For nearly 20 years, battered women have found their way to the Cumbee Center in Aiken County, some with only the clothes on their back as they sought an end to their abusive relationship.
And over those long years, the emergency shelter has worked to empower those women, using community resources and volunteers to pave a brighter path for their future.
But as the Cumbee Center to Assist Abused Persons prepares this week to celebrate its 20th anniversary, it will be a bittersweet event.
The two-decade mark comes as the agency appeals an Aiken County jury's verdict in March finding it guilty of negligence in the 1995 shooting death of Sabrenia Rouse Neal, a shelter resident.
The woman's family said the Cumbee Center was negligent for driving her to a meeting with her abusive husband at a lawyer's office, where George Neal shot and killed her.
The lawsuit is a battle that has consumed the agency staff now for five years, bringing with it issues that strike at the heart of the shelter's mission to empower women.
"Her family is grieving. But we are grieving because Sabrenia was part of our domestic family and because she was an unusual client and really had it together," Executive Director Kay Mixon said last week. "Like so many of our victims, once they make that choice to leave, they are making good judgments and they are realizing their potential. So I feel like that light that she was seeing at the end of a tunnel, George Neal put it out. The Cumbee Center didn't.
"We were encouraging her to reach that light. George Neal is the one that ended it. In all of these cases, the responsibility has to be put back on the batterer."
The jury decision will be a sour note at Thursday night's annual dinner and volunteer recognition ceremony at Newberry Hall in downtown Aiken.
Mrs. Mixon wants to hold a press conference beforehand, where the evening's speaker, Rita Smith of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, can discuss the damaging impact a guilty verdict has on shelters nationwide.
The battered women's shelter also has much to celebrate Thursday, including helping thousands of women over the years, the expansion of services, physical growth in office and shelter space and community support.
In 1997 alone, CAAP staff and volunteers helped more than 2,200 victims and family members of domestic violence and 250 survivors and family members of sexual assault in a six-county area.
The Cumbee Center has grown tremendously since local ministers Dan and Melanie Barton saw a need in 1979 from all the battered victims knocking on their door asking for help.
The couple found an office in the attic of a half-way house for drug addicts and alcoholics, where they managed the services.
It wasn't until 1984 that the state legislature specified that physical abuse of a spouse was criminal. Before, violence against a wife was not deemed a matter for the law.
In 1985, the Coalition to Assist Abused Persons opened its first emergency safe house for victims in Aiken, Allendale and Barnwell counties. The center also started a sexual assault program to serve as a rape crisis center for Aiken County.
Satellite offices in Barnwell and Edgefield assist victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
The center worked with the court system while creating a Unity program, providing counseling services for the abuser. And a more recent grant has funded tracking devices to put on abusers, helping women keep track of their whereabouts.
The center had rough days around 1994, and the work of John and Retha Cumbee brought it back to its feet, Mrs. Mixon said.
Mr. Cumbee was longtime board member and shelter volunteer, and he and a few other board members pulled the center together by writing grants and volunteering time.
"His last day alive was spent with me at United Way asking for money to support this agency," she said. "And late that afternoon, he died of a heart attack."
Mrs. Mixon credits him with serving as her mentor.
Originally named the Coalition to Assist Abused Persons, CAAP changed its name in 1995 to honor Mr. Cumbee. He is one story that will be remembered Thursday night.
Annually, the dinner not only draws supporters but those women with success stories. Mrs. Mixon and shelter manager Emily Branch remember the women well.
Like the woman who had been abused her entire life by her own family and two different husbands.
"I told her nobody deserves to be abused," Ms. Branch said. "And it was sort of like a light bulb went on in her head ... For some reason, this woman felt like she deserved the abuse."
Another mother of three children successfully left the shelter and went on to graduate from Aiken Technical College, moving on with her life after an abusive situation.
Mrs. Mixon said she is strict about the staff members letting the women make their own decisions.
"You let them know their options, but you do not make those choices," Mrs. Mixon said. "This is a person who is a human being. They are someone that was given a brain and they can use it.
"And when they do all of these in the shelter for themselves, when they are out there without us, they are going to survive. And that is the name of the game."
The center provides free and confidential 24-hour emergency services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault -- for both men and women.
In addition, the Cumbee Center offers crisis and intervention counseling, temporary emergency shelter, advocates for the legal system, referrals to social services, long-term counseling, support groups, emotional support and educational programs.
The center is funded by the United Ways of Aiken, Barnwell and Edgefield counties as well as federal and state grants and private donations.
Greg Rickabaugh can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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