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Safe Berks Announces New COO & Director of Residential Services

By Safe Berks

Jun 02, 2020
Safe Berks

Safe Berks is proud to announce that Mereliss Colon Ortiz has been chosen to serve as Chief Operating Officer (COO), effective June 1, 2020. Colon Ortiz has served the organization since 2006, working all 14 years in the Safe House, providing shelter and services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Since 2017, she has served as Director of Residential Services.

“I am so honored and grateful for this opportunity,” said Colon Ortiz. “I believe that people will always remember the way you made them feel. I am passionate about providing the best service to every client, so they will remember they were listened to, and treated with kindness and respect.”

When Colon Ortiz joined the staff 14 years ago as a Bilingual Counselor/Advocate, Safe Berks was known as Berks Women in Crisis or “BWIC,” and clients were sheltered in a secret location. She has been promoted several times during her tenure, including serving as Drug & Alcohol Counselor, and then Weekend Supervisor in the shelter. In 2012, when Berks Women in Crisis moved to the current building at 255 Chestnut Street in Reading, Colon Ortiz was named Assistant Director of Residential Services. 

“Mereliss Colon Ortiz has a long history with this organization and has grown with us as we transitioned from BWIC to Safe Berks, and from our previous location to our great new facility,” said Beth Garrigan, who has served as COO for the past two years, and will lead Safe Berks as CEO effective June 1. “She is passionate about the work we do and every survivor we serve. She has many new ideas that will help make us even more accessible than we are now, to assure that we can reach even more survivors. Her calm, steady and supportive demeanor makes her a highly effective leader and role model.”

As a survivor of domestic violence herself, Colon Ortiz said she understands the danger and the fear that every client of Safe Berks faces. She said the social distancing and family isolation required to stop the spread of COVID-19 has increased danger to people trapped at home with abusers.

“We must always be ready for that moment when they are able to call our hotline or text us,” she said. “Every day, we provide services that save lives.” 

Colon Ortiz said her short-term goals include continuing to provide 24-hour services despite the challenges of the COVID-19 health crisis. Her long-term goals include increased education to all residents of Berks County about Safe Berks and the free services available.

“Many local people are still not aware that Berks Women in Crisis was renamed Safe Berks in 2016,” she said. “There is still confusion, as some people think Safe Berks is a new agency. We need to make sure all community members understand we are the same agency that has been providing expertise to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault since 1976.”

Another long-term goal is to partner with agencies at other locations who provide education and rehabilitation to abusers. “The abusers are part of this equation,” she said. “Even if we can reach a small percentage of abusers, and make them aware of the damage they cause, and help them change, that will help prevent domestic violence.”

 Colon Ortiz has provided many interviews to the media in both English and Spanish, led trainings for staff and volunteers, mentored staff, and provided leadership to the Photo Voice Project, a therapeutic experience for Latina survivors of violence. A gifted singer and musician, Colon Ortiz has shared her talents with the Safe Berks staff and with the community at events including the Walk For NO MORE.

During the past 14 years, Colon Ortiz has heard many success stories from former Safe Berks clients. Just recently, she was hiking on her day off and a former client recognized her and thanked her. “I feel so proud to be a part of that process of healing,” she said.

New Director of Residential Services Aleida Rodriguez

Safe Berks is proud to announce that Aleida Rodriguez has been chosen to serve as Director of Residential Services, effective June 1, 2020. Rodriguez has served the organization for the past 12 years. From 2008 through 2017, she served survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault as a member of the Legal Department. Since 2017, she has served as the Assistant Director of Residential Services.

“I am honored to be chosen for this position,” said Rodriguez. “I am passionate about advocating for survivors, making sure they have a voice in our community, and that they are treated with compassion and respect.”

Before joining Safe Berks, formerly Berks Women in Crisis, Rodriguez studied criminal justice and served 12 years in the Navy, working as an Air Traffic Controller. Serving in the military helped her develop her strong work ethic and leadership skills, she said.

During her years of service as a Bilingual Legal Advocate, Rodriguez developed positive relationships with professionals in the courthouse, law enforcement, and other government and community agencies. When she transitioned to the Safe House in 2017, she brought her legal expertise and her network of community contacts to her work with residents and their Case Managers. In her new role, she looks forward to continuing to enhance and strengthen these crucial community relationships, which form a foundation to serve survivors.      

“I have always been impressed by Aleida’s dedication and commitment to the mission of Safe Berks, and her passion for assisting our clients in their journey from being victims to becoming survivors of domestic and sexual violence,” said Diane Ellis, Esq., Director of Legal Services. “Aleida possesses that rare combination of compassion, dedication, pragmatism and leadership skills that I am confident will ensure her success as our new Director of Residential Services.”

“Serving in the Safe House, I appreciate the opportunity to work with clients for a longer period of time, up to 30 days,” said Rodriguez. “The Safe House staff meets regularly to brainstorm how we can best assist and serve each resident. Our top priority is to continue to provide 24-hour services during this COVID-19 health crisis; and protect the safety of residents and staff. I look forward to leading this great team. Each member of the team brings their own unique strengths to the Safe House each day, as well as compassion for survivors.”

 Colon Ortiz and Rodriguez were chosen following a search process, and with strong support from the Safe Berks Board of Directors. The agency has begun a search to hire a new Assistant Director of Residential Services to replace Rodriguez.

Angel Helm will continue to serve as Interim CEO through June 1, 2020. Helm arrived at Safe Berks in January 2020, providing leadership after the 15-year tenure of previous CEO, Mary Kay Bernosky, Esq.

Safe Berks served more than 4,000 clients in the last fiscal year. Our Safe House provided a haven to approximately 400 adults and 400 children in the last fiscal year. Safe Berks services are free, confidential, available in English and Spanish, and will be translated into any other language needed. The Safe Berks 24-Hour Hotline number is 844-789-SAFE (7233), or text Safe Berks to 20121. For Legal Services, call 610-373-1206, ext. 107. For requests for Counseling, call 610-373-1206, ext. 606.

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