Austin SAFE volunteer Frankie Fowler has been a constant for 40 years
Long before there was SAFE, there were SafePlace women's shelter and Austin Children's Shelter. Before that there was the Center for Battered Women, the Austin Rape Crisis Center and the Austin-Travis County Shelter for Infants and Children.
With all the mergers and name changes for this Austin nonprofit organization, the only constants have been its commitment to ending the cycle of abuse and Frankie Fowler.
This spring Fowler, 75, celebrated 40 years of volunteering with SAFE, which stands for Stop Abuse for Everyone.
"Frankie feels like that touchpoint," says Christine Langa, the volunteer services director at SAFE. She's outlasted other volunteers and the staff. "She precedes all of us."
Fowler, Langa says, "has this loyalty and commitment that informs her work and dedication."
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An accidental pairing
Fowler doesn't have a family history or personal story around abuse, she says. Her volunteering with SAFE began as a school assignment. She was finishing her college degree in business administration at the University of Texas while working for the state in 1980. A class assignment involved working with children impacted by a social services organization.
One of the places suggested by her professor was the Center for Battered Women. Fowler picked up the volunteer handbook, but center staff wanted a bigger commitment than she felt like she could give. They wanted her to plan programming for the children being sheltered at the center.
"I'm not a children's person," Fowler says, and she didn't feel like she had time to plan activities. Instead, she volunteered at the children's wing for Brackenridge hospital, a predecessor of Dell Children's Medical Center.
Every Wednesday, she interacted with the kids there, but she didn't have to plan anything.
Yet, she did read that volunteer handbook and decided that once school was done, she would volunteer with the Center for Battered Women.
Fowler graduated and was going about her life in April 1981 when she read a newspaper on a Friday night and saw a mention of a volunteer class starting the next morning at the Center for Battered Women.
It was too late to register, but the following Monday, Fowler called the center and asked to be put on the list for the next volunteer class. The center did one better. It allowed her to take the second part of the volunteer class that next Saturday and to catch up on what she missed.
She was in. After half the training required, Fowler was signed up to answer the shelter's hotline for people experiencing abuse.
Answering the call with a 'calm, grounded energy'
The very first time she answered the hotline, Fowler says, the seasoned volunteer had to leave early. She was by herself. "Fortunately nothing happened," Fowler says.
She doesn't remember her first calls, but she remembers some of the more dramatic ones. At the time, the Center for Battered Women and the Austin Rape Crisis Center were separate organizations with two separate hotlines.
She remembers getting a call on a Friday night from a freshman at the University of Texas who called to say she had been raped. Fowler tried to give her the phone number for the rape crisis hotline, but the caller didn't want to talk to someone else. She didn't want to call her parents or her sister. She was crying and distraught.
"I had not been trained to help survivors of rape," Fowler says. "I wanted to get her the best services."
Fowler says she asked her if she had any tea. "I told her, 'Go make yourself a cup of hot tea and call me back,'" Fowler says. The caller did and was able to calm down enough to tell her what had happened. Eventually, the caller allowed Fowler to call her sister and the sister was able to talk to their parents as well as drive to Austin to help her.
Fowler also told the caller that she would be working again next week and she could call her back.
She did, Fowler says.
"Frankie always has this feeling of calm, grounded energy," Langa says. "If you work a hotline, you can imagine that's a really, really important offering."
In the early days of the hotline, volunteers had to do everything. They answered the doors to the shelter and opened the gates. They dealt with people who just showed up. They gave out the medication for the shelter residents. They took messages for the staff and trained new volunteers.
"The amazing part of this is not only taking the calls," Langa says. Fowler also "gave the best emotional support possible. She gave them all the time they needed."
Erin Clark, who is the director of what is now called the Frankie Fowler SAFEline, says Fowler was a master at handling multiple calls at the same time. "She would always find ways to connect to each of them and to let them know she was so grateful they reached out," Clark says. "She was able to make everyone feel just safe and welcome."
Fowler quickly learned that the callers could be anyone. She remembers one caller who was embarrassed because she was a marriage counselor by profession.
