Julia M. Dendinger| News-Bulletin photo

June Romero, right, board of director’s president of the Valencia Shelter Services board of directors, reads a proclamation declaring September Helen Abeyta Month. Abeyta, left, is the founder of VSS, the only organization in Valencia County that provides services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

LOS LUNAS— For more than three decades, the number has remained the same — 505-864-1383.

What was once a shared phone line, transferred between the homes of three volunteers to provide around-the-clock coverage for calls from victims of domestic violence, is now a professionally manned crisis hotline for Valencia Shelter Services.

When she was taking classes at The University of New Mexico-Valencia campus in the late 1980s, Helen Abeyta was given an assignment to find community resources in Valencia County. She found a glaring omission.

“At the time, there were no services in Valencia County for women. I had to do an essay about services and there was nothing to write about because there was nothing,” Abeyta said.

Her friend, Anna Young, suggested starting a domestic violence shelter, and that’s what Abeyta did. She was integral in forming a nonprofit in 1989 and two years later, was key in securing funding for an emergency shelter in an undisclosed location, known as Helen’s House.

“What started with a phone on a  desk is now 20-some employees and numerous services,” she said. “I’m really proud of what we’ve done. I stayed with it long and hard. Over the years, I think (domestic violence) is getting worse but services are getting better so people can recover and get on with their lives. That was our first goal — to help people get on with their lives.”

When VSS began, it was able to offer emergency shelter and counseling to victims. In the years, it has grown to offer counseling to victims, their families and offenders. It houses the county’s only child advocacy center, has a transitional housing program, offers legal advocacy and prevention programming and outreach.

June Romero, the VSS board of director’s president, called Abeyta “the hero of the world” during a recent meeting of the Valencia County Commission, where the board unanimously recognized September as Helen Abeyta Month.

That proclamation will be framed and officially presented to Abeyta next week at VSS’s free Re-Open  House and FUNdraiser from 1-5 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 25, at 445 Camino Del Rey in Los Lunas.

There will be artists, vendors, food and refreshments, a silent auction, live music by the Southwest Emporium Top Notch Band, Marauders Cosplay Troupe, the 501st Dewback Ridge Garrison, site tours, time to meet past, present and future VSS heroes and more.

Romero, who has served on the VSS board for “about 100 years” by her estimate, says the hard work of the organization is done by the trained professionals providing the services.

“We don’t do the important work. I merely use my leadership skills to help organize and support them,” Romero said. “My mother would ask, ‘How did you pay for your existence?’ She meant what good did you do that day. Both my parents were philanthropic, not that we were super rich, but they were both donors of their time and money to make people’s lives better. I grew up knowing what I was supposed to do.”

The services provided by VSS are critical because it is the only provider of such services in Valencia County, Romero said. She became aware of Valencia Shelter Services when she was a principal at a Los Lunas school. A staff member didn’t come to work one day and it was soon discovered they and their family had spent the night before in the VSS emergency shelter.

“That woke me up,” she said.

Romero was invited to join the board of directors and she found where she belonged.

“Through the years, because of super (executive) directors like our current director Stephanie Villalobos and former director Alexandria Taylor, and our finance director Patty O’Brien, services have expanded,” she said. “Child advocacy is particularly significant to me due to issues in my family.

“I am relieved, happy, thrilled, we are open again and can overtly provide services we were doing remotely.”

VSS Executive Director Stephanie Villalobos said after the organization moved to the Camino Del Rey location in June 2019, the staff wanted to hold an open house to introduce the new space to the community.

“We finally had a place the community could call its own, that reflected our priority is the victims in the community,” Villalobos said. “Then the pandemic hit.”

After being closed for several months, the executive director said staff felt this was the time to hold an event in a COVID-safe manner.

“Our name has been associated with the domestic violence shelter for so long, and it should be — that’s our roots — but we offer so much more,” she said. “Counseling for sexual assault victims, a child advocacy center for forensic interviews. This event is to not just bring awareness but to show our prioritization of victims in Valencia County.”

There is also a fund raising component to the open house, which Villalobos hopes will generate money to help with expenses outside of the typical grants the organization receives.

“Right now, I have a request on my desk for a bike and helmet so someone can get to and from work,” she said. “We try to think outside the box to purchase those things, either through fund raising or donations.

“This is a place where the community can support their neighbor and victims can seek services in a place where they feel comfortable.”

Members of the Los Lunas Police Department will be providing free VIN etching during the event as well.

Proceeds support services for survivors of abuse and help VSS turn victims into victors.

Vending and sponsorship opportunities are still available. Message VSS through its Facebook page or call 565-3100 for more information or visit vssnm.org.

VSS’ crisis intervention services are available seven days a week, 24 hours a day by calling its crisis hotline – 505-864-1383.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.