And the winner is … all of Genesee County. Each year when the annual Sybyl Award is announced, it’s an opportunity to recognize individuals giving their time and energy to serve Genesee County. The award was initiated in 2008 in honor of long-time community advocate Sybyl M. Atwood.
Amy Cuneaz, the most recent Sybyl Award winner, was surprised to win the honor. “It was one of the proudest moments of my life,” she says. Cuneaz was nominated by a member of her “Justice League Sisters,” a group of four professional women who have been close for years. While she was the one who took the prize, she says all 15 nominees are winners. “They are really, really cool people.”
Several years ago, Cuneaz met Sybyl Atwood. “She was the kind of person that made you feel like her best friend.” As a community advocate, “Sybyl was Google before there was Google.”
Why was she nominated? After graduating from University of Michigan-Flint in 1992, Cuneaz took her first job with the YWCA in Flint. Her entire career has been spent serving the women of Genesee County through the Y’s Domestic Violence Sexual Assault Services. “I have lived and breathed the YW my whole adult life,” Cuneaz says. “I was just a baby when I started.”
Cuneaz has held most of the positions available with the Domestic Violence Sexual Assault Services program. Starting as a case worker and resident advocate at the Safe House, she ultimately stepped into the role of director after acting as interim director several times. In 2017, she decided it was time to turn over the reins to Rachel Johnson and shift to part time grant work with the YWCA.
Working with women in domestic difficulties has been an education in perseverance for Cuneaz and the YWCA staff. Women return to a dysfunctional situation on average seven times before they are able to disentangle themselves. “Maybe she left and the kids want to sleep in their own beds. Maybe he doesn’t abuse the kids, just her, so she feels guilty,” Cuneaz says. It is often more dangerous for a woman to leave than to stay in an abusive situation. “Women who get out are 75 percent more likely to be killed” after they leave an abusive situation as the abuser seeks to regain control.
Staff at the YWCA are trained to welcome clients and assure them that “confidentiality is of utmost importance,” says Cuneaz. Victims of abuse are not required to report the activity to the police. “They need to know we’re not going to force them to do anything,” she says. “They’re the experts in their own lives.” Staff members offer resources and assistance in getting out safely for clients who are financially dependent, lack work experience, have children, or are unable to pay for legal support to ensure their rights are retained.
Often, family members have tried to help but have run out of resources or energy. “They may have helped before, but now they’re just done,” Cuneaz says. Connections with community resources are critical. “It takes time and planning. The more resources she’s aware of, the more likely she is to put together a plan to leave.” While the Safe House is technically available for 30 days, many clients need more time to gather what they need for independence.
Cuneaz admits the work is difficult and heartbreaking, but she says, “It’s like a light bulb goes off when you understand working with domestic violence victims.” She feels compelled to make a difference and let people know abusive behavior is wrong. “Until you walk in those shoes, you never understand the effort it takes to leave a relationship like that,” she says. All the effort is worth it when Cuneaz sees a client who has taken the leap and is doing great, reestablishing family relationships and achieving success on her own.
The biggest asset for those who work with abuse victims is a non-judgmental attitude. “We define the mission with the leadership team as ‘come as you are,’ and we get it. We fully receive people that way,” Cuneaz says. If a client comes in drunk, the staff members work to sober them up so they can have a conversation. “These women are survivors,” Cuneaz says. “They have lived through horrific things.” Workers tell clients, “You are resourceful. You are a warrior. You have mental resilience and the strength to still be alive.”
As the Grant Coordinator for the program, Cuneaz sees the increased interest in preventing and surviving abusive situations as an opportunity for a shift in funding priorities. “Hopefully, between #metoo and Nassar we can move into a time when violence against women is not acceptable. We need to create a culture where women are not treated as sex objects,” she says.
Sybyl Award nominees are considered based on their ability to “demonstrate leadership through excellence, creativity, and commitment in their lives exemplified in their profession and/or volunteerism, provide valuable service to improve the quality of life for others, encourage a sense of community and nurture community connections, and help others to realize their own potential to make a positive difference in their community.” Cuneaz is the personification of these qualities.