Task force leader is a ‘voice of courage’

Jennifer McNamara never expected to be leading Wilton’s Domestic Violence Task Force, but she has been the driving force behind it for the past seven years.

For her efforts, she will be honored by the Domestic Violence Crisis Center at its Voices of Courage spring luncheon on Thursday, May 24, from 11 to 2 at the Stamford Marriott Hotel & Spa. For information, visit https://bit.ly/2KrC591.

“I was really surprised,” McNamara told The Bulletin of learning she would receive the 2018 Voices of Courage Award. “I was really humbled and shocked.”

Wilton has been represented at several of the crisis center’s recent luncheons. In 2016 the Mark Nickel Fund for Wilton Families Impacted by Domestic Violence was honored, and last year police Capt. Rob Cipolla was recognized.

“I’ve gone to the lunch for the last seven years, and there have been so many dedicated people. I didn’t think of myself [as being honored],” she said. But others have.

“Jen has been nothing short of tremendous,” Cipolla told The Bulletin. “I’ve been involved with the task force for five years now, and Jen has always remained as that steady force, keeping it moving forward and allowing it to progress to where it is now. She has a very strong commitment to the task force and raising awareness.”

McNamara took the reins of the task force pretty much by accident. She and her family had been in town only a year when former leader Jeannine Hackett stepped down in 2011. Impressed that the town had such a task force, she went to an event for interested newcomers. “I was the only one there!” she said with a laugh on being recruited.

McNamara did not back down, saying the experience has “been challenging but overall I’ve met such great people.”

She works closely with the police department, first former Lt. Stephen Brennan, and then Capt. Tom Conlan. Now she works with Cipolla, “who’s kicked it up a notch,” she said.

Armed with a master’s degree in social work — she is now a licensed clinical social worker — one of the first events she put together was a program on the effects of domestic violence on children, held at Wilton Library in 2011. It had farther-reaching effects than she could have known at the time. Recently, she said, a co-worker who did not know she was involved told McNamara how effective that program had been.

Other programs include a discussion on Internet safety in 2012 and a program on college safety in 2017 that included a screening of The Hunting Ground on college rape cases. The task force also sponsored two performances of The Yellow Dress, in 2013 and 2016, a one-woman play based on the stories of young women who were victims of dating violence.

The most recent performance of The Yellow Dress brought an audience of 90 high school students. “What a dynamic discussion we had,” McNamara said. “That was far and away the most thrilling [experience]. The prevention pieces are so important.

“If people can come away knowing something they didn’t know before, that’s exciting.”

The main role of the Domestic Violence Task Force is to help educate people and increase awareness of violence in all kinds of close relationships. “It’s getting the message out that places like the DVCC exist,” she said, “so people know there’s a place to go.”

The task force also works with Wilton High School’s Teen PeaceWorks club, which is affiliated with the DVCC. The club works to prevent teen dating violence. Student-led groups raise awareness about the issue and the importance of maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships.

“Jen has always been a liaison for Teen Peaceworks, she’s always that guiding force in terms of hanging the purple ribbons or any bake sales they do to raise funds for donations to DVCC or to put on programming for domestic violence awareness,” Cipolla said.

Not all area towns have such a domestic violence task force, and McNamara credits Wilton’s sense of community in holding it together for the last 13 years.

She said the issue of shame is still connected to domestic violence, but “I think this past year, with the #MeToo movement, has been the beginnings of lifting that veil of shame. I’m excited for the future. The more we talk about it, the less stigma there is.” It wasn’t until she was an adult that she learned one of her aunts had lived in an abusive situation.

As one of the few “civilians” on the task force — Barbarajean Siegel and Barbara Holdridge are also active community members — McNamara, who now works part-time as a social worker for Catholic Charities, welcomes the assistance of Margaret Creeth of the Wilton Youth Council, and Phoebe Musico and Sarah Heath of Wilton Social Services.

She is also “rejuvenated” by a forthcoming grant from the Wilton Woman’s Club. The club’s spring fund-raiser was dedicated to breaking the cycle of sexual harassment and abuse by supporting the task force and the crisis center.

“It speaks to a lot of people in town wanting cultural change,” she said. She has been speaking with Kim Zemo, the school district’s climate control coordinator, about the health curriculum, and is working on getting a high-profile speaker to come to Wilton.

As to whether the task force’s work has had any effect, McNamara said, “For the kids who’ve taken a leadership role, they’ve come away more empowered and more knowledgeable. For the kids involved, knowledge is power. They know what it is to be in a healthy relationship and what the signs are that aren’t healthy. That’s key.”

That also makes for good “bystanders,” McNamara said, meaning if they know someone in trouble, they can reach out.

Cipolla said the police welcome community involvement. “As police, we can’t do our job operating in a vacuum. When we are able to get a group together like the task force, that just increases everybody’s reach,” he said. “Police bring their contacts, Social Services and community members bring theirs, and with Jen being in the forefront, we can achieve a lot more and reach a lot more people when we all work together.

“She’s a really remarkable woman,” he added. “From the police side, we’re grateful for her chairing the task force over the years.”

This story was edited to include the contributions of community members Barbarajean Siegel and Barbara Holdridge.