In 2020, the organization now known as Betty Griffin Center will mark 30 years of providing shelter for victims of domestic and sexual violence in St. Johns County.
For the first two decades, the nonprofit was known as the Betty Griffin House – with the ‘House’ changed to ‘Center’ as the agency re-branded itself in 2016 to better describe the extensive programs and services provided to women, men and their families beyond only providing shelter.
One of the main questions staff and board members receive from the public from time to time: who was Betty Griffin?
Well, Betty Griffin passed away many years ago, but it was her home that was donated and used as the original, permanent shelter just outside St. Augustine.
The Story from Betty Griffin’s Granddaughter, Mary Alice Colson
Betty Griffin (pictured above with her husband, Lee Ward Griffin) was the grandmother of Mary Alice Colson, interviewed in 2019 and still very active at the time as a caregiver working with the county.
Colson was born and raised in nearby Elkton, just west of St. Augustine, and she attended high school in Hastings.
After she graduated, Colson worked in the St. Johns County Sherriff’s Office, at that time located in what is now the Casa Monica Hotel.
“Communications was on one end of the hotel and the courtrooms were upstairs,” she said. “It was the county courthouse back then. I worked on the switchboard, then I worked in records and identification for several years.”
During her first position with the county, Colson worked with Sheriff Dudley Garrett, Sheriff Francis O’Loughlin and Sherriff Neil Perry.
“Sheriff Perry started the victim advocate program, and I was the county’s first in that role,” she said. “I was trained in Tampa, which had the only ones in the state at that time, before we started the victim advocate program here.”
Colson says that with the population increasing, the sheriff and others noted the rise of domestic violence in the county. Colson became the first point of contact from the sheriff’s office to assist a victim of domestic violence.
In her role, Colson could be called by an officer or detective whenever she was needed, 24 hours a day – whether her help was sought to assist a victim on a homicide case, suicide case or domestic violence.
However, when it came to domestic violence cases, finding a safe place for the victim to stay was of immediate concern.
“One of the problems we had then was that there was no place for them (the victims) to go,” she said. “They either went to a local hotel, if there was space and we could get them in there, or they had to travel all the way to Gainesville to go to a shelter. There was not another shelter nearby, even in Jacksonville. Sheriff Perry was all in favor of establishing a permanent shelter here, so we identified attorneys in town, well-known people who had money, and they started coming to meetings that were taking place among many citizens concerned with the issue.”
At around the same time, Colson said she heard her family was planning to tear down her grandmother’s former home in Elkton.
“My grandmother had already passed away by this time,” Colson said. “So, when I heard they were about to tear it down, I asked my Uncle Kenny Griffin if we could have that house…which was located in front of his home. That’s how the Betty Griffin House started.”
The house was sold and the proceeds from the sale were used to purchase a new house.
The founders of the nonprofit decided to keep the Betty Griffin name associated with the new location.
Colson, who officially retired in 2003 after 26 years, decided to go back to work on a part-time basis. Today, she conducts in-home visits for elderly residents in the county three days a week.
“It’s exactly what I wanted to do,” she said. “I didn’t want to return as an advocate. Over the years, I had had too much of that…seeing children hurting…it’s hard. This program is ideal for me. I’m a senior as well, and I like it.”
Colson says she feels a lot of pride being connected with what is now the Betty Griffin Center, and she knows her grandmother would feel the same.
“I’ve got a great-grandson, and my granddaughter named him ‘Griffin’ after the family name,” she said. “I wish there was a sign erected at the original site, but I hope to show him where the shelter was at some point. My grandmother had six kids and loved her kids, and the family gave it to us and that’s how it should have been.”
Mary Lippold – Betty Griffin Center’s First Employee
Colson says that Mary Lippold was very instrumental in getting the nonprofit going in the early days.
Born and raised in West Virginia, Mary married her husband Bill in 1961 and lived in Endicott, New York for many years. Her husband’s job took the couple to England, where they lived for three years before they moved to St. Augustine in 1990.
“Bill was doing consulting work and I started volunteering at the sheriff’s office with Mary Alice Colson, who was basically the one who started the agency,” Lippold said. “I started as a volunteer, then when they opened the Betty Griffin House the founders asked me to work there. I told them I only wanted part-time, three days a week, and with June and September off so we could go back to Massachusetts and the Cape for those two months each year.”
Lippold said that was possible at the time because the actual shelter ‘house’ wasn’t in operation yet.
