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Leader sees her key role as being a connector

Watching her mother stop to put change in a homeless man’s cup touched Jaime Saunders as a girl and helped lead her to the crusader she has become.

"She would get me to thinking about what brought a person to that point. Everyone has a back story, and no child dreams of growing up and living on the streets. That had a profound effect on me, that it is not OK to look away and all of us are connected through opportunities and challenges," Saunders says. "That connectivity guides me to see that my actions are part of a much larger narrative."
 
Saunders, 38, is CEO of Alternatives for Battered Women Inc., a non-profit agency that provides services and support for women, children and men who are victimized by domestic violence.
 
She took the position almost two years ago, after the agency had been without a leader for seven months. Last week she was honored in the 2014 Rochester Business Journal Forty Under 40 class.
 
Saunders is overseeing major changes at the non-profit, including a new home and a new name.
 
The organization has 52 employees-33 full-time staffers and 19 part-time and per diem workers. The non-profit has an annual budget of $2.2 million.
 
ABW reaches roughly 7,500 clients per year for services and another 12,000 students and business professionals with its prevention education program, Saunders says. All of the organization’s services are provided free of charge.
 
Its 40-bed emergency shelter houses 500 families a year, and its on-site court advocacy program at Monroe County Hall of Justice supports 2,000 victims in obtaining court orders of protection. Its transitional support services counseling program serves 450 a year, and the 24/7 Hotline responds to 5,000 calls annually.
 
Saunders sees her most critical role as that of connector.
 
"I knew early on that my skills were not designed for direct client work. I am not clinical nor a social worker-those quiet unsung heroes who work directly with people who need support," Saunders says. "My strengths are connecting people and resources to support that worker so she can do the best job possible to help each life that reaches out for help."

Communitywide problem
The help is desperately needed, she points out, because domestic violence is happening in Monroe County at a much higher rate than the rest of New York, excluding New York City. It is not just an urban problem, she notes. Of the average 6,100 cases reported in each of the last four years here, 54 percent occurred in the city and 46 percent happened in the suburbs. The actual level of abuse is even higher, Saunders says, since statistics show that 70 percent of domestic violence victims never report their abuse.
 
"Family violence is so pervasive. It’s hidden among us. That is what has been most eye opening for me," Saunders says
 
Statistics show one in four women-and one in seven men-fall victim to abuse by their intimate partner, she says.
 
"How can anyone face the world when the most scary place is their home?" Saunders asks.
 
It may surprise some to learn that so many men are victims of domestic abuse, but Saunders says that stereotype is one of the reasons the agency is seeking a name change.
 
"We want to make sure our name is not a barrier to support," Saunders says. "The new name will represent that we provide services to men, and it will also negate the connotation that abuse is only physical."
 
It will take months to select a new name as the advertising agency Truth Collective LLC follows Saunders’ directive to garner input from key stakeholders, including clients served.

Data driven
Saunders’ approach in finding a new name shows her background in research, analysis and development-all skills she honed while working as a senior associate and then the associate director at the Center for Governmental Research Inc.
 
"I love collecting data. It’s a guide. You can’t manage what you don’t measure," Saunders says.
 
While she enjoyed bringing people to the table to gather input and create reports at CGR, Saunders says she often felt frustrated by her inability to implement any of the changes her findings indicated. Now at the helm of ABW, she can, and she feels the urgency to make changes happen.
 
"Right now the big focus is on building a new home for the agency. We’ve outgrown the current location," Saunders says. "It’s hard operating in the shadows. We get threats. We had an armed man make it outside our door even though our location is confidential. The new building will be transformative for us."
 
She recently secured a $5 million state grant toward the $8 million building project; Saunders herself personally delivered the proposal for that funding in Albany.
 
"She is a woman who is all in. She wanted to be the first in line," says Kent Gardner, Saunders’ former co-worker and the chief economist at CGR.
 
Saunders camped out all night to be certain she was doing all she could do to secure the funding for ABW, Gardner says.
 
"Not-for-profits are tough places to run. You have to manage the board, the fundraising, and know where the money is coming from outside of philanthropy," Gardner says. "For an organization like ABW, a successful leader is going to be involved in every aspect of the organization. Nothing is beneath you. Jaime went in with open eyes and knew that."
 
In addition to the $5 million state grant, Saunders has $1million in private donations secured towards the new building project. ABW will be announcing a public campaign soon to raise the remaining funds and her focus is on finalizing the design plans with a target opening date set for 2016.

Ray Rice case
Recent media coverage of the NFL domestic violence case concerning Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was seen hitting his wife during an apparent argument caught on an elevator video, helps put the spotlight on the issue. That could help in fundraising efforts.
 
Saunders points out the Rice case has had both positive and negative effects.
 
"Our hotline calls jumped 41 percent this September from September last year. To have people reach out for help is tremendous. But also, some response was victim blaming. Why did she stay with him? That can be extremely harmful to getting people to come forward. The focus needs to be not on why she stays but on why he hits," Saunders says.
 
