So We All Can Be Heard – Summer 2014

By Marianne Wolf-Astrauskas

In 1986, Joanne Zerkel was honored by both the Illinois Woman’s Press Association and the National Federation of Press Women as their “Woman of Achievement” (now known as Communicator of Achievement). In response to her award Zerkel told attendees at the 1986 national conference “because of NFPW, women are making a difference.”

A petite woman, Zerkel was a staunch supporter of women’s rights and a strong supporter of the NFPW. She was a long-serving women’s editor at the Star Newspapers, a feature writer and columnist who believed in “the ‘good old girl’ networks helping to show others that gender bears no relationship to talent or to creativity.” She was an immovable force when it came to doing what she felt was right, for women on the job and for her community. And that community grew to much more than her own neighborhood. When she joined IWPA in 1978, much of her energy was devoted in the association serving as the chair of the “Youth Writing Contest” because she so believed in mentoring talented young girls. Young women starting their careers in the journalism profession of the 1970s and 80s admired Zerkel for her support in the workplace and because of it many of them joined IWPA.

But it was her drive to create a shelter launched in 1978, from the kitchen of her friend, Dianne Masters’ home, where she and women volunteers including educator Carol Zellen and fellow journalist Pat Bouchard (who would join IWPA in 1984), created a hotline to assess the needs of domestic violence victims. Within the year, they incorporated as a nonprofit agency and converted an old farmhouse into a shelter creating one of the first residential emergency shelters in the country for victims of domestic violence.

At the time, there were no TV dramas and few featured films if any that focused on domestic violence. Yet this band of women who envisioned and created the Crisis Center, were undaunted by criticism, hatred or the roadblocks placed in their path. “It was a few women sitting in a tiny kitchen,” Zerkel had stated, “planning to do something to help other women. We had all of these grand plans, ideas that would cost thousands that none of us had and none of us knew how to get, but we made it happen.”

This past April, the Tinley Park, Illinois-based Crisis Center for South Suburbia, a shelter for victims of domestic violence, celebrated 35 years of service to the south and southwest suburbs. Over the course of those years more than 55,000 women and children’s lives were touched through the steady resolve of those courageous women who stood along with Joanne Zerkel.

Today, that same Crisis Center now has a staff of 40 and six times as many volunteers, providing a 24-hour hotline and emergency shelter, court advocacy for abused women and transitional housing to help victims re-enter their communities. The center has a resale shop and offers educational programs regarding domestic abuse.

Zerkel died in March of 2012 leaving a remarkable legacy still making a difference.