Sometimes men would call because they were being abused by their girlfriend or wife. Sometimes the abuser would call.
"There's so many myths about domestic violence and who it happens to and what neighborhood they live in," Fowler says.
Fowler quickly became someone that the organization could ask to do more than just the hotline. If a staff person knew that Fowler was coming in, they might ask her to escort someone into the shelter. Or after she left a hotline shift, they might ask her to escort someone to pick up things from their home, always with police presence when needed.
Fowler remembers one time when she was asked after a shift to bring one of the residents to the grocery store and then call for a police escort to get some of her things from where she had been living.
When they got to the store, the husband just happened to be there. Fowler and the woman hid behind the store pillars, but he found them. Fowler had just seen a movie on TV called "Johnnie Mae Gibson: FBI" about a real Black female undercover police officer.
The police had not arrived yet and Fowler ended up standing between them. "Lord, my name is not Johnnie Mae Gibson and I don't have a gun, but I stood in front of her and put both hands on her shoulder," Fowler says. Then the police arrived and he went into the store and she was able to leave and get what she needed.
"It's a perfect example of how fearless Frankie is," Clark says.
Another time, she was asked to pick up a woman from her neighbor's house and bring her to the shelter, but when Fowler arrived, the woman had gone back to her own house where the husband was. With police help and a friend of the husband's defusing the situation, Fowler was able to bring her out of her house and into the shelter.
Sometimes she would deal with someone who was having a mental health crisis. One woman showed up and every word out of her mouth was profanity, "and I don't do profanity. I don't know if it's false bravado, but I can be brave when I need to be. I told her that if we could not fill out the paperwork then she would need to leave," Fowler says.
The woman was convinced that she was having conversations with famous comedians, and needed help, but not what the center could provide. Ultimately, Fowler kept her calm and then took her back to the bus station.
"... that also gives you an indication of the kinds of things we have done as volunteers," Fowler says.
A good call was when she talked to someone who was ready to come into the shelter and there was room in the shelter. Then later Fowler would hear that she had arrived.
Sometimes, it was hard because there wasn't room in the shelter, and Fowler would have to offer other resources to callers. Or when she would try everything she could to persuade frequent callers to leave their situation or access resources, but they always had a reason that they couldn't.
"The question would always be, 'Does this person really want help or just like to share their story with someone who would listen?'" Fowler says.
If that was the case, Fowler was the person who listened.
"She was just good at creating a welcoming and safe space for people to open up to why they were reaching out," Clark says. "There was no expectation to have a certain plan. Frankie was just open and welcoming and able to meet our clients where they are. That's one of the guiding principles of SAFEline today."
"She was there to follow their lead, not to lead them," Clark says. "She was there to hear what they wanted to talk about, to explore feelings, options and resources and really ask the client where they wanted to go from here."
The hotline wasn't an easy volunteer gig. Fowler learned early on that she needed to protect herself from getting too emotionally involved.
"When I started, I did not deal well," Fowler says. "Whenever I had to do a shift, I was on high alert."
She would do 7 to 11 p.m. shifts. "I would get home at 11:30 and I would open the refrigerator, and I would eat everything that didn't have to be cooked," Fowler says. "This is not good."
She also was not sleeping because it would take her time to unwind and go to bed and then she'd have to be up early to go to work at the state in what was at the time the public welfare department.
Fowler shifted to volunteering Saturday mornings and would plan an activity for that afternoon to keep her mind off the work she had just done.
"This work takes a toll on folks," Langa says. "She has amazing boundaries, which is why she's been able to do the work she's done. When she feels like it's too much, she'll step back."
Becoming Frankie's families
Fowler, who was named after a grandmother also named Frankie, and her family grew up in Webberville, where she went to the elementary school. For high school, she was bused to Manor. In high school, she became known by her full name — Frankie Fowler — because there was another Frankie in her school.
This was when there were segregated school systems. Things were in constant change, and she and her eight siblings ended up going to different high schools as districts and busing situations changed through the 1960s.
