Inside Track: Taking risks for a legacy of hope
The YWCA’s programs for victims of sexual assault, abuse and domestic violence have engaged Carla Blinkhorn for 30 years.
Carla Blinkhorn is not afraid of a challenge and fearlessly strives to improve the initiatives at YWCA West Central Michigan.
For more than 18 years, Blinkhorn has led the organization as chief executive officer, overseeing the introduction of innovative programs dedicated to serving roughly 5,000 individuals a year in West Michigan who are dealing with the impact of sexual assault, sexual abuse and domestic violence.
“The reason I keep on working here is we change all the time and we keep on looking for the gaps,” said Blinkhorn. “What services are we not providing? How could we provide them in a different way?”
Blinkhorn originally served as director of the counseling department at the YWCA, located at 25 Sheldon Blvd. SE in Grand Rapids, more than 30 years ago, after dabbling in a variety of fields.
As an undergraduate, Blinkhorn earned a degree in education, but while student teaching during her senior year she realized she was heading into the wrong profession. She moved to New York and began to work in program development at an afterschool program for the Reformed Church.
After earning a master’s degree in counseling and working as a counselor and then as agency director of a substance abuse program in Barry County, Blinkhorn decided to leave behind the leadership role to travel to Israel.
“I quit working altogether and went to Israel and lived on a kibbutz for five months,” said Blinkhorn. “I actually went there to pick avocadoes and they were out of season, so I became their volunteer coordinator, which was not what I wanted to do at all, but it was what I had some experience in.”
After returning to Grand Rapids and getting married, Blinkhorn applied for the director of counseling job at the YWCA. The role included program and staff development and working with domestic violence, sexual assault and child sexual abuse.
“It kind of pulled all of those different things I was interested in together,” said Blinkhorn.“There have been a number of initiatives, when I have been in the position of the director or CEO of the organization, where we have been first in the state or even broader than that,” she added.
Innovative programs Blinkhorn has helped develop and implement include: a scattered-site, transitional and independent living program known as Project H.E.A.L. — Healing, Education, Advocacy and Legal services — established in 1997; the first sexual assault Nurse Examiner Program in the state; a taskforce for military outreach in sexual assault and domestic violence; and a taskforce to research interventions for individuals with intellectual or development disabilities.
Funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Human Services Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Project H.E.A.L. provides transitional and supportive housing for survivors of domestic abuse to develop economic self-sufficiency, which increases the opportunity to achieve safety.
“At that time everything in domestic violence was congregate-living and the transitional housing programs were congregate-living,” said Blinkhorn. “We made the decision that we wanted to have a program that most resembled how somebody would live if they were not in a program. It is a norm in the state now, but at the time it wasn’t how anybody was doing it.”
Through the development of the Nurse Examiner Program, Blinkhorn said the YWCA was able to overcome a number of barriers and become the first organization in the state to provide comprehensive treatment services to sexual assault survivors.
When the YWCA took over the sexual assault program from the county in 1990, Blinkhorn said it had a budget of $30,000 and was staffed by five volunteers. Several years later, the YWCA was still developing relationships with area hospitals to implement a referral system for those who had been sexually assaulted and came into the emergency room. Based on a suggestion from a nurse at Saint Mary’s Hospital, the YWCA began to look at creating a Nurse Examiner Program, with a team of nurses on site to perform exams.
“We had a lot of help from the Nokomis Foundation, but we had to get all the hospitals and all of their risk management people to agree that if somebody was sexually assaulted and they were presented at the hospital, they would refer to us,” said Blinkhorn.
“That dramatically altered the face of sexual assault in Kent (County) and surrounding communities. Now people come here, have a medical forensic nurse providing the exam, and they have an advocate. It’s in a totally different environment than an emergency room, it doesn’t cost them anything, and it just really reduced barriers for service. I am really proud of that program.”
As the YWCA continued to explore innovative programs, Blinkhorn said she was fortunate to have a supportive board of directors.
One such program includes working with the National Guard and other military organizations to spread prevention awareness concerning veteran sexual assault and domestic violence.
“That program at the time was so cutting edge and so risky in many ways,” said Blinkhorn. “The (board) members have all had the same attitude, so they have allowed us to take risks and start initiatives, or just spend time exploring and doing research to see what direction we might go in a particular area.”
The YWCA also provides services for domestic violence assailants, known as Men Choosing Alternatives to Violence. One of the challenges of offering resources for assailants is the frequent pushback the YWCA receives.
“So why are we presenting and using some of our resources to provide services to assailants? Our basic position on that is, without assailants you don’t have victims,” said Blinkhorn. “We need to be providing services that impact the whole issue, not the issue of the victim alone.”
Another challenge the YWCA frequently tackles is the competitive nonprofit funding landscape. Although there are a number of other agencies applying for the same grants as the YMCA, the YWCA provides material to those organizations that are interested in starting similar initiatives.
“It is actually somewhat peculiar because we compete for the same grants, and so it wouldn’t seem like that is what we would do, but we have never experienced a downside,” said Bilnkhorn.
“Our position is, Nokomis helped us and not many communities have the kind of foundation support for nonprofits that we have in Grand Rapids. It makes sense to us that we share our information to like organizations around the state and in other states.”
After a two-year evaluation process by the YWCA board of directors, its Facility Committee and staff, the board determined to proceed with a $6.2 million campaign to restore the Y’s historic facility and expand its services.
Of the $6.2 million capital endowment campaign, $5 million is designated as capital, while $1 million is endowment funds. The remaining $200,000 will be allocated for programming, which includes services for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Despite the challenges and the intensity of the environment, Blinkhorn said she is proud of how the organization strives to take on new initiatives or develop innovative ways to deliver existing services.
“It changes all the time. I have a real opportunity to impact the work. We have a great staff who are also risk takers so it never stays the same,” said Blinkhorn.
“What we did five years ago isn’t what we are doing now. We are serving, in many ways, the same population, but we are looking at what we do in a different way all the time — adding new programs all the time, and so it is always fresh. I don’t think I have ever had a boring day here.”