The founder of Columbia's first women's shelter is calling on the community to visit the shelter, bearing gifts and leaving preconceived notions behind.

Kathy Riley, executive director of Columbia Women's Shelter, was the guest speaker at the Women's History Month luncheon at Victory Hall March 29. She asked attendees to check out the work she has dedicated her career to -- helping women get out of homelessness so they can leave their own marks on history.

"It might seem like my world and your world really don't meet, but they do," Riley
said. "Statistically, one in three in this room has been touched by alcohol or drugs" -- either they have experienced the impacts personally, or a loved one has struggled with addiction.

The difference is that women who end up in shelters don't have the same support systems that others do to prevent them from falling hard, she added.

"For the first time in their lives, they've got to be accountable," Riley said. Many are looking for a magic pill to make them better, but "it just doesn't work that way."

Riley later coupled the shelter with a transition house to provide residents with a place to stay long-term.

"In addition, she created the Harvest Hope Food Bank in Columbia and was instrumental in helping women improve their dental health and provide them affordable housing," Apicella said.

Riley tackled issues she saw in the community, including transportation and dental services, opening a dental clinic in 1989 for the homeless.

People can't rise to a better status in life if they are constantly being held down by people's misconceptions, Riley said.

Rather than judging residents based on stereotypes, she encouraged members of the community to visit the shelter, bringing anything that may help -- toilet paper, ice cream, you name it.

"It is a place of hope," and people just need to come with an open mind to see that, Riley said.
"I've been at the shelter so long, that when I started, I had dark brown hair," she continued. "That's what the work does -- it turns you gray." She said she's earned every single one of those gray hairs through fretting over those she cares for.

The goal is to teach women that they're worth something and that "life doesn't have to be that chaotic," Riley said. Even though the residents have made mistakes, they can still turn their lives around.

Riley recognized the importance of helping the materially poor when she was at her lowest point financially.

"(I) felt very much like I was in over my head," Riley said, especially when her neighbor asked to borrow her toothbrush. "It gave me a greater understanding of what some people have to go through."

At the time, Riley was invited to lunch by a couple of nuns. Much to their surprise, she not only accepted the offer, but she told them to give her a ride since she didn't have a car and requested they do her laundry since she had no place to wash her clothes.

The experience helped her understand why some women at the shelter are so demanding, Riley said.
Like she did at the time, they develop the mentality of, "You have it. I need it. Give it to me or God will get you," Riley said. "Very bad theology."

When Riley began working with the impoverished in Columbia through a Catholic bishop, she realized the need for a women's shelter for those struggling with alcohol and mental health issues.

"Men had places to go, but not women," said Col. Michael Apicella of Fort Jackson's Dental Health Activity, who introduced Riley March 29. She set out to level the playing field.

Women at the shelter can't have relationships during their stay; it's a time to focus on themselves, Riley said. Their cell phones are taken away since "everyone in their contact list got them to where they are." Many would-be residents turn away when they find that out.

"It still amazes me that a woman would choose the streets in order to have a phone," Riley said. "It doesn't make any sense."

Those who decide to stay have "payday" every Thursday, earning $5 each.

If they want to make a call, they need to save enough to pay the quarter to use the shelter's pay phone -- one of the five left statewide, Riley said.

She recalled one woman who needed to call her boss on Monday, but didn't have any money left, having used her "paycheck" on cigarettes.

Riley recommended that she put a cigarette in the quarter slot to see if she would get a dial tone, and if that didn't work, that she better start walking.