Judy Purtell was driving to the Center for Women’s Ministries recently when she saw the dog.
She had seen it before, looking lost, near her home in Rothwell Heights. But this time Purtell leaned over, opened the door and watched the dog — not much larger than most cats, really — bound directly into her vehicle.
“She was straggly and neglected and kind of beaten down,” Purtell recalled.
The dog was unique, but opening doors is nothing new for Purtell. As director of Columbia’s Center for Women’s Ministries, she leads a staff of trained volunteers devoted to helping people in need.
The center, established in June, is one of 25 in the nation that offers crisis intervention with a spiritual emphasis. The goal is to help women realize they are not alone in their struggles, said board member Jane Williams, who helped establish the center last year.
“Our motto is, ‘We’ve been where you are,’” she said. “It’s a place for women to come together and offer support to women who need it.”
Williams, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MU, has been involved with social work most of her life. She was a hospital social worker for about 20 years before doing outreach work at her church, Christian Fellowship. A devoted Christian, Williams, 50, wanted to incorporate spirituality into her counseling work.
Then she heard about the Center for Women’s Ministries, an organization founded by Reova Meredith in Bloomington, Ind., 16 years ago. A teacher nearing retirement, Meredith felt called to create a place for women to receive Christian counseling with a focus on prayer and nonjudgmental listening. Williams and six other women met with Meredith in April 2003 to discuss opening a center in Columbia.
In the months that followed, 50 women underwent intensive training directed by the national office. Purtell, who was director of nursing at Lenoir Retirement Community at the time, came on board as a volunteer. Later, she decided to become the center’s director.
Volunteers began renovating a suite, formerly a music studio equipped with soundproofed rooms, in Kelly Plaza. Those rooms became counseling centers, decorated with floral prints and soothing artwork. Most of the furnishings and labor were donated. Everyone involved worked to transform the offices into a soothing, feminine place.
“We really wanted to make it look inviting,” Purtell said. “We wanted people to feel somewhat pampered.”
In June 2004, the women held an open house in their new offices. They had hoped 20 people would attend; by day’s end, more than 80 came through the center’s doors.
“I thought, ‘I wonder if there’s more of a need than we even realized,’” Purtell said.
So far, about 100 people, including a handful of men, have been trained as counselors. The 37-person staff of volunteers ranges in age from 19 to 70 and represents more than two dozen area churches. They have counseled about 60 women on everything from communication skills and co-dependency to healing and personal accountability, Williams said.
During the application process, counselors have the opportunity to list things they have struggled with in their own lives and situations they would feel comfortable counseling others through. Purtell then matches clients with counselors.
“They’re from all walks of life,” Williams said. “There are people with pain from things that happened in their pasts, grief, people who are new in town – really all kinds of things.”
Counselors affirm a statement of faith that outlines basic Christian beliefs. But Williams and Purtell stressed that any woman, regardless of religious background or personal faith, is welcome at the center. All information is kept strictly confidential. Volunteers also are trained to recognize clients in need of professional help, Purtell said. Otherwise, they are there to offer empathy and prayer.
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘I can’t believe I’m telling you all this, you must be shocked,’” Purtell said. “But nothing does shock us, because it’s not our place to judge. We’re here to give them encouragement to heal and grow.”
Donna Stemler, coordinator of training resources at the organization’s national headquarters in Bloomington, said that while the centers’ volunteers are not professional counselors, their compassion, experience and shared faith help others through difficult times.
“We believe that healing comes from God,” she said. “With that behind us, we do very well. We have seen many people, through our centers,find healing that they have not found in other places.”
The ministry also offers bible study and support groups. But for Williams, one of the most rewarding aspects of the ministry has been seeing women from various churches cross racial lines come together. The center has trained about eight African American volunteers and several Asian women, Williams said.
“There really haven’t been a lot of joint programs between black and white churches in Columbia,” she said. “Sunday is still a pretty segregated day. But we’ve seen black and white churches working together here.”
Stemler said similar things have happened at many of the centers. “It’s just such an open organization from the standpoint of socioeconomic level and race,” she said. “That just is not one of the issues. People are people.”
The Columbia center and its counterpart in Jefferson City, which opened in January of 2004, have grown steadily, Stemler said. Offices in several locations are scheduled to open this summer, and according to the organization’s web site, plans are underway to establish other centers in mid-Missouri.
“It just seems that this center is here for a time such as this, when people’s lives are in such a whirl,” Stemler said. “The task of helping people work through the problems of this day and age just seems monumental.”
Men are permitted to go through training with their wives and help counsel other married couples, but the centers generally do not provide counseling for men. Purtell said that distinction is an important one.
“We’ve had women come in here who didn’t have a safe place to go,” she said. “There’s sometimes a kind of tensing. If women have been abused, sometimes they don’t want to be around men until they’ve had time to heal.”
Williams and Purtell said counselors tend to benefit from the experience almost as much as their clients do. Now happily married to Jack Purtell, Judy Purtell, 65, has known her own struggles. Divorced after going through a painful marriage, she was a single mother for many years. She said those experiences prompted her to empathize with struggling women even before she joined the center.
“I have an open heart for those in need,” she said.
It surprised no one at the center when Purtell showed up earlier this month with a shaggy dog in tow. The other women followed Purtell’s lead, taking the animal into their care. Board member Jeannie Vanderwalker took the dog to be cleaned and groomed and offered to help find it a home.
“A client saw her and said, ‘I think she should be our mascot, because this is kind of how we come in, all bedraggled and in need,’” Purtell said.