Since Carrie White joined Connect — formerly known as Women’s Support Services — last fall, her focus has been on reducing the client base. “We’re trying to get out there to help change the social norms,” said Ms. White who since coming on as program director has made one full-time hire for preventive work and is cross training the rest of the agency’s five staff to work both with prevention and support. The agency has been working with victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault on the Island for over 20 years.
Under Ms. White’s guidance, Connect staff members will be holding kitchen table conversations with community members and will conduct talks at the middle school level, aiming to instill the idea that domestic violence will not be tolerated in teenage relationships.
It’s a plan that attracted the interest of Boston-based fashion designer Hadley Pollet, who will introduce her new collection at a daylong event at the Dr. Daniel Fisher House in Edgartown from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday. Proceeds will go to Connect.
While the connection between Connect and couture may appear a little fuzzy at first glance, for Ms. Pollet it’s to be found in her belts. For a birthday party in 2002, Ms. Pollet, then a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, wore a makeshift belt out of a colorful piece of trim with a big buckle. The belt got so many compliments she decided to start a company. Now with her accessories in 300-500 stores worldwide she wants to reinvigorate the global fashion scene with less of a looks-are-everything approach.
“My clothes are supposed to make you feel good,” she said yesterday. “Our market research showed that women found my belts empowering.”
For Ms. Pollet, who was a victim of abuse herself, this is the key principle to grasp in order to end and overcome a cycle of abuse.
“It’s about getting the empowerment to lift yourself out,” she said, adding she was especially drawn to Connect’s preventive initiative. “It would have been amazing in school to have something like this. It’s important to raise awareness it’s not something to be ashamed of. I’m not ashamed. If I can be like that, anyone can.”
Connect, which operates a free and confidential service, currently handles around 400 cases a year. But the real number of abuse cases are likely to be much higher.
“The police are great about giving out our name, as are the courts and hospitals,” said Ms. White, who is marshalling seven years of experience in the Oak Bluffs police department. She was made rape investigator soon after joining the force, and doubled as sexual assault and domestic violence officer. Ms. White worked closely with Women’s Support Services during these years. “It’s hard to get statistics, when people don’t necessarily seek our help, even after police calls,” she said.
According to Ms. White, in the case of a close community like Vineyard, with its reputation for safety, it often doesn’t even get that far.
“It’s something people don’t like to talk about, and we don’t want people to forget there is domestic violence on the Vineyard,” she said. “It’s such a great tourist location, people don’t want bad press. We want to keep it at the forefront of peoples’ minds all the time.”
Connect officially adopted its new name just a fortnight ago, days before Ms. Pollet called with her proposal. Ms. White hopes to make Wednesday’s event the first of regular efforts to publicize the issue of abuse on the Vineyard. She emphasized the distinction between Connect’s work within the community and the guaranteed anonymity of their support service.
“It’s so difficult here because everyone knows everybody,” said Ms. White. On the Vineyard, she added, “it wouldn’t be unusual for the person seeking help to know the person who treats them at the hospital. But the service is entirely private and confidentially is always maintained.”
Connect operates a 24-hour emergency phone line. Staff also accompany victims to court appearances and hospital visits. Staff are available for one-on-one and group meetings. A division of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, the support program has been in operation for more than 20 years.