I don’t think I could. I wouldn’t know how to,” she says. “I don’t know how I could put a number on it.”

Since 1997, the executive director of Choices, the Council on Domestic Violence for Page County, has worked with staff and community agencies to help, house, feed, protect, educate and advocate for hundreds, if not thousands, of women and children living in fear.

“I’ve had people say we’ve saved their lives,” Dart said during an interview with PVN on Tuesday.

Recently, Dart informed the Choices’ Board of Directors that the only executive director the non-profit organization has known since before its first shelter opened in Luray, is now ready for retirement.

“Partly because of my age,” Dart says with a laugh when asked about her reasons for ending her tenure. “I just turned 66…I woke up one day and thought, okay it’s time. I just need to step back and let someone else take over.

“I’m going to spend some time doing nothing for a while and then decide what I’ll do, if anything,” Dart continued. “I have a few hobbies I would like to catch up with.”

Her last day will be Jan. 31, 2021, and the board is hoping to make a hire soon enough to allow for some overlap for training before Dart’s departure. According to a wanted ad placed by Choices, the non-profit is “seeking an individual with strong skills in: program and budget planning and implementation, supervision and personnel management, grant writing and administration, and communications…”

The position is full-time, with benefits, and pays $55,000 to $60,000, depending on experience. Educational requirements include a bachelor’s degree in human services, administration or a related field; and three to five years of experience in working in family service, domestic and sexual violence or related services.

Deadline to apply is this Friday, Dec. 4.

As Dart considers the number of lives that she has touched during her time with Choices, one of her earliest memories of helping a young lady in need still sticks vividly in her thoughts more than two decades later.

“There was a girl…a young woman, one of the very first I worked with when I came here. It was before the shelter, and she called the hotline,” Dart remembered. “I picked her up at her apartment, and she was outside with her 6-month old baby, hiding in the bushes with her baby, to get away from her abuser.

“Three weeks ago, my husband saw her and her son is grown and is becoming an electrician,” Dart continued. “She sent me the nicest text I’ve ever received…how we saved their life, and how proud she is of her son, and how grateful she is for what we did… and I thought, well that makes all those years worth it.”

What began as a grassroots effort by volunteers to help women suffering from domestic violence in the early 1980s became an incorporated non-profit organization in 1986. The Page County group opened its first shelter for women in September of 1997 — about three months after Dart arrived in June.

Today, Choices now has an annual budget approaching $1 million and 11 paid staff members. The non-profit provides more than a dozen services from emergency shelter to a 24-hour hotline, and from legal advocacy in the courtroom to educational programs in the classroom.

Dart credits a lot of the organization’s growth to the support of state grants provided by various state agencies, who began to start working together to fight a common problem with overlapping effects.

“When I started out, the only thing out there was the Virginia Department of Social Services had grants specifically for setting up shelters, but then the Department of Justice Criminal Services started helping and then a little more through [Social Services]…from there, it just grew over the years,” Dart said. “They came together and wanted every county to have services, and they’ve been able to do that.

“It grew slowly over the years,” she continued. “More funding became available, so we could hire more staff and provide more services.”

The Choices’ 2020 annual report (fiscal year ending June 30), provided the following statistics for Page County:

  • 39 women and 34 children were given safe shelter from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020, for a total of 3,293 bed nights with an average of nine people being housed in the shelter on any given night.
  • 669 people received advocacy in person or over the telephone, a 1.6 percent increase from last year.
  • 33 support groups provided with 20 women and 15 children participating.
  • 36 total children received services, two of which had entered the shelter the previous fiscal year.
  • 13 adults and 20 children received helped to move into permanent housing with Virginia Homeless Services Program funds.
  • 65 victims of domestic violence received help with court services.
  • 543 calls received on 24-hour hotline, a 30-percent increase over last fiscal year.
  • 30 educational programs provided to 535 students in Page County Public Schools.

While noting the obvious needs present in our community, the annual report also pointed out some disturbing county trends as well:

  • A persistent trend is how far the aggressor will go to continually terrorize the victim. This year, several perpetrators came to the shelter. They taunted victims over social media with false allegations and had friends and family members contact victims to convey the aggressors’ messages. These tactics perpetuate the trauma and interfere with healing.
  • There was a 75-percent increase of women who reported that they had been strangled by their intimate partner. They also reported the strangluation was so intense they passed out. There was an increase in reports that children witnessed the strangulation as well.
  • There was a 31-percent increase in the number of childen in shelter ages infant to 5 years old as compared to the same time period last year.
  • There was an increase in the number of women seeking shelter who were in their third trimester of pregnancy.

Dart knows that the battle against domestic violence and sexual abuse is far from over, and she hopes her successor is up to the challenge.

“There are so many different aspects to the job, I just hope they take the time to learn it all and don’t get too frustrated,” Dart offered. “I think they should be patient with themselves.”

The outgoing executive director of the last quarter century also acknowledges the many who supported her in her own role.

“I want to say thank you to all of the board members I’ve worked with and all of the staff…no one person can do this, and the support of the community here has really grown and it has been really appreciated. It all contributed to where the program is now.”

Dart has spent 35 years living in Rileyville and helping those in need in various roles. She spent three years as the director of the Concern Hotline based in Winchester before taking the executive director role with Choices in Luray. Though she’s optimistic about the future of the organization, she troubled over the need for it. 

She says domestic violence affects more people than the community realizes, and that “we all know someone” who has been a victim of domestic violence — whether we actually realize it or not.

But she lets the words of the people who Choices has helped in the past keep her hopeful of a better tomorrow the organization can provide for some of Page County’s most desperate citizens.

When asked what they would have done if the Choices’ shelter did not exist, local women who had benefitted from their services responded as follows:

“My children and I would have slept in my van. We had nowhere else to go and we were NOT safe in our home.”

“Fail miserably, probably still be in the abusive relationship that I came to the shelter to escape.”

“I don’t think — with good reason — that I would have been alive.”

“I was so afraid when I came into [the] shelter. I was torn down, battered and unsure of my future. When I left, I still had some old bruises, but I had been built up and was definitely more hopeful about what my future looked like.”

Closing quotes, statistical data and other supporting information appear on the Choices website.

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for highlighting Debbie’s career with Choices. I hate to lose her! She has done a superb job in leading our organization and as Board chair, I was dreading the day when she would tell me she was retiring. She has been an exemplary director and will be hard to replace. Thank you Debbie for all you have done… there aren’t enough words to tell you how grateful I am to have worked with you!

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