WINGO THE GREAT
By Lois Barrett
A name plate on Barbara Wingo’s desk in a fenced-in haven in Harrisburg bears the title of “Wingo the Great.” Surely the nameplate connotation has carried her through the years as a women’s and children’s advocate for safety in seven counties wearing the name of Anna Bixby Center. Bixby was a battered woman of Hardin County who survived attempted murder at the hands of her abusive husband. She lived years after, dying in 1870. Her name was chosen for the project.
Most would not have called Barbara Wingo great when she began a movement to protect women and children in Rosiclare in 1979. She was branded a home-wrecker, bra-burning feminist, called an anti-Christ, and there was the ever-present denial of abuse in the towns, though some of them were abusers themselves.“ Males raped their daughters and beat their women,” Wingo said. Husbands threatened her and her family. “Churches threatened me,” she stated.
When she held a meeting for local social service providers, only two, from other counties, were present. This was a far cry from the more than 100 representatives who showed for a meeting in 2002, and included influential members of the community, legislators, and judges. Today abusers are prosecuted.
Wingo, founder and director of the Anna Bixby Center, began the project in her own home as an incorporated non-profit, tax exempt organization after she began working at the local hospital and could see that women who came in were battered. “The abuser would be standing outside,” she said. “The women would say they were in a car wreck.”
The trigger for Wingo to set the project in motion came when “One day I was working the emergency room and an 80-year-old woman with a triple-sized head came in. Her 40-year-old son had beaten her, but she was worried what would happen to him, rather than herself. Who would fix his dinner?”
She was supported by Barbara Bakke and a donation of $2,000 to open the doors in 1979 to the first battered woman. She was aided by Nora Baldwin, also a battered woman, who became the first board president. Wingo’s mother, Irene Downey, was the first secretary-treasurer of the board.
Wingo saw a need, but desired to study and figure out for herself what was happening. She read everything she could. She also studied at the Carbondale Women’s Center.
From that meager beginning, where she utilized the bottom floor of her “flood house” in Rosiclare for offices to aid battered women and children, the movement has progressed to seven counties: Saline, Pope, Hardin, Gallatin, Hamilton, Johnson, and White. The center was aided with a $10,000 grant from the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 1980.
In the beginning she operated on a shoestring, but assisted about 25 women the first year. The organization picked up counties by demand, word of mouth, and last year alone had about one thousand women and children assisted. In 1985 the move to Harrisburg came about due to the danger and effect on herself and her children.
“It was very dangerous when we first started,” she pointed out, “nobody believed violence was in Southern Illinois, and the children were being affected. There was a negative connotation, with males raping daughters, beating women, and churches preaching against me. In comparison, it is completely different now, with churches supporting us along with the police, everybody.”
The average for all battered women to stay in the program was about fourteen percent, Wingo said, but some were able to hang in longer and work their way through. The return rate to husbands got lower and lower over the years.
“The worst thing that happened was that one battered woman died,” Wingo said, “and another woman shot her husband when she couldn’t take any more abuse. He didn’t die, but she spent time in jail.”
“The center has experienced a multitude of successes,” Wingo said, “some as small as when a woman comes in, beaten down, children depressed. But, within a couple of days, they no longer cry, they play better and the women develop self-esteem and power. Some women have gone on to become CNAs, some to obtain college degrees.”
The center located in Harrisburg is no longer a home as such. It is for emergency assistance only and the women and children are housed elsewhere in the spirit of safety and transition.
The oldest woman assisted was 93, and the youngest, 18. Below eighteen, for instance, fifteen- year-olds can only get about five hours service without parental involvement.
“Volunteers are needed, and as many as are willing to work at the center who have an idea of what they’d like to do,” Wingo said. “If they work here, they get forty hours training. They have to sign confidentiality forms, and they must care.”
Diane Taborn, one of about 29 employees, is the Community Resources Person, and Michelle Hughes, also an employee, is the Children’s Advocate. Wingo is “weaning herself away” from the main thrust of the programs, transferring activities to others, she said. Her daughter, Terry Eichorn, is Assistant Director. However, Wingo is very much involved in the biggest project they have undertaken, a new complex to house all the programs and needs of the Anna Bixby Center.
The Center needs money soon, $40,000 to be exact, to buy property for the next big move. They have had to move three times in Harrisburg, and have again outgrown themselves. The planned move is to the corner of Veterans Drive and Small Street, a move which could increase the number of employees to thirty-five. A Mini Mall is planned for the property facing Small Street to rent out for additional funding. The complex will include The Willow, a state of the art beauty salon.
The First Annual Festival, Seven Windows – One View, a fund-raiser, is being held August 18th and 19th at the Saline County Fairgrounds. It will be filled with at least 23 events, beginning at noon on Friday the 18th, and ending after 8 p.m. on the 19th. Entertainment will feature country singer Rhonda Belford, and including the Kornbread Junction Gang, with Flo Dunning and Phil Morris.
Saturday, the 19th, a prayer breakfast starts the day and ongoing events fill in the morning and afternoon. Entertainment Saturday begins at 7 p.m. following other events designed to interest children and adults. Quilts are being bid on, one donated by the Busy Hands Quilt Club, hand-quilted by the Golden Circle Ladies and featuring pictures drawn by Anna-Bixby Children. Another quilt is supplied by the Union Social Brethren Church of Hardin County, with a log-cabin theme. A third quilt is county-oriented, featuring courthouses. Many sponsors are supporting the fund-raiser.
The Center Services include a 24-hour hotline, safe homes, transportation, counseling, advocacy, children’s program, education and employment.
For further information, visit the center’s web site: www.annabixby.com. To visit the center, there is a sign which reads “Women may enter, Men must knock.” The telephone number is 618-252-8380, Harrisburg, 618-384-2003, Carmi. There is a 24-hour hotline, 1-800-421-8456.
Michelle Hughes, Children’s Advocate at Anna Bixby Center, came there in her early twenties, full of anger, scared, hot-tempered and quarrelsome, a victim of abuse. Her signature was “X” but she wasn’t treated like an “X.” It was understood that her anger came from pain. They listened to the person behind the signature. Michelle learned she didn’t have to get permission to take a walk or smoke.
Barbara Wingo never gave up on Michelle and she learned to not give up on herself. Gradually pulling her life together, with the assistance of the staff, she felt safe. After awhile she dropped “X” for a new name, “Lady M.”
First step was to earn a GED, working at the center part time and later in 2002 worked full time while finishing an associate’s degree at Southeastern Illinois College. Her goal was to obtain a bachelor’s degree from Southern Illinois University to launch a career in human service counseling. She also desired to finish a her book titled “Lady M.”
Michelle is not afraid any longer and does not have to hide behind any Xs or Ms. She’s proud of her survival from domestic abuse.