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Advocate plays role at women’s shelters in Conway, Cabot

Donna Francis of Conway started in March 2017 as direct-service advocate at Lonoke County Safe Haven in Cabot, and in January, she also became the sexual-assault coordinator at the Women’s Shelter of Central Arkansas in Conway. Francis said her goal is to empower domestic-violence and sexual-assault victims.

People in Conway and Cabot may have noticed Donna Francis in her bright-blue-and-camo Toyota 4×4 truck.

“I don’t like to be bland and blend in. I like to stand out,” she said.

Francis, 44, wants people to know she’s the woman helping sexual-assault and domestic-violence victims.

“It’s protection. If anything were to happen to me, they’d know my truck,” she said of law enforcement.

She is the new sexual-assault coordinator for the Women’s Shelter of Central Arkansas in Conway from Tuesday through Friday each week.

She’s also the direct-service and sexual-assault advocate and for Lonoke County Safe Haven in Cabot, also a shelter for up to 16 domestic-abuse victims and their children. Francis has her own room in the shelter and lives there from 8 a.m. Sunday until 8 a.m. Tuesday, when she drives back to Conway.

The sexual-assault program at Lonoke County Safe Haven is “in the works,” she said. “It’s a slow process; we want to get it going.”

It has been a long road for Francis to get to Arkansas.

She grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the youngest of three children born to Tom and Spencie Netschert, who were strict but loving parents, she said.

“I had a very good upbringing, a loving family. I was raised in a very happy home,” she said. Francis said she and her siblings were in 4-H and had horses, cows, pigs and sheep.

When she talks about her parents, she cries.

“They have walked beside me; they have helped me. They have made me so strong, and I have made myself strong, too. I tear up every time I look at other parents and think, ‘Why? Why can’t you be like my parents?’”

Francis said she was not sexually abused, but she thinks about what could have been. She recalled that when she was about 10, an uncle she despised placed his hand on the inside her thigh when he was giving her and her sister a ride somewhere in his car. “He told me it was OK to do that,” she said. When she got home, Francis told her mother what happened, and Francis never saw her uncle again. “She believed me,” Francis said. The man has since died.

Francis also ended a relationship with a boyfriend who was taking drugs, unbeknownst to her, she said. One day, he backed her into a corner, cursed at her and threatened to hit her. She broke up with him, but she realized later that he had been emotionally abusive for months. The red flags of controlling who she saw and spoke to were there, but she didn’t see them at the time.

When she was starting her career, Francis wanted to be a police officer or an investigator. She has a degree in criminal justice from Remington College in Colorado. She worked for a halfway house for inmates in Colorado and repaired bathtubs on the side.

Her parents moved to Alaska with her two sons, and she and her fiance, Trent Francis, moved there in 2005. She worked security at a grocery store, and he was a supervisor. They were married on a beach in Soldotna, Alaska, in 2006.

She took a job at a domestic-violence shelter in Alaska because the executive director was the mother of a friend.

“I had no experience, nothing, and she (the executive director) gave me a chance, and I loved it,” Francis said.

She was the legal and sexual-assault advocate, as well as acting shelter manager. Her husband worked as an oil-rig supervisor in North Dakota.

“Trent was the love of my life; he was my soul mate,” Francis said. She said he was also an alcoholic.

Trent died by suicide in 2011. “He made his choice, and I had to deal with it,” she said. “I’ve finally forgiven him and learned to move on.”

She described him as a good-looking, likeable smart aleck, who loved hunting and being outdoors.

Francis left the shelter in Alaska and worked for a company that helped the disabled; then she got a job working at a child advocacy center.

“I dealt with children being sexually abused and physically abused. I love children. To help a child is … yeah,” she said, smiling.

She started dating a man and moved to Wyoming, where she worked with the World Young Women’s Christian Association and was the direct-service advocate for domestic-violence victims.

“I had to go pick up victims at their homes,” she said. “I didn’t like it.”

It was dangerous, she said, and that’s when she started driving the bright-blue truck.

“For my own safety, I made my vehicle noticeable,” she said, “and I just kept it that way.”

Francis recalled meeting a victim at a bar while the police went to the woman’s home and arrested her husband.

“I had to bring her to her house at 2 in the morning to get her belongings,” Francis said. The woman’s living conditions were shocking. “Never, never in my life would I live in that situation.”

However, the woman thrived away from her abuser. “She’s my success story,” Francis said. The woman received an order of protection against her abuser, moved to another state and continued her life.