Education is key to breaking the cycle of domestic abuse, Saunders believes, and ABW sends a staff member to schools to teach anti-bullying and self-worth programs beginning in pre-kindergarten. But, she says, more needs to be done with prevention.

"We’re here to catch people out of the river but we need to be way upstream," she says.
 
Teen dating abuse is becoming more prevalent, with one in five girls falling victim, Saunders says, which is especially worrisome for parents that do not see the problem until their child is already being hurt.
 
Cases of electronic leashing are happening right in school and they demonstrate the control technology allows a partner to have over a victim.
 
"We had a teen forced to take a picture with her cell phone at the start of each class to send her boyfriend as proof there were no boys sitting near her," she says.

Non-profit challenges
As complex as the cases ABW handles are, so are the challenges of operating a non-profit itself, Saunders explains. She has projections of a 14 percent increase in health care costs for next year, yet she cannot cover the added expense by increasing the cost of her product.
 
Her biggest challenge may be attracting and retaining top talent, she says. The jobs typically pay less than $30,000 a year; the workers must also be able to endure the regular stress of highly traumatizing cases, such as that of a man who left his wife tied helplessly to a furnace in the basement while he beat their two children upstairs.
 
"Non-profits require immense creativity, which often comes in the face of scarcity. I am in awe of what our small but mighty team gets done on a shoestring and with heart," she says. "Yet, if we are to make long-lasting and systemic change and improve our entire community’s quality of life, we need to attract and invest in the people on the front lines."
 
Two of the key team members supporting Saunders at ABW say they love their work; a main reason is because of their leader.
 
"We have a culture of support here," says Jeffrey Pier, director of programs and services. "Jaime emphasizes that. It’s not unusual for her to text, email or stop in and say ‘I heard you had a major case yesterday. Want to talk?’"
 
Pier came to ABW four months ago after running rape crisis services at another agency in Rochester. He says he established a great relationship with Saunders and jumped at the chance to work with her when the position opened.
 
Meaghan de Chateauvieux, director of development and marketing, joined the team 18 months ago. Saunders gives her the unofficial title of her right-hand woman.
 
"Jaime has a birds-eye view of the entire community and how we fit in," de Chateauvieux says. "Poverty, homelessness … how they affect domestic violence. She does system analysis and partners with agencies to find solutions."
 
There are times when the work can be overwhelming. A phrase Saunders hangs in some offices helps, they say.
 
"It’s progress that counts, not perfection," Pier says.
 
"Just keep it moving forward. She’s a visionary. She tells us not to get stuck, think forward," de Chateauvieux adds.
 
Moving forward, Saunders sees many changes for the better.
 
"When I started 20 years ago, people thought you ended up in this work because you couldn’t make it in the corporate world, but there are those of us who live and love it," she says.
 
She is happy the business community here is starting to see the importance of work like hers as well.
 
"The (Rochester Business Alliance Inc.) now has a non-profit representative on the board. Just human services non-profits represent $1.8 billion here. We’re a huge sector and that’s before you add the hospitals," she says. "We’re being recognized as a critical partner. That’s how we’ll make change and overcome challenges."

Family lessons
Saunders learned early how to overcome challenges, working in her father’s business as a young girl. Her dad, James Wemett owned ROC Communications in Greece, and she recalls the valuable experience she gained.
 
"I spent many days in the shop with the team, learning inventory, working customer service, and running a cash register as soon as I could count. Those were priceless lessons of managing people and helping to meet the needs of others," she says. "I was fascinated at having all of the moving parts come together for a team, a product, and to go beyond customer expectations."
 
Her mother, Kristine Niven, ran an improv company in New York City and taught her other valuable lessons, Saunders says.
 
"My mother instilled in me a deep sense of social justice and passion to help others," Saunders says. "I would spend my summers in New York City, and I was exposed to so much wealth and poverty all at once."
 
As a parent now, Saunders and her husband, John, have a full schedule. They live in Pittsford.
 
"I’m normally at work much earlier, but my 6-year-old came down this morning and told me she had a project due today, so I stayed to help her make a Thanksgiving thankful plate," Saunders says. "She listed family as number one."
 
Her husband is taking time to be a stay-at-home dad right now, although Saunders predicts he will be getting back to his work now that the children are in school.
 
She laughs at the idea of free time since she rarely has any these days, but she is not complaining. She is enjoying her family and focusing on her work at ABW.
 
"We have different chapters in our lives," Saunders says. "I feel I’m exactly where I need to be."

Lori Gable is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

Jaime Saunders
Position: CEO, Alternatives for Battered Women Inc.
Age: 38
Education: B.A. in business administration and sociology at Whittier College, Whittier, Calif., 1998; master of arts in public administration, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, 2005
Family: Husband, John; children: Benjamin, 8, and Molly, 6
Residence: Pittsford
Hobbies: Hiking, knitting, reading
Quote: "It is such a gift to be the connector. I link people with critical services, I link donors with the ability to save lives, and I get to watch our staff make amazing things happen."

11/28/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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