Fowler was able to go all four years of high school in Manor and graduated as valedictorian. She started UT in 1964 with free tuition, but didn't go back the next year. Instead, she got a job on campus working in the Littlefield dorm and went to business school at night. Then she got a job in 1967 with the state.
Fowler never married or had children, but she's doted on her nieces and nephews and the generations after them.
Fowler retired from the state in 2008 after 41 years. Her last gig was working in computer security to make sure that employees had access to what they needed in a secure way.
After retirement, she kept working the hotline as well as her other volunteer commitments. She's been the director of children's services for 27 years at her church, Union Lee Baptist Church.
"The church has been there all my life," Fowler says. "That's family, too."
She's says she's not a particularly creative person, but she was chosen to lead the job that her mother had had before her. "I never felt like I could say no if it was something I could do," Fowler says, but then she found that she actually enjoyed it, she says.
She's taught Bible study and sang in the choir and been active in the women's group.
She's also been in leadership at St. John Regular Baptist District Association, a group of similar local smaller churches. She serves on the board of Texas Mass Choir gospel choir and handled their finances for 30 years and been the Austin Chapter representative for 35 years.
Everywhere she's volunteered, well that's another family, too. She says she doesn't have "family, but families." There's her church family, her choir family, her association families, her gym family and her SAFE family.
Fowler has longevity with all her volunteer activities. With SAFE, she spent 35 years on the hotline, but both SAFE began to change and Fowler did, too.
When she joined the hotline, all the records were kept on a paper ledger. The hotline, which was eventually named after her, became more computerized, and she felt like she couldn't keep up.
"It was time to retire from the hotline," she says. "I had heard enough stories about enough situations. I wanted to move into things that were upbeat."
This also was when it became clear to SAFE that the hotline had grown, as had the services SAFE provides, and those calls needed to be handled by staff, Clark says.
Langa says that they began to realize that it was unfair to expose volunteers to so much trauma and expect them to have the level of expertise that is now required.
"Even though she hasn't volunteered on the hotline for awhile, so much of her is still present in everything we do," Clark says.
"In so many ways, Frankie set the bar to how we do things now that have just become institutionalized."
Fowler switched to the team that does community outreach. She would go into schools and community organizations to explain what SAFE does and help people create healthier relationships.
One of the key things Fowler would tell callers was that "love is about equality and respect," Clark says. She brought that message into her work out in the community.
"Frankie really believes very strongly about the work we do and that through connecting with individuals on a one-on-one basis, there's the capacity for change in the community," Clark says. "She's very hopeful and she knows that she and others can make a difference doing this work."
The pandemic stopped that work; volunteers are not going into public places right now. Still, when there was an opportunity last December to help out in the office putting together holiday gifts for the people in the shelters SAFE serves, Fowler showed up.
"That's just so Frankie," Langa says.
Fowler says, "I didn't start volunteering at SAFE so they would name awards for me or give me plaques."
She says she does what she does to give to others. "When you give, you receive more and then you give more," she says. "It's a vicious circle, but it's a wonderful vicious circle, like a rollercoaster but I enjoy rollercoasters."
Fowler would sign up to work holidays when staff would often want to be home with their families. After all, the staff and the people SAFE serves are part of her family, too.
"She creates this space that feels warm and welcoming," Langa says. "It's the kind of thing you want in any family."
People love being around Fowler, Langa says, for her charisma and her energy. She's been known to break into song and she has an amazing voice, Langa says.
Clark says she and her daughter, who is now 20, would often come in with Fowler on the holidays. "I thought it was important for my daughter to get to know Frankie, but also to see a volunteer," Clark says.
"She's been such a mentor and an inspiration. She's a teacher and a friend. She's meant so much to us."
"Her work, her dedication and service speaks for itself," Langa says, "and when you're in her presence, I just want to soak up her energy."
How to get help
If you or someone you know needs help dealing with domestic violence or abuse of any kind, contact SAFE's Safeline by calling 512-267-SAFE (7233) or texting 737-888-7233.
For more resources, go to safeaustin.org. You also can find out about volunteer opportunities there, as well as ways to give.