Voice of the new YWCA

With Renae Hamilton leading the YWCA Kaua'i, the agency makes ending violence against women a priority, with an emphasis on education and prevention

As with any true leader, YWCA executive director Renae Hamilton doesn’t crave the spotlight. She’d rather laud the work of her staff or advocate support for the men, women and children who are victims of domestic violence and abuse.

“The most fulfilling part of my job is working with people who are so dedicated to making Kaua’i a better home for everyone,” she says. “There are several on staff who have worked for more than 15 years to help end violence in our community.”

Having just wrapped up a month dedicated to raising awareness about domestic violence, Hamilton is eager to talk about the nonprofit’s beefed-up prevention efforts, and the variables that have created additional challenges for local residents, including the economy.

“When there are tough economic times people have fewer resources in general, and fewer people reach out,” she says. Using an example of the nonprofit’s women’s shelter, Hamilton says she has seen a spike in numbers in recent months having gone from averaging four women and two children to recently hosting 11 women and 13 children.

“In an instance where a woman would have, in the past, gone to a family member, perhaps that family member can’t help because of being unemployed or having fewer options to offer help,” she says.

Renae Hamilton

Though some confuse the YWCA Kaua’i with the YMCA (and associate it with having the island’s new lap pool and workout center), YWCA Kaua’i not only has a shelter for victims of domestic violence, but offers alternatives to violence programs and the island’s only 24-hour domestic violence and sexual assault hotline.

Hamilton and her staff are dedicated to helping local residents, many of whom are affected by pressures stemming from a wide range of financial problems that have a trickle-down effect.

Pointing out that these kinds of pressures seem to compound for those who are dealing with them, Hamilton says it can be overwhelming for some, and that’s why YWCA Kaua’i is there.

“We’re finding people with added stresses are also spending more time together,” she says. “You have daily stress, and then you add all these outside influences, and there isn’t as much room or space to cope.”

One of the salient features of domestic abuse the need to assert power and control combined with the sense of helplessness that an unemployed breadwinner might have can lead to a potentially abusive situation.

“Some people don’t like that kind of feeling, so they try to find other areas where they are the ones in charge,” she says.

No stranger to the issue of domestic violence, Hamilton, its executive director for the past five years, began her work at Kaua’i YWCA 16 years ago as a relief crisis worker at the Family Violence Shelter. Before that she was a teacher and principal at Island School and St. Catherine’s, respectively, until a close friend became a victim of violence. “And that led me right here,” she says.

Realizing prevention work is an integral part of making a dent in violence, Hamilton moved from her relief crisis position to the prevention education arena with a sexual assault program.

Renae Hamilton with YWCA crisis counselor Gladys Costa (left) and prevention coordinator Leialoha Sanchez. Amanda C. Gregg photo

Out in the schools, she made presentations and spoke to children and teens about “secret touching,” and what safe and healthy relationships look like, adjusting the presentation to the age of the audience.

The woman behind the nonprofit that has been championing the effort to empower women onisland since 1924, when it established a girl’s dormitory so they could attend high school alongside the boys, Hamilton credits the YWCA with feeding her passion to advocate change.

“It just gives me a place to be able to work for the betterment of everybody,” she says. “It empowers others but also empowers myself.”

While it is part of the YWCA Kaua’i’s mission to empower women, another aspect is eliminating racism and creating dignity for all which means coming from a starting place of equality. This is especially relevant, as nine of every 10 rape victims are female, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

“There’s that tie-in with domestic violence and assault, because I think there is a direct connection with how people view gender roles still,” she says. “My feminist perspective is, of course, that’s an area that we need to continue to work in, and continue to start to challenge those perspectives and ideas.”

Hamilton (right) and friends sign-waving in Lihue. Photo courtesy Renae Hamilton

Education and prevention efforts are the cornerstones in making any change, according to Hamilton. Having recently added to her prevention staff including hiring prevention coordinator Leialoha Sanchez a couple months ago she says she’s proud of the increased efforts to prevent violence in the community.

“If we really want to end the violence, prevention is the key,” she says. “My hopes are for the younger generation to be fully prepared and have the knowledge necessary to make positive choices in their relationships, and then to pass those good choices on to the generations following them. I believe that, in working to prevent violence, you touch many issues: gender roles, media messages, and that the reduction of violence will have a direct positive impact on the lives of women and girls.”

The nonprofit makes free presentations to students of all ages, from preschool to university, and tailors topics related to health, safety and sexuality. Hamilton says Sanchez, who has ample experience in education, writes curriculum and speaks fluent Hawaiian, the latter of which adds to that sense of connection and cultural relevance that is crucial when addressing youths.

“So many issues that may stem from underlying anger, and people act out in different ways from the economy to oppression, all have an impact on people’s behavior and the choices they make,” she says.

To truly get to the heart of preventing the cycle of abuse regardless of those variables, starting in the pre-parent stage is ideal.

Working at her desk at the YWCA

“If we could have more access or people going to parenting classes before they have gotten pregnant, so they have a good understanding of how things will affect children, then we could really see living examples of what is healthy, and it would continue on,” she says. “But you have to do it with the parents. Everybody is bombarded with the idea that some violence is OK. And when you have that, it makes it easier to stretch those boundaries of what is OK and not.”

In addition to prevention efforts, Hamilton lauds the work of people such as crisis counselor Gladys Costa, who has been with YWCA Kaua’i for nearly 20 years and is entering her third year in her current post.

“Gladys is on call, and that to me is amazing that we can do that for both violence and sexual assault,” Hamilton says. “Gladys, through her years here, has gained a comprehensive understanding of the issues.”

It’s a violation of a basic fundamental right to have control of someone else’s body, a right that’s taken away through violence and/or sexual assault.

“(We all) have a right to decide what’s happening to (our bodies) and that no one else should,” she says.

In addition to getting to help people, Hamilton says promoting universal, fundamental human rights for all and working in an environment where she can let her feminist side shine through are the highlights of her job.

Noelle Cambeilh and Renae Hamilton. Amanda C. Gregg photos

“That, and hopefully contributing to even a larger degree of equality for the girls of the younger generation,” she says.

YWCA Kaua’i is inclusive, and not only for women and children.

“We serve the entire community,” she says.

While the job does have its challenges, the toughest of which is to secure funding, Hamilton makes sure to enjoy time with life partner Noelle Cambeilh and the family dog Seva, along with two cats and a bird.

“We do a lot of hiking, biking and going to the beach,” she says. The two also are planning a dream vacation to Australia in the spring.

Hamilton, who also co-hosts a show that highlights the LGBT community, Free2Be, spends some of her spare time aiming to change public perception of the LGBT community.

“Both Noelle and I are very involved with PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) Kaua’i,” she says. “We are having a lot of fun providing training to make schools safer for all students and planning events to bring the community together.”

Describing what she hopes YWCA Kaua’i will look like in 10 years, Hamilton paints a simple, pleasant picture: “It will still be empowering women and girls and helping families be healthy and happy, an effective and long-lasting strategy for change.”