Francis said she left that position and went to a counseling center as an advocate for men and women with alcohol and drug addiction. When the center closed, she got a job at a youth home in Wyoming.

“My youngest son met a Southern belle in Wyoming,” she said, and he moved to Conway to be with her. “I said, ‘I’m going to follow.’”

Francis took the position at Lonoke County Safe Haven on March 1, 2017.

“My day-to-day thing is we help them with housing, their daily needs, support groups, employment” and assistance programs, such as Medicaid, for which they might qualify. She also helps the women obtain orders of protection.

“Some women come with just the clothes on their backs; some come with everything, and we’re like, ‘Oh, no, you need to get a storage unit,’” she said, laughing.

Safe Haven Thrift Store opened in Cabot this year to help fund the programs, and Francis said the store has been successful.

“A lot of people call. A lot of people are donating, and a lot of people are helping out,” she said.

Sarah Brown, executive director of Lonoke County Safe Haven, said Francis has been invaluable to the shelter.

“Donna has been an amazing addition to our team,” Brown said. “Last year, as I was interviewing, Donna stood out to me with her prior experience with domestic violence and sexual-assault victims. She has a demeanor that encourages conversations with everyone. This is exceptionally valuable when we are dealing with victims of abuse, who may feel nervous or scared when sharing their stories.”

Brown said Francis’ organizational, communication and interpersonal skills are “irreplaceable.”

“Donna is also very engaged in all of our fundraising activities — she enjoys telling people what we do and how we do it. All of these, combined with her past experience, have helped LCSH tremendously,” Brown said.

Francis has one day off; then it’s back to work Tuesday morning in Conway, where she lives.

She started working for the Women’s Shelter of Central Arkansas in January; it’s a 32-hour-a-week position.

Carrie Curtis, executive director of the Women’s Shelter of Central Arkansas, said Francis had applied for another shelter position before being hired.

“She was a very impressive candidate and more qualified than what that position needed, so I kept her on file,” Curtis said.

“She has had the opportunity to work in Alaska and Wyoming with both domestic-violence and sexual-assault programs, so she has a long history of being an advocate and understands that rules change,” Curtis said. “Wherever you work, the legal system may be vastly different, but a client’s needs are centered around us being the best advocate we can be for them, no matter what it takes.”

Francis is getting training from the Arkansas Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Little Rock, as well the Arkansas Coalition Against Sexual Assault. She also trains sexual-assault program volunteers.

A young woman interested in volunteering came to her office last week. Francis gave her books to read and videos to watch, and asked her to watch The Hunting Ground on Netflix.

“It’s about college sexual assault. It’s very, very good,” Francis said.

The Women’s Shelter of Central Arkansas’ sexual-assault program isn’t as well-known as it should be, Francis said.

“I’m trying to build it back up again,” she said. “We need to let people know we are here, and we can offer services to empower them and help them become stronger individuals.”

Francis said she has sent out dozens of letters, including to the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, as well as Hendrix College, Conway Mayor Bart Castleberry and the Conway Police Department to let them know what’s available.

“We get an occasional phone call that a victim is at the hospital, and they need help,” she said. Francis said the program is designed for males and females, ages 18 and older.

“We meet strictly at the hospital,” whether Conway Regional Medical Center or Baptist Medical Center-Conway, she said.

She shows victims the crime-compensation form, which can help the person pay for any attorney, etc., if the case goes to court.

Francis said she wants to spread the word about the sexual-assault support-group meetings, which take place from 8-9 a.m. and 6-7 p.m. Wednesdays in her office at the Conway Ministry Center, 766 Harkrider St. Anyone is welcome, regardless of when their sexual assault happened, she said. The domestic-violence support group meets from 9-10 a.m. and 7-8 p.m. Wednesdays. The 24-hour number for Sexual Assault Crisis Response of Central Arkansas is (501) 358-6217.

She said one of the more frustrating parts of her job is that women often get blamed for sexual assault.

“It’s unbelievable how many people actually blame the woman,” Francis said. “People say, ‘She shouldn’t have worn that. She shouldn’t have done those tequila shots. She shouldn’t have been in that dark alley. She shouldn’t have been in the Kroger parking lot at 2 a.m.’ No, we have a right, too.

“I don’t judge. I’ve got my stories. I will never pretend to walk in other people’s shoes. Even though we may share the same story, we walk a different path. I don’t try to pretend, ‘Oh, I’ve been there; oh, I’ve done that.’”

But she’s here now, available to listen and help however she can.

You can’t miss her; she’s the one in the big blue truck.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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