It's safe to say Shelter director has always known her calling
Linda Oberhaus "I believe some people are just born helpers." No one would know that better than the woman who spoke those words — Linda Oberhaus, executive director of the Shelter for Abused Women & Children in Collier County.
Mrs. Oberhaus says she always knew she wanted to help others. No, there were no social workers or heads of nonprofit organizations in her family. There was no one she emulated or admired in the field. She simply knew. And by the time she was 18, she was caring for developmentally disabled adults at a community mental health center.
"They were like my own kids," she says. "I couldn't believe I was getting a paycheck to do that work. I would have paid them to work there."
That experience led her major in social work at the University of South Florida, where in between her studies she spent nights and weekends as an intake/needs assessment counselor and residential counselor visiting rape victims in the emergency room, dropping in on girls at the juvenile detention center and being a "buddy" for HIV patients who did not have family. "It was really validating for me," she says about the experiences that cemented her desire to work in the nonprofit arena.
Since obtaining her bachelor's and master's degrees, Mrs. Oberhaus has continued to work in what many might consider difficult, discouraging and even disheartening environments. Every day she comes face-to-face with women and children who have been subjected to mental and physical abuse.
While women and children are most often the victims, the Shelter is also a sanctuary for pets, the elderly and men who have endured some kind of abuse. In fiscal year 2007-2008, the center provided 14,072 nights of shelter to women and children; 561 nights of shelter to pets; housed 513 women and children; and served 2,977 individuals, including 1,400 children.
In the midst of all that despair and struggle, Mrs. Oberhaus' spirits are never dampened. "We know that we are saving lives every single day," she says.
Before Collier County sought her out to head up its facility, Mrs. Oberhaus spent 12 years at The Spring in Tampa, Florida's largest certified domestic violence shelter (102 beds), leaving as its executive director in 2007. She opened the center's first transitional housing program, acquired national accreditation for the center and saw it grow to the country's second largest domestic violence center. "It became more professional and less grass roots," she says.
She would have been perfectly content to stay and move forward with The Spring's growth, she says, adding it was a surprise when Naples called. "I wasn't looking."
But, curious about Naples, she and her husband of 20 years as well as their 13-year-old daughter visited, and after a tour of the Shelter, she couldn't say no.
While many domestic violence shelters have to adapt to whatever space they can acquire, most settling in homes or duplexes, the Naples community had pulled together and obtained the resources necessary to build a 30,000-squarefoot, 60-bed facility on a large, gated campus. "Being in the profession, you learn about the different centers, and Naples has an impeccable reputation," she says. "It is looked up to as being a leader in Florida." Last year, Charity Navigator, a highly respected independent evaluator, rated the Shelter among the top 14 domestic violence centers across the U.S
While Mrs. Oberhaus is extremely proud of the Shelter and particularly of the staff, she is committed to doing more than just providing a safe haven to those who are battered. "It is wonderful that we are saving lives, but we could be doing something so much bigger," she explains.
The ultimate goal is to stop abuse from occurring. To that end, the Shelter is dedicated to prevention and provides education to address the root of the problem. "We want to focus more attention on the solution," she says.
Personally, she's also committed to bettering her management skills and will attend a seven-day "Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management" course this summer at the Harvard Business School. She's also in the new class of Leadership Collier that begins in September. "I'm constantly learning and growing," she says.
And in a year when the economy has severely impacted funding and donations are down, she reminds the community of the Shelter's mission and encourages donors to contribute and support its efforts. "This is one of the most critical services for families," she says.