If given the right tools, women have the strength to transcend poverty, domestic violence, sexual assault, mental health issues and lack of education, says Shirley Webb.
For almost 40 years, Webb has played a predominant role in seeing that Jacksonville-area women are provided with those tools. She was one of the founders and the first executive director of Hubbard House, a domestic violence shelter. She helped start and headed the University of North Florida’s Women’s Center. And she did the same at the nonprofit Women’s Center of Jacksonville.
Webb tells the story of a professionally dressed woman who came up to her at a women’s center “unsung heroes” event this year and said, “You don’t remember me, do you?”
Webb asked to hear her story.
“You actually saved my life at Hubbard House,” the woman told her.
It’s not the first time that Webb has heard those words or that women have shared their stories with her. But she still gets chills to hear how successful and happy they’ve become.
“I’m a good listener, and I can really relate a lot of times to the stories,” said Webb, a mental health counselor. “I like it when people feel comfortable enough around me to do that.”
It’s also led to Webb being named one of three EVE Award winners. The Jacksonville native has a history of taking the lead when she sees an unmet need.
“Shirley has always been a person with a vision,” said Gillian Ticehurst, development director at the Women’s Center. She has always inspired others by her example. She’s made a significant contribution to elevating the status of women in every aspect.”
Ticehurst said that Webb has a strong sense of justice, fairness and equality that has propelled her to take the lead on women’s issues, from advocating at the state legislative level to establishing various programs.
Some of the best ideas have come while brainstorming in a friend’s living room. Webb, who grew up in the Love Grove area and graduated from Englewood High School, was sitting with a group involved in the Jacksonville Women’s Movement when they recognized the need to establish Hubbard House. Because she wasn’t working at the time, the then 25-year-old was drafted to be its first executive director and served from 1976-79.
During her tenure, she was president of the state coalition of shelters called the Refuge Information Network. Webb also spearheaded the lobbying effort for legislation to establish a marriage license trust fund to support the state’s domestic violence shelters.
She had started school at what is now Florida State College at Jacksonville. After her two children were born, she returned to school at the University of North Florida to get a bachelor’s degree in political science. Again, she was among a group who saw the need for a women’s center.
“We met with the women faculty members and got it going in 1986,” Webb said. “We started with one room and very little funding and grew it into what it is today. We brought in Maya Angelou and other nationally known people.”
Webb headed it on a volunteer and then a salaried basis while taking care of two young children, obtaining a bachelor’s in political science, a master’s in mental health counseling and winning outstanding student awards.
When women started calling the UNF center looking for services, Webb said she realized there was a void in the community.
Still again, she was sitting in a living room with friends to talk about the need for a resource-based center for women and their families. They did a survey to ascertain the needs, and Webb left UNF in 1995 to start the center with one therapist in a rented room of a converted Riverside house. At the top of the list was information and referral assistance, but they had to figure out the resources available.
Among the top concerns were legal issues requiring the services of an attorney, medical needs and mental health and sexual assault counseling. As the program grew, another therapist was added with fees based on a sliding scale or for free. Soon, a literacy component was added, Bosom Buddies breast cancer support services, personal growth groups and others.
The center grew to the extent that larger quarters were needed, and it moved to 5644 Colcord Ave. off the Arlington Expressway in 2001. The building was purchased and renovated in 2002 after a $1.5 million capital campaign.
The center serves thousands of women a year with a $2.5 million annual budget, of which 68 percent comes from city, state and federal government sources.
The sexual assault program has grown tremendously, Webb said. It’s the only certified rape crisis center for Duval, Baker and Nassau Counties, and rape recovery services are available to women, men and their families 24 hours a day. Every rape victim gets an advocate to navigate the system, whether it’s reported to police or not, Webb said. In 2014, the center officially took over the city’s sexual assault forensic medical exams.
“She started programs that helped the entire community,” Ticehurst said. “She helped women raise themselves up and become more self-confident and active in their community.”
“There was nothing in my background that prompted me,” said Webb, who is 67. “I just knew I could make a difference if I got involved. “Once I got into it, it just spoke to me.”
To give plenty of time for transition, she told her board four years beforehand that she planned to retire in December 2015. In the meantime, she battled health issues such as uterine cancer, which was caught early, and breast cancer. Webb had radiation treatments, chemotherapy and a double mastectomy but is now cancer free.
“It looked very grim, but what women need to know is that you can survive and you can go on,” she said.
For years, Webb said she couldn’t understand the concept of retirement. But now she’s loving it as much as any job she’s had. She’s enjoying the freedom to travel, do projects around her Riverside-area home, work in her yard, ride her bike, read books such as historical fiction and visit her two children and four grandchildren in North Carolina.
“They are such good kids,” Webb said. “My daughter is a pediatrician, and my son, a physics major, is in high finance. I’m so proud of them. They’ve done so well for themselves and their children.”
In what has become a family tradition, they’ll get together in June at a house in South Ponte Vedra. She remains close friends with her former husband, architectural historian and author Wayne Wood.
Still, she’ll always be involved in volunteer work. One is the Women’s Services Coalition of Northeast Florida, which does gender-specific training programs on such issues as trauma and cultural literacy. Another is the Women’s Leadership Initiative to provide information for women seeking to get ahead in business. Still another is a program to encourage more women to run for public office.
“I’ll stay busy with whatever I do,” Webb said. “It’s just nice to have the freedom to be able to do what I want to do when I want to do it.”
Sandy Strickland: (904) 359-4128