Cathy Phelps, MA medical anthropology '90, is one tough lady. As executive director of the Denver Center for Crime Victims, she leads an agency that is a beacon of hope for thousands. "Crime victimization is not sexy," Phelps explains with a quiet certitude. "It's not ‘if it bleeds, it leads.' It's the other people, those who don't make the front of the newspaper that are impacted. There are the primary victims, and then there's everyone else."
By everyone else, she means the innocent bystanders—people who may have witnessed a crime or came to the rescue of children at the scene of a crime, or those who may have gotten knocked to the ground while a crime was being perpetrated. The Denver community may be surprised to learn how many people "everyone else" really is.
Since opening in 1987, the Denver Center for Crime Victims has served 130,000. The public agency handles, on average, 5,000 calls per month, working in collaboration with other local agencies and members of the clergy. "One out of every five people in Denver is going to be the victim of something at some point—burglary, assault—it's not just sexual violence we're dealing with," says Phelps. "The center is a resource 24/7, a safe, comfortable, confidential place to come—a place to call in times of need."
Call they do, and often not in English. The center offers help in 41 languages and has 79 clients from 22 different countries. The staff must continually find ways to respond creatively, treating everyone from toddlers to seniors. Parents concerned about kids acting out can attend monthly workshops on substance abuse, gangs, custody or topics targeted to seniors raising grandchildren.
Emphasis is placed on wellness, and Phelps sets the example. The center's full-time employees are required to create annual self-care plans, through which they outline steps to improve their physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual selves. Such goals may seem to have little connection with counseling crime victims, yet Phelps says, "There are lots of tools and strategies that go into building that kind of resilience. Sometimes we need to buy what we sell."
Under Phelps' leadership, the center has received many awards, including the Martin Luther King Jr. Business Social Responsibility Award in 2002 and the Colorado Ethics in Business Award in 2005. Phelps was honored in 2005 with a Living Portraits of African American Women Award from the Denver section of the National Council on Negro Women.
In 2006, the center was featured on the Oprah Winfrey show when Heather Callahan, a client of the center, was in the audience. Oprah gave each audience member $1,000 to "pay it forward." With help from the center, Callahan connected with Martha Clark, another victim, and presented her with a check. When Oprah's viewers heard about this, calls and e-mails began pouring in to the center.
Phelps welcomed the support, reminding the public that the Denver Center for Crime Victims is the only public health agency in the country where there is no cost to the victim, ever. "There's not another center in the whole country that offers the kind of specialization that we offer right here in Denver County."