Personality: January 2016
01/15/2016 08:06AM ● Published by Aimee Cormier
By Lisa Hanchey
Children have always been a “vital” part of Michelle Vital’s life. Her love of kids drew her to nursing, which she studied for two years before starting a family with Gregory, her husband of 22 years. Between them, they had four children – Lamar, now 27; De’Mario, 26; Greg, Jr., 25 and Mariah, 9. And it was raising these kids that molded her career path.
Reared in St. Martinville until the 11th grade, Vital transferred to New Iberia Senior High School for her last two years. She attended USL (now University of Louisiana – Lafayette), completing two years in nursing. “When I got into nursing, I knew that I wanted to work with children,” she reveals.
Fortunately, she was able to achieve that goal when she landed a job with Lafayette-based Family Tree in a start-up program, Healthy Kids, in New Iberia. “I was a home visitor with first-time and teen parents,” she explains. “The hospital or local health unit would notify Healthy Kids once a teenager found out that she was pregnant or immediately after delivering a baby. At that time, we would make contact with the family and start doing weekly home visits with the mom. We would counsel her on parenting, teach basic parenting skills and make sure that she had access to all of the resources that were available for her and her household. Basically, we tried to discover what her future goals were and gave her as much help as we could in order for her to achieve those goals.”
After several years, the Healthy Kids program in New Iberia shut down for lack of funding. Once a similar program started in Lafayette, Vital jumped on board. But, after Mariah was born, Vital’s priorities changed. “While Mariah was in daycare in New Iberia, I wanted to be closer to where she was and not be on the road so much,” she reveals.
So, Vital started looking for something new. She found it at SNAP (Safety Net for Abused Persons), where she began working in 2007. “I ran into SNAP without knowing where I was going,” she says.
SNAP is a nonprofit agency that provides shelter, counseling and legal assistance to women and child victims of domestic abuse. Additionally, SNAP educates the community about domestic violence. Launched in 1983 and receiving 501(c)(3) status in 1985, SNAP serves clients in Iberia and St. Martin Parishes, and is a sister program of Faith House in Lafayette. “Basically, people know it as being a shelter for battered women and children,” she explains. “We can house up to 22 people within our community living shelter.”
But, many people do not realize how many services SNAP actually provides. “We have a 24-hour crisis line,” Vital explains. “We always have someone on staff who can answer questions, if people just want to get some information or if they are looking for an emergency shelter. We also have support groups, legal options counseling, which includes obtaining restraining orders, a children’s program, parenting classes, an outreach program and a volunteer program. And we also do community education.”
Initially, Vital served as SNAP’s outreach coordinator, working with programs on the outskirts of Iberia Parish in Delcambre, Lydia, Loureauville and Jeanerette. “At the time, we were not servicing St. Martin Parish,” she explains. After two years, she became SNAP’s fundraising coordinator. “That kind of happened because I really liked doing parties and decorating,” she says with a laugh. “In conjunction with fundraising, I was also the volunteer coordinator.”
Following these positions, Vital became SNAP’s legal advocate for two years. “The legal advocate does the majority of the restraining orders for the agency,” she states.
About a year ago, Vital rose to the top of the agency as executive director. “I oversee the daily operations of shelter,” she says. “I do some public speaking when necessary, do all of the grants for our programs and just basically oversee our ‘SNAPettes,’ and those are my staff.” Vital supervises a staff of 12 and someone “is always there around the clock.”
SNAP fulfills a huge need for victims of domestic violence in St. Martin and Iberia Parishes. The shelter can accommodate 22 women and children. Each year, approximately 500 to 650 people seek assistance from SNAP, including counseling, obtaining restraining orders or housing in the shelter. “Unfortunately, the numbers are not getting smaller,” she reveals. “They are increasing.”
Vital attributes the uptick in violence to the downturn in the oil and gas industry. Tough financial times lead to frustration, which is sadly sometimes taken out on the people closest to the situation – domestic partners and children. “Many of the women who come in express some changes that have happened within their households. Because in this area, the majority of the men do work in the oilfield industry,” Vital observes. “And so, with the layoffs and all of the changes that have been going on with that, there are some added tensions within the household. Because, these men are not seeing the money that they were making before and they are having a hard time finding jobs. Unfortunately, they are taking out their frustrations on their partners and children.”
The Vital family is all too familiar with the ups and downs of the industry. Vital’s husband Gregory and their three sons work in the oilfield. All are based in Louisiana except for Greg Jr., who is employed in Georgia.
Another contributing factor to the increase in domestic abuse is the holidays. “The tensions mount within the household during the holidays and there are more occurrences of domestic violence,” Vital observes. “Usually around the holidays, our shelter is at capacity; we can’t fit anybody else in.”
Vital is also seeing more incidences of domestic violence in young people. “We are seeing more abuse in young girls – I mean in high school,” she emphasizes. “We’ve noticed a jump in the amount of calls that we are getting from parents who have come across things with their daughters who are being abused by their boyfriends. The youngest girl I can remember was about 15. It’s becoming a little more prevalent in teenagers.”
Serving as a leader to young girls is important to Vital. In her personal time, she heads up Mariah’s Girls Scout troupe. “I have 25 little girls and they keep me very busy,” Vital says. “I am involved a lot with Girls Scouts. I was a Girl Scout myself.”
The community activist is also a member of Les Jeunes Amis, a local service club. “Basically, our focus is on women and children,” Vital explains. “We do different events throughout the year to raise money for organizations that focus on women and children.”
Vital also loves to read, cook and travel. She frequently visits her brother in Mississippi and, of course, Greg, Jr. in Georgia. Her dream trip? “I would love to go to Hawaii,” she confides.
Her number one priority is her family. “I love spending time with my family,” she shares. “I am always encouraging my children to get their education and just explore the world,” she says. “They need to get out there and make it happen and not let anything hold them back. And, of course, education is prime. Because sometimes, you have setbacks, and an education gives you something to fall back on.”
Vital’s other focus is SNAP. “As the director, I’m always consumed with what’s going on at SNAP,” she says. “I want to see our services expand, where we can reach out to more people than we have been and make sure that we are always available to help anyone who is in need.”
As executive director, Vital’s goal is to make people aware that domestic violence exists in our community. “The biggest goal is to continue to provide information on domestic violence, making sure that people are aware that the problem does exist in our community,” she stresses. “We need to do whatever we can do to put an end to domestic violence. To do that, we need to get into the schools and other agencies so that we can provide them with the information that they need to refer people to our office.”
Vital says that most of the people who contact SNAP are seeking information to help them make a decision. “With many of the phone calls that we get at the shelter, people are just looking for the information that they need if and when they choose to get out of that particular situation,” she says. “Unfortunately, we can’t make that decision for them on when to get out. But, we give them all of the resources. We tell them how to safely remove themselves from their situation. We tell them who to call for help, how to go about getting help, what they need when they decide that they are going to remove themselves from that situation. So, if the biggest thing that I can accomplish is just making sure that information is out there in the public and is available to whomever may need that information, I’ll be satisfied with that.”
When should an abused person seek help? “It’s up to them when they are ready to seek help,” Vital says. “It doesn’t matter what a friend or family member might say, whether they’ve been in that situation or not. You have to decide when you are ready and when you are safe to remove yourself from that situation. The first step is to call SNAP or any of our sister programs in their particular area. The SNAP hotline will connect you with the closest domestic violence program to your area. The first step is to get the information that you need.”
SNAP Hotline: 1-888-411-1333