On the morning of Jan. 16, 2015 the staff at Sexual Assault Support Services (SASS) had a special visitor, Ramona Charland. Ms. Charland was a founding member of the Women’s Resource Center of Portsmouth in 1975. The groundbreaking organization sowed the seeds for what was to grow into what we know today as SASS.
Ms. Charland was born at The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. She lived in New Hampshire with her family for a short time and like most military families of the day picked up and moved a bit. Just before Ramona was due to begin High School, her brother fell ill. The military moved her family back to New Hampshire so her brother could receive medical care.
She attended Portsmouth High School where she sat in an alphabetically ordered row, across from her future prom date and husband, Mark Brighton. She graduated from Portsmouth High School, then the University of New Hampshire, and went on to pursue a master’s degree in psychology. She was volunteering for the Portsmouth YWCA when began to see a need for women in the community who had been out of the workforce and through divorce and separation now found themselves as displaced homemakers with families to support and no community resources. This is where the women’s resource center was born.
They were originally housed on the second floor of a horse barn on Merrimack Street in Portsmouth. In 1975
Ramona went to defend her application to the New Hampshire Charitable Trust for seed money for the Women’s Resource Center. Her application had been met with skepticism as other women’s help centers in the state of New Hampshire had not had great success.
Ramona had already set up programs, had get-togethers with other women in the community and she knew this would not be a fly-by-night operation. The organization had been growing through word of mouth, newspaper articles and person-to-person referrals. She refused to leave without the support of the New Hampshire Charitable Trust. Her steely resolve would be to the benefit of the Portsmouth community, she got the funding.
One early test of Ramona’s resolve was her participation in a class action suit giving the power of free agency for women in banking, finance and loans in New Hampshire. She had been engaged to be married to Mark and went to a local department store to change her credit card name to read: “Mrs. Ramona Charland” from “Miss Ramona Charland.” The finance manager refused her request and told her when she married her line of credit would be canceled and she would be issued a new card under her husband’s name and he would be the primary account holder. This was unacceptable discrimination and Ramona spent two years in litigation before emerging victorious. She also postponed her wedding until the case was resolved.
More and more women started coming to talk to Ramona and the two volunteers at the Resource Center and the theme of common consent came up repeatedly. A woman could not claim rape within the bounds of marriage. Legally, rape didn’t really exist. “I knew I was on the cusp of something and I was in it,” she said.
She and her husband protested together for women’s health rights.
In 1977 Ramona hired Liz Day,” a tall, striking white haired woman who walked aggressively leaning forward.” The metamorphosis of the Women’s Resource Center into SASS had began. SASS incorporated in 1979.
“Liz was a very strong advocate and persistent force in getting the Portsmouth Police force to use SASS’s services for victims,” Ramona said. “We didn’t have anyplace to go when I was young and we couldn’t tell our mothers. Women needed somewhere to go and someone to talk to.”
When Liz came on board she began analyzing where the greatest need existed and sexual assault support services rose to the top.
After leaving the Women’s Resource Center Ramona went on to work in respite services for Mental Health Services of New Hampshire, creating programs of support for parents of children with mental illnesses and mentors for these children. She and her husband protested together for women’s health rights. Currently Ramona is a home provider for Easter Seals.
Ramona told the SASS staff that she is extremely happy to see the growth of the agency and the excellent relationships the organization has with local police departments.
“The improvements in this community are because we have homegrown organizations like SASS,” she said. “When I hear about the work you do it’s all positive. People say to me thank God they’re there.”