Mary Pontarolo is saying goodbye this week at SafePlace after 15 years as its executive director.
SafePlace is still interviewing for a successor. But it’s hard to think of a bigger champion for survivors of domestic violence or sexual abuse than Pontarolo.
For several decades, the nonprofit organization operated an emergency shelter for abused women and children. Under Pontarolo, SafePlace opened an expanded service center on Olympia’s Legion Way in 2014 as well as a new 28-bed shelter.
The organization’s volunteers and staff help survivors of rapes and other assaults at Providence St. Peter Hospital. They also respond to victims of sexual assault reported at two local state prisons, making it the only such organization in the state catering to two prisons, according to Kellie Patton, director of development for SafePlace.
SafePlace now hosts treatment programs for adult survivors of sexual assaults. The organization has also been an educator, helping our community understand the depth and difficulty of the domestic violence and sexual assault problems.
Among recent innovations, it offers special training aimed at the Latina/o community in conjunction with the local office of CIELO, an advocacy group. SafePlace also hosts twice monthly clinics led by Thurston County Volunteer Legal Clinic to help people of all backgrounds understand their rights.
Pontarolo has been at the forefront of these efforts. The group’s yearly budget has more than doubled since she arrived to $1.7 million; SafePlace now employs the equivalent of 25 full-time people.
Pontarolo, who describes herself as a survivor of both sexual and domestic violence, got started in the violence-prevention field as a community education coordinator for Womencare Shelter in Bellingham in 1983. She started providing treatment to perpetrators the following year, also in Whatcom County.
She came to her job as executive director at SafePlace after helping to create and serving for a decade as leader of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Over the years, there has been progress. Courts are more adept in assisting crime victims, and so are police. The Legislature has passed laws to improve the use of court-ordered protection orders, to reduce a backlog of evidence in “rape kits,” and to extend the statute of limitations for child sex crimes.
But American culture is still too often a jungle. The rules of sexual consent — no means no, and only a yes means yes — are not embraced universally.
Pontarolo spoke with The Olympian Editorial Board earlier this year about the continued blurring of lines around sexual consent. One example was the reprehensible conduct of President Donald Trump, whose videotaped comments from about 15 years ago went viral during the 2016 campaign.
Trump never apologized for his “grab ’em” comment in which he gleefully spoke of fondling women without their explicit consent.
Consent, Pontarolo emphasized, is voluntary. It is an affirmation — an “enthusiastic yes.’’ Very basic.
With Pontarolo’s work winding up, SafePlace has set up a legacy account for donations in her name. It is accessible via the SafePlace website (via safeplaceolympia.org).