“We didn’t have a big shelter then…we only had three rooms at a small motor lodge on US 1,” she said. “When we had people to shelter, they went in there, but there was really nothing around there at the time…no restaurants or anything…so we’d make sandwiches to take to them, go pick the women up and take them to court proceedings, doctor visits and anything else. It wasn’t very convenient, but it worked.”
Lippold stayed with Betty Griffin Center for 28 years, retiring in 2018.
“It was a long time, but it didn’t seem that long because I wasn’t working full-time,” she said. “We did sell our house at the Cape, and I did work through full years for a time, but it never seemed like a job… it just seemed like something I needed to do and liked to do.”
Lippold said the most satisfying part of her job was seeing the transformation that happened to the women and their families while they are at the shelter.
“It was gratifying seeing the women who were so sad when they came in as they learned to enjoy themselves…learning new skills and not being so dependent on someone else anymore,” she said. “It gave them a lot of support.”
While she enjoyed what she did, and knew the nonprofit agency helped thousands of people move on from bad situations to better lives, she had no false hopes that the problem of domestic and sexual assault would ever be totally eradicated.
“I didn’t think it would miraculously stop, but I think we did our best to educate both men and women about the problem and try to get it to go away,” she said. “Obviously, and sadly, it will always be with us to some degree.”
Early BGC Employee Frances Case
For many of those years, Lippold worked alongside fellow employee Frances Case.
Case, interviewed in 2019 at the age of 96, had lived in Wisconsin where she worked as a teacher before retiring to the warmer weather in St. Augustine in 1983.
“While I was a teacher, I had also worked at a shelter workshop in Wisconsin,” she said. “I was the director of an infant stimulation program for babies up to three years old, then I worked for the state in setting up the guidelines for early-education programs.”
So, when she retired to Florida, Case said she wanted to volunteer “someplace where it would be beneficial to families,” so she first volunteered with the Betty Griffin House on the crisis line.
“I worked in crisis intervention at first, handing the calls, and was hired on as staff right away,” Case said. “They were opening up a new shelter, which opened up by the time I finished my training, and I went to work there next. Honest to gosh, the old shelter was a mess, so the new one was definitely needed.”
Case worked with the nonprofit for about a decade, then served as a volunteer for a few years before her “full” retirement.
“I think the need for the center’s services have grown as the population has increased, but I think there’s still a need for more services,” said Case, who still resides in St. Augustine. “Betty Griffin Center has done a good job, and they’ve increased their services dramatically over the years since I started, but with the population expanding the way it has, I don’t know if they’ll ever catch up.”
She commended the agency, and others, for more collaboration today than in the early years of the nonprofit.
“I think the main thing that has changed is that there’s more inter-agency involvement now, interagency awareness of domestic violence and the center works more closely with the facilities in town…they work more with the Naval Air Station in town, for example,” she said. “Al the agencies all provided services in isolation when I started.”
Although it hasn’t happened to her lately, since it’s been several years since she’s been active with the center, Case said she felt the most gratified with her work when you meet some of the shelter and program participants in the community.
“The best thing is when you meet some of the women who’ve been through the center at the grocery store, on the street or at various places in town and they’re doing okay and they’ve moved on,” she said “I think the other thing that is great is that they’ve increased the children’s services, which we started offering while I was still there.”
While she’s not actively involved, Case would like to see more funding for the organization and more shelter space for participants.
“There’s been such a dramatic increase in the population with so many people moving in here from out of state and other areas, the needs have been going up as well,” she said. “The center has been able to grow and meet those needs so far, which is absolutely heartwarming because this is such a mobile town.”’
Case says the St. Augustine area grew so quickly in the 1990s that many of the center’s new services weren’t available in the early years of the organization.
“However, today, the center needs more funds, and the shelter needs more space,” she said. “I think the center needs more apartments, because a lot of the women come into the shelter with poor credit histories and credit skills. Being able to move into affordable apartments give them a chance to get back into a more financially-responsible situation so they can take care of themselves.”
Colson, Lippold and Case all made important contributions to the Betty Griffin Center, which was founded in 1990 by concerned citizens and incorporated as the Safety Shelter of St. Johns County.
Today, Betty Griffin Center shelters more than 550 victims of domestic and sexual abuse annually, operates a 24-hour help line, provides professional counseling for victims of domestic and sexual abuse, provides age-appropriate violence prevention training and operates two thrift stores at Julington Square and Anastasia Square to assist in funding the agency’s ongoing operations.