CANTON (WJW) – “Does City Need Shelter For Battered Women?” reads a 1978 newspaper clipping from Canton Repository. For three brave women, the answer to that question was a resounding “Yes!”

“Planned Parenthood, where I volunteered for a long time, that’s where I found out, there’s a lot of men beating on their wife or girlfriend,” said Helen Syrios, who at the time, was just a concerned Canton woman.

That’s when Syrios made a phone call.

“A lady I became really, really good friends with Gertrude Kennedy, she said, ‘Well, we don’t have anything but the Salvation Army, but I’ll tell you what. Let’s get together for lunch and see what we can do,'” Syrios said.

From that lunch, Helen Syrios, Gertrude Kennedy and Nancy Boylan put in the work, eventually founding The Domestic Violence Project, Inc.

Syrios said they enlisted the help of local organizations to get started and to navigate pushback from community members who did not want a shelter in town.

Well before there was a physical location, the founders housed survivors in their own homes.

“I had someone who found out by my name, which is kind of unusual where I lived, and he came and was gonna shoot me. But my next-door neighbor called the cops and the cops came before. He obviously didn’t shoot me,” Syrios said.

The trio was also politically active and successfully lobbied in Columbus for a marriage license fee increase that still helps fund domestic violence shelters throughout Ohio.

“Gertrude, Nancy and I used to drive down to Columbus often. So often that many of the men down there would kind of shrink down in their desks. They didn’t really want to have anything to do with us, but we kept going,” Syrios said.

These days, marriage license fees only cover about $44,000 of DVPI’s operational costs. That’s why fundraising is such a fundamental piece of their survival.

“Champions of Hope is our largest fundraiser, and that’s coming up on June 8 down at Doubletree in Canton, Ohio,” said Julie Donant, CEO of Domestic Violence Project, Inc.

The upcoming event will give special honors to DVPI’s founders, two of which Gertrude and Nancy have passed on. Proceeds will help keep the shelter’s doors open for another year.

“The building, to keep the lights on. It is the people working in the shelter, answering the 24-hour hotline, taking those crisis calls and working in case management to help someone find a new house and move it forward. It’s standing beside someone while they’re in court testifying,” Donant said.

With rooms in Canton and Massillon, DVPI can house 55 to 60 people at a time. Men, women, and more than half served each year are children.

“We have survivors that walk in the door every day and go,” Donant said. “And we’ll go, ‘What are you thinking?’ And they’re like, ‘I’m safe.'”

Despite state funding cuts in recent years, Donant said the organization continues on, just as their founding mothers did 45 years ago, with no regrets.

“I’m so glad we did it,” Syrios said. “Yeah, it was like a third child for me.”

Fox 8’s Jazmin Bailey will emcee this year’s Champions of Hope gala. Tickets are available, and if you cannot attend, DVPI always accepts donations through its Amazon weekly needs list.