By Jody Steinberg
As a teenager, Morgan Coffey watched domestic abuse damage a friend.
Morgan talks little about the situation now, but it left an indelible mark on her. It prompted the dedicated Girl Scout to take on domestic violence for her Gold Award community service project.
Morgan’s friend was able to escape her situation and has since rebuilt her life, but she didn¹t do it alone.
“It was because there were people who cared and could help them,” Morgan said. “Many people don’t have that kind of help.”
Many women and children are so caught up in the cycle of domestic violence that they don¹t recognize the danger or are too terrified to leave. Even if they want to escape, said Morgan, they might not have anywhere safe to go or even know how to ask for help.
That was unacceptable to Morgan.
“Tons of people are turned away from shelters for lack of space every day,” Morgan said.
What she did about it earned Morgan more than the coveted Gold badge, the highest award a Girl Scout can achieve. Next week, the Oglethorpe University freshman, a straight-A student, will be recognized as a Young Woman of Distinction, an elite honor for extraordinary leadership, given to only 10 Girl Scouts nationwide.
Morgan’s project started small. She developed The Victims’ Support Initiative (VSI) and Change in A Bag programs for victims in immediate need.
“When police would answer a domestic violence or rape call, they had no information to leave behind,” said Morgan, who created a brochure called “Ready, Set, GO!” that lists crisis hot lines, attorneys and counseling resources for victims. She gave 500 copies to the DeKalb police Special Victims Unit.
Too often, Morgan said, abuse victims are raped or assaulted by their abusers and end up in a hospital, where forensic exams make them feel even more vulnerable.
“With the rape kit program, often they take their clothing as evidence,” Morgan said. “When you¹re already in that situation, you don¹t want to feel exposed in a hospital gown or castoffs from a rummage closet.”
Victims who are treated with dignity are more likely to envision themselves escaping the situation, she explains.
So Morgan created “Change in a Bag,” which allows women and children to choose a clean outfit of new or gently worn clothing and new underwear, bagged by size and season. Morgan recruited dozens of friends and Girl Scout troops to help, then added “Change” bags of toiletries for victims who arrive at a hospital or shelter with nothing.
After distributing over 500 “Changes” to local hospitals, Morgan knew she was far from finished.
“I realized there were tons more things that needed to be addressed for victims of domestic violence,” she says. “And who better to address them but me?”
Morgan¹s project is more than a bandage, said her troop leader, Diane Black. It is a sustainable program that will have lasting community impact.
“Morgan is very focused,” Black said. “Once she identifies what she wants to do, she is like a laser. She has the ability to identify a problem and bring resources to bear. She has a passion.”
Morgan founded Stronghold Atlanta, a non-profit organization to help women and children victimized by abuse. Her goal is to open a new safe house in the Atlanta suburbs. For now, the organization staffs hot lines, makes referrals and brings meals to other shelters.