New Hope Shores chief has passion for service, learning

Valerie Williams

ALPENA — She didn’t start out planning to change lives. But when she entered a world where people were hurting, new Hope Shores Alliance Director Valerie Williams couldn’t help but try to be a part of the solution.

“It kind of gets into your blood, and what you believe and who you are,” Williams said, leaning forward in her chair, her eyes intense. “There’s something that clicks, and once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”

In mid-March, Williams assumed the role of director at Hope Shores Alliance, the Alpena agency dedicated to providing support and advocacy for survivors of sexual and domestic violence. Her new post has brought her back, full-circle, to the place where she first learned the power of offering a helping hand and a listening ear.

As a teenager, Williams volunteered with the agency that is now Hope Shores, facilitating a children’s program at its Oscoda safehouse. Returning to the area and the agency after college, she was hired to a succession of positions over the course of decade, from outreach advocate to volunteer coordinator to legal advocate.

A substantial grant in 2011 created the position of sexual assault program coordinator, a role Williams filled during a time of dramatic transition for the agency. Buoyed by the grant, Hope Shores — then called Shelter Inc. — went through an extensive re-evaluation of its services and policies.

“We called it trying to build a plane while the plane was flying,” Williams said.

The agency’s staff met weekly, probing into their practices and looking for weaknesses. They listened to sometimes painful feedback from the community, realizing that openness to criticism and willingness to change could enable them to have a more powerful impact on people facing real crises in their lives.

The process reinforced her belief in the need for a team approach to problem-solving and a survivor-first focus.

The period of transition resulted, finally, in the emergence of a new name, Hope Shores, and a new focus, bringing sexual violence to the forefront of what the agency addresses. Around the same time, Williams stepped away from the agency to serve as director of housing and client services for the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency.

During the three years she’s been away, Williams has kept connected to the issue of sexual abuse through her work with the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, providing sexual assault training for Michigan law enforcement officers around the state.

Williams calls the changes she’s seen happen at Hope Shores in the three years since she left amazing. The agency is, she thinks, something other programs might look at and want to emulate, a fact that makes her proud to serve as its director.

In her volunteer days, and even when she first started working for the agency, officially, Williams felt she knew nothing about the lives she was touching and the work she was doing. Her early years, especially her interactions with survivors of sexual and domestic violence, immersed her in the world the agency strives to reach and gave her hands-on lessons that changed how she saw her community, and her work.

“You get trained on some of those isms that we don’t see in our communities. They’re there, big-time,” Williams said. “You have that inner dialogue about how it doesn’t apply to you. But it does.”

A curious mind drives Williams to come to work every day as a learner, eager to absorb all that she can about the underlying causes that drive societal problems.

“You start to get hungry,” Williams said. “You want to know more. You want to know, what does this mean? What is white privilege? What can I do to understand it better, at a minimum?”

Advocates at Hope Shores are dedicated to listening to each client at each appointment, Williams said, listening not to reply but to understand. The tactic suits Williams, fitting in with her quest to invest her whole self in her work.

“When you’re trained and you start to get really good at being an active listener, it’s really hard to not be a sponge, and really learn, because you’re truly listening,” Williams said.

Williams now returns to Hope Shores in one of the few roles she hasn’t filled, that of executive director.

“This is something that is like coming home,” Williams said. “And it’s not just that I worked here before. It’s doing the work and working alongside advocates who are working alongside survivors and creating really great services and roadmaps and connections.”

The future of the agency that serves those hurting from domestic and sexual violence lies in the people whose passion and commitment make its work possible, Williams said. As it has done in the past, she hopes to see the leadership team dive into finding ways to build stronger partnerships and services.

“I want us to sit down with each other and say, what are the top three things we want to have happen? How can we start chipping away at that?” Williams envisioned.

An experienced leader who has seen Hope Shores’ work from many angles, the new director sees herself as only one of many sets of hands working to bring positive change to the community, and is excited to be working alongside other people with a passion for helping where help is needed.

“I’m a true believer in groups being able to create the most change,” Williams said. “My goal is to not be in the driver’s seat, so much as just on the bus.”