OCEANSIDE — Colleen O’Harra, a former City Council member and co-founder of an organization servicing domestic violence victims, has been named Rep. Mike Levin’s “Constituent of the Month” for July.
Every month, Levin honors a constituent in the 49th District who has “gone above and beyond” to support and strengthen the community. He then tells the rest of Congress on the United States House of Representatives floor all about those constituents.
“After 45 years of providing critical support services and shelter to survivors in our community, we owe Colleen a debt of gratitude,” Levin said in his statement to Congress.
In 1974, O’Harra and four other Oceanside women together opened the Women’s Resource Center (WRC). The five women, who knew each other through their children who went to school together, realized the need for a “rape crisis” center in North County.
Sexual assault and domestic violence were topics often ignored in the early 1970s.
“When we first got into this, people did not like to talk about domestic violence at all,” O’Harra said.
O’Harra said that the women who were victims felt shamed, and the community at large couldn’t believe or simply didn’t want to know that abuse was happening here.
Beating a woman was considered a “private matter,” according to the WRC website, but a cultural shift was just beginning.
The earliest rape crisis centers were established around 1972 after survivors — mostly women — began to share their experiences of rape and started breaking the silence that kept them from seeking support.
The Oceanside five applied for and received a $45,000 grant from the county to fund the WRC. Not long after that, the center expanded its services to include helping domestic abuse victims as well.
According to O’Harra, it was the Oceanside Police Department that requested the WRC begin providing counseling services to domestic violence victims.
“They knew what to do with the perpetrators — put handcuffs on them and take them to jail — but then the victims were left there saying, ‘What do I do now?’” O’Harra said.
Once the WRC began providing counseling, the organization soon realized that a lot of victims needed safe places to stay. That launched the center into its first big project: establishing an emergency shelter in Oceanside. The shelter’s location was kept a secret to ensure the women who lived there felt safe.
After running that shelter for some time, the WRC realized that it needed a longer short-term housing plan for survivors.
“We could just accommodate the women for 30 days in the shelter,” O’Harra said. “That was not long enough for them to make major life decisions.”
The center then started a transitional housing project now consisting of 23 apartment units where survivors can live with their children for up to two years. The survivors can stay there as long as they are either working or in a program that teaches them how to be “self-sufficient,” like taking classes on budgeting, menu planning and parenting skills through the center.
Victims may stay in an abusive relationship because they are unsure of how they can support themselves or their children if they leave the abusive partner. O’Harra said. A lot of “self-esteem building” takes place once survivors get into the program, she added.
“Many of them feel stuck because they don’t have any idea how they would support themselves,” O’Harra said. “The perpetrator has control over money, and the victims have been led to believe they are stupid or couldn’t take care of themselves without them.”
The WRC also offers counseling and court advocacy for rape victims, emergency food and clothing, crisis intervention, children’s services and even court-ordered educational classes for perpetrators.
Most of the perpetrators in the class are given the choice of either taking the class or going to jail, opting for the former, but some are self-enrolled because they recognize they have a problem.
According to O’Harra, the WRC has helped 275,000 families in the last 45 years.
In addition to helping sexual assault and domestic violence survivors, O’Harra also served two terms on Oceanside City Council from 1992 to 2000. She said the council’s biggest accomplishment during that time was laying the groundwork for the “renaissance of downtown Oceanside.”
Historically, O’Harra said, downtown Oceanside had high crime and used to be “pretty run down.”
“People didn’t want to come to Oceanside, so we laid a lot of the groundwork to change all that,” she said.
During that time, council began negotiations for hotels that are now being built along the coast and near the pier.
“It takes a long time for some of these things to happen,” O’Harra said.
That period was also when the Oceanside Museum of Art was built. For O’Harra, the art museum was the “catalyst” for turning things around in downtown Oceanside.
O’Harra currently serves as a board member on the Tri-City Hospital Foundation and the Oceanside Charitable Foundation, the latter of which she co-founded.
Recently, O’Harra has been recognized in other capacities besides Levin’s Constituent of the Month. In the spring, O’Harra was inducted into the San Diego County Women’s Hall of Fame, and earlier this month was named a hometown hero for Oceanside’s Independence Day parade.
O’Harra said it felt like she was “just being discovered.”
“I’m not doing anything differently than I’ve been doing since I moved to Oceanside 58 years ago,” she said.
Though it feels good to be recognized, she is used to “working in the background” and doesn’t like to search for publicity. Instead, she simply wants people to know her city’s worth.
“Oceanside is a gem,” O’Harra said. “I want the people who live here to recognize that and I want the entire county to realize that Oceanside a gem.”
Photo Caption: Colleen O’Harra was named Rep. Mike Levin’s “Constituent of the Month” for July. She was also recently named a hometown hero for Oceanside’s Independence Day parade. Courtesy photo.
Samantha Taylor covers Oceanside, Camp Pendleton and the decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. She earned her journalism degree from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, and has previously reported for The Athens Messenger in Athens, Ohio, and USA Today in McLean, Virginia. Follow her on Twitter: @samm1son