Making the Case for Battered Women 11

Vivian Clecak ignited a movement in her 35-year tenure at Human Options

Vivian Clecak was born to take on the founding CEO role at Human Options when she helped launch the nonprofit in 1981. Ironically, by her own admission, she says she has never been a battered woman and all her life has only known gentle men.

“But, I come from a family marked by sadness,” she says. “My dad was an invalid, our family was poor and my mom took care of all of us.”

From her earliest memory, Clecak remembers good people helping her family–social workers, physical therapists and volunteers with groups like Disabled American Veterans and the Multiple Scherosis Society.

“My mother was very alone except for those wonderful helpers,” she says. “And, I knew from the age of 10 that I wanted to be a helper; I wanted to make a difference.”

By age 12, Clecak began volunteering at a home for children with asthma, and all through high school and college, she volunteered and was active in civil rights, and the antiwar and women’s movements.

“I yearned to help change the world,” she says.

After graduating from Stanford University with honors as a history major, Clecak received her Masters in Social Work at UCLA, but she didn’t stop there. Within seven years, she was a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Marriage and Family Therapist. The committed “helper” was definitely ready to help others.

By 1979, Clecak was running a mental health clinic and studying and trying to understand client’s problems, when she and two other women were impacted by the appalling reality of domestic violence.

“I could not get over the image of a home based in fear–a place where women and their children should feel safe but were most afraid.”

That is when domestic violence became Clecak’s passion.

Human Options was founded in October, 1981, in Laguna Beach by Carolyn Churm, Margaret Thoreau, Anne Wright and Clecak by creating a domestic violence emergency hotline. Using the trunk of her car as her office, Clecak committed to raising funds to develop a shelter, and by 1982, Human Options’ opened an emergency shelter for abused women and their children.

The successes kept coming. By 1993, the nonprofit’s Second Step 16-unit transitional housing program opened in Costa Mesa with a $1.3 million HUD grant to make it Orange County’s first transitional housing program. In 1994, Clecak brought together a unique private-public coalition to complete a $4 million capital campaign to build a new emergency shelter and double the program capacity. The Emergency Shelter and Family Healing Center opened in 1996 with support from HomeAid Orange County and the Irvine Company, replacing the Laguna Beach facility.

In 1997, Human Options’ opened its Community Resource Walk-In Center in Costa Mesa–later renamed the Center for Children and Families. And, in 1998, the original shelter playhouse was built with funds raised at the wedding of Clecak and John Pricz, who made their 1998 wedding a fundraiser for the playhouse. A second playhouse was built in 2013 with financial help from Human Options’ Sisterhood support group and PIMCO.

Seniors were not overlooked, as Safe Options for Seniors launched in 2000, and in 2004, the Men’s Task Force (now called Men in Motion) was formed with the “100 Men, 1 Voice, 1 Campaign,” which has raised nearly $500,000 to date. In 2008, the Third Step affordable housing project opened on the site of the former Tustin Marine Base.

To say that Human Options and its nurturer have made an impact is an understatement. Clecak is a recognized expert on domestic violence and has made nationally televised appearances on Good Morning America and The Today Show. She has also been recognized with awards, too numerous to mention, but among them, the 2014 Ernst & Young Orange County Entrepreneur of the Year (the first-ever for the nonprofit sector), the 2012 Judith Swayne Leadership Award from the Orange County Community Foundation, and the 2009 Excellence in Leadership Award from the California Association of Nonprofits. Clecak was also honored as a 1999-2000 Frances Hesselbein Community Innovation Fellow, a national award given by the Peter Drucker Foundation to nonprofit leaders.

The awards are not the point to Clecak, as much as the fact that since its founding, Human Options has served more than 28,700 individuals in direct services, responded to 55,100 hotline calls and reached more than 294,000 individuals through its community education program. And, perhaps, even more important to her, is the fact that four independent research studies verify that 90% of clients remain violence-free one year or more after graduating from Human Options’ residential programs.

Today, Human Options offers four major programs: Emergency Shelter and 24-hour Crisis Hotline, Second and Third Step Transitional Housing, community-based Center for Children and Families, and Community Education.

“Our programs are responding to community needs,” Clecak says. “We are doing more work with teenagers and more education of doctors, nurses and criminal justice professionals.”

She talks about the Human Options’ partnership with Kaiser and Hoag, where the nonprofit trains staff on how to create the opportunity for a woman to share the story she is afraid to share.

Clecak is excited to be changing the culture in other areas.

“We work with leaders, like football coaches,” she says, “who we encourage to build character with their players, not just train athletes.”

Clecak made a decision to retire last year, much to the surprise of many in the community.

“It was important for me to retire while I was still vibrant to make room for new leaders and to use my energy to serve nonprofits in other ways,” she says.

After a diligent national search for her replacement, Clecak shares that Maricela Rios-Faust, who had been the nonprofit’s COO for 9 ½ years, was chosen.

“Marciela was the best choice.” Clecak says, “Under her leadership we have a wonderful new generation of staff and board members, who are deeply committed to the cause.”

Retired since January 30, 2016, Clecak is continuing to bring her strengths as a therapist and CEO to her nine-year-old coaching practice for nonprofit leaders.

Clecak admits she is reinventing herself.

“I went to my first meditation class, and everyone who knows me knows I’m hyper, so it’s a big deal.”

She is also allowing some space for walking, reading and connecting with people she loves.

“I’ve been fortunate to be able to give and receive love from my wonderful family,” she says.

Family includes daughters from her first marriage–Aimee Miller and Lisa Romessor–and their families, and from her marriage to Pricz, her step-son, Dave Pricz. Clecak is also the proud grandmother of five. She lost her beloved husband two years ago.

The dynamo will be celebrated and presented the Dove Award at Human Options’ Serious Fun Gala on May 14. But, what makes this trailblazer happy is the fact that past board presidents are purchasing tickets for graduates to attend.

“It makes my heart smile,” she concludes.