Kirstie Mouncey, a therapist at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, was all too familiar with the agony of turning down a request for help.
While the center has always provided immediate, free therapy for those raped or sexually assaulted within the past 30 days, the nonprofit once maintained a three- to six-month waiting list for victims of older crimes.
When Mouncey told callers no one could see them right away, she struggled to answer the question they always asked: “What am I supposed to do?” Many, she knew, didn’t have the money or health insurance to pay for therapy anywhere else.
But last year, the center completely eliminated that waiting list. It used federal and state economic-stimulus funds to hire a full-time worker to handle victims’ calls and four temporary therapists to deal with the backlog.
Mouncey credits the board of directors, led by president Pete DeMarco, for the feat.
“Taking on the funding, that was a huge undertaking for the agency,” explains Mouncey, now the center’s vice president of client and clinical services. “And increasing our operating budget on a temporary basis was a really gutsy thing to do.”
After such an accomplishment, it’s surprising to hear DeMarco, a vice president and partner at Cleveland accounting firm Meaden & Moore, say he couldn’t understand why he was invited to join the center’s board five years ago.
“My first reaction was, ‘Really? Why would you want a man on the board of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center?’ ” says DeMarco, 59.
At the time, the only thing DeMarco knew about the center was that it maintained a hot line. But the female colleague who recruited him delivered a line that caught his attention: “Rape just isn’t a woman’s issue; it’s a societal issue.”
Now, after five years on the board, the last 2 1/2 as its president, DeMarco speaks eloquently on the topic.
He rattles off frightening statistics in the same soft, calm voice he might use to discuss the percentage of clients who request tax-filing extensions. One in every six women will be raped or sexually assaulted at some point in her life. Eighty percent of all incidents go unreported, either because the victim fears that the assailant will retaliate or that no one will believe her or, worse yet, that they’ll think she’s somehow responsible for the attack. Some victims, he adds, are male.
Megan O’Bryan, the center’s president and CEO, says the well-connected DeMarco goes far beyond filling the board-member role of governing, fundraising and planning for the future.
He does everything from getting friends and colleagues involved with the center to speaking at center events to writing letters to newspaper editors.
“Pete is very unafraid to promote this issue in his personal and business circles,” O’Bryan says. “He stands up and says that men need to be involved in preventing sexual violence. It takes a lot of courage to speak out about an issue surrounded by a fair amount of silence and stigma.”
That courage developed during a difficult childhood.
DeMarco’s mother died when he was a baby; his father, a factory worker, had a hard time caring for his four children alone. DeMarco and his siblings were shuttled among relatives, foster homes and an orphanage.
Although DeMarco’s father eventually remarried and reunited the family, DeMarco continued to crave stability and security. He worked his way through Cleveland State University, where he studied accounting, figuring job prospects in the field were pretty good. The lack of financial assistance from his family only intensified his drive to succeed.
⊲ Rape is a very, very strong word. When I first joined the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center board, there’s no way I went out and talked about it the way I can talk about it today.
⊲ Most men don’t understand that rape isn’t about sex. It’s about power and authority, whether the victim is male or female. And they don’t understand how it can ruin victims’ lives.
⊲ I did know someone who was fairly close who was sexually assaulted. It happened to her at a rather young age. Until you asked the question, I never thought of that connection, if I personally knew anybody.
⊲ You can’t run an organization and address women and their development with old thoughts and ideas. Our firm wouldn’t survive. We wouldn’t have been able to find enough men to come into the firm.
⊲ We’ve got three or four men who work at the center and do outreach things. Dan Clark, a retired police chief from Lakewood, has been instrumental in educating law enforcement about how to investigate a rape, what their reaction should be when a rape is reported.
⊲ My clients live and die by how much tax they owe or don’t owe. That isn’t life or death.
⊲ Part of what the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center is trying to do is speak out about rape and sexual assault, not keep it a taboo. People need to talk about it.
“I couldn’t fail,” he explains. “I had to be responsible.”
But it didn’t harden him. Instead, it forged a compassion for others.
“I wanted to share my success,” he says. “I know how hard it is to sometimes make a go of things.”
DeMarco became an advocate for Meaden & Moore’s female employees. Soon after becoming tax-department director, he hired Karen McCarthy, a young college grad who’s now a vice president directing Meaden & Moore’s individual and fiduciary tax practice.
Impressed with her enthusiasm and attention to detail during tax season, he quickly promoted her from her entry-level position in the audit department, making her one of the first professional women in the firm’s tax department.
After McCarthy left the firm for a time to raise her first child, DeMarco made arrangements for her to prepare tax returns at home, something she says was unheard of in certified public accounting firms in the early 1990s. The arrangement became the prototype for Meaden & Moore’s Alternative Career Path flexible-scheduling program.
McCarthy remembers DeMarco encouraging her to return to the firm after her second child was born. McCarthy felt overwhelmed by the responsibilities of motherhood, but DeMarco, by then a married father of two, gently reassured her that she’d find a routine and be ready to work part time within months.
“To have a man say something like that to you, it’s incredible,” she says.
Perhaps it was DeMarco’s reputation as a champion for women that prompted one of the firm’s marketing consultants to stop by his office in 2006 and ask if he’d join her on the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center’s board of directors.
Her request came after DeMarco had taken a year off from his work with the American Cancer Society and Lake County YMCA. He was looking for a new opportunity to serve.
“I went into it saying, ‘Well, why not? I’ll see how it goes,’ ” he remembers. It wasn’t long before, at a board meeting, he listened to two victims speak about being assaulted. “That literally brought me to tears, the courage and strength it took to come forward and talk about it.”
DeMarco is modest about his contributions to the center. “I am not a one-man show,” he insists. But O’Bryan is quick to enumerate the strides made under his leadership.
The center celebrated its 35th anniversary with a campaign that raised close to $1 million. The money helped fund the center’s 2009 move from a cramped space in the Standard Building to an inviting, spacious suite in the Leader Building.
It also expanded its programming with offerings such as Men of Strength, a school outreach initiative that educates boys about the traits of a good male role model.
Last year’s Sing Out for the Rape Crisis Center, a concert given by a 100-person choir of local media personalities, politicians, and business and community leaders, raised $325,000, making it the most successful center fundraiser to date.
DeMarco says he gets great satisfaction from his work on the center’s behalf.
“I have heard victims talk about how they couldn’t even go out of their houses, how the center has helped them get their lives back,” he says. Listening to them talk about their struggles and triumphs has in turn helped him put his own workday concerns about meeting deadlines and client expectations into perspective.
“That has been a transformation for me,” DeMarco says.