Michele Snodderley needed help in the worst kind of way.
Snodderley was 21 years old when ongoing physical abuse by her partner left her no choice. She needed to escape immediately. Snodderley’s parents drove from Arizona to Missouri to pick up her and her son.
“I was very lucky because I had family and friends who were there for me,” she says. “That is the only reason I was able to finally get out of that relationship. I can’t imagine going through all that and trying to heal and put your life back together after that without having that support.”
She decided then that she wanted to pursue a career where she could help people in similar situations. The Lee’s Summit, Missouri, native has realized that goal, and she credits her education from Columbia College as a key factor in reaching it.
Utilizing knowledge she gained from her master’s degree in Criminal Justice from the Online Program, Snodderley ’13 was recently named executive director at True North of Columbia, a nonprofit organization that supports victims of domestic and sexual violence.
“This was my dream job,” she says. “I want people to know that just because you went through domestic violence, it doesn’t have to define you for the rest of your life.”
‘Why didn’t she just leave?’
Snodderley recalls being three months pregnant when her partner strangled her to the extent that she passed out and temporarily lost consciousness.
She remembers the overwhelming shame she felt in the midst of sharp pain.
“Having a child in a relationship where I was not married, I already felt like I had disappointed my family, even though they never made me feel that way,” she says. “To have to go to them and say these things are happening to me, I can remember having bruises and covering them up. I had a black eye and said, ‘Oh, my son got me with a toy.’ I would make up excuses just to hide what was really happening.”
She says the abuse began as verbal and emotional before it turned violent. By the time it was physical, she felt trapped.
“A lot of times you hear, ‘Why didn’t she just leave?’ I would walk out of therapy sessions because they would ask that,” she says. “My thing was, ‘Why didn’t he stop?’ I think that people don’t understand the abuse often starts well before that on your emotions and self-confidence.”
Fear of what would happen to her son Saige is part of what motivated Snodderley to try and stick it out — hoping that somehow, some way, someday, the abuse would end.
Saige is now 23, older than his mother was when she fled for them to have a safer future.
‘I wanted to help’
After retaking control of her life, Snodderley began as a nursing major at Tulsa Community College in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She figured becoming a nurse was her outlet to help people in need.
She was participating in clinicals as part of that nursing program when she cared for a mom who had twins and was leaving an abusive relationship.
“After she was discharged from the hospital, I really wanted to know what happened,” Snodderley says. “I wanted to help her more.”
That desire prompted Snodderley to change gears from nursing. She earned an associate degree in Psychology before pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Family Studies and Gerontology at Southern Nazarene University in Tulsa. While finishing her bachelor’s, she completed practicums in child development and worked at a shelter for children who were victims of abuse.
Snodderley soon moved to Iowa and worked as a domestic violence advocate. In the process, she began to find healing within herself from her own past trauma.
Eventually, she decided to take a big step in continuing her education, this time at Columbia College.
‘Understand the law’
Snodderley identified one primary reason for pursuing a master’s degree in Criminal Justice.
“I wanted to understand the law,” she says, “so I could understand how to best help the individuals I was working with.”
She researched criminal justice programs in her native state and was drawn to Columbia College. She enrolled in the Online Program and spent two years receiving a virtual education.
“(The program) was amazing,” she says. “The professors I had challenged me. We would have in-depth conversations and were able to look at things a little bit differently.”
Snodderley focused her studies on the impact of domestic violence on children birth through age 5.
“A lot of that had to do with my son,” she says. “Back then, people said children aren’t impacted because they’re too young to remember anything. Now research shows that it’s that age group that is most impacted by it later on in life.”
Lessons at Columbia College prepared her for her current leadership position, she says.
“Without Columbia College, I probably would have only had a very surface viewpoint of things, but because I was challenged by the education I got here, it helped open my eyes,” she says.
Leap of faith
Moving back to Missouri — and eventually coming to Columbia — after completing her master’s, Snodderley became aware of True North while working for the Boone County Prosecutor’s Office, where she was a crime victim specialist.
She was encouraged by the existence of a community resource such as True North.
“Those kinds of services just used to be non-existent,” she says.
When the True North directorship came open last year, she had to do a lot of soul-searching to determine whether she would be ready for its demands.
“When you go through something like (domestic violence), you don’t ever get over it,” she says. “You learn how to work through the feelings that you’re having. I live a very healthy life now, but I had to be aware that there might be triggers. Was I strong enough to be able to work through those triggers and ask for help and have a plan myself? I had to work through my own insecurities.”
Her husband of five years, Larry, proved to be a gentle guide throughout that process.
They met as teenagers before reconnecting more than 20 years later after each experiencing traumatic events. Larry served in the military and was deployed to Iraq in 2005.
“We both had our own trauma that we’ve had to work through, and for us, having somebody there who understands kind of where the other person is and how to work through that is important,” she says. “We knew each other as kids before any of those things happened. It reminds us who we are.”
She decided to take a leap of faith and accept the position at True North when it was offered.
“I am glad I did,” she says. “You can go through something horrible in your life and you can overcome it; there are the supports. True North is that place for people so they’re not alone.”
Snodderley, who started her new role in November, has already developed a list of top priorities for True North as she leads a staff of more than 30 employees.
The organization seeks to obtain and renovate an expanded advocacy center in Columbia.
“We have a great staff, but we need more staff,” she says. “There are always unmet needs at the end of the year because we didn’t have the staff to provide the services. That does not mean that we couldn’t hire staff; we just don’t have a place to put them. We are busting at the seams where we’re at. There’s not an office to bring in another counselor or case manager because we don’t have the room.”
Another priority is the creation of a strangulation protocol in Boone County. The protocol would be made in conjunction with law enforcement and EMS to increase education about strangulation and provide imaging to victims without a cost.
Oftentimes, even in cases of death, there are no external signs of strangulation. When an individual is in a relationship where strangulation has occurred, the likelihood of homicide increases by 750%, according to the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention.
“That protocol is pretty near and dear to my heart,” Snodderley says.
Snodderley also plans to develop a Domestic Violence Fatality and Near Fatality Review Board to examine the cause of death or injury in domestic violence situations. Members of the board would discuss what preventions could be put in place and where additional education is necessary.
True North facilitates a 24/7 hotline at 1-800-548-2480 and runs an emergency shelter in addition to offering education, counseling and support groups.
Students interested in working at True North can pursue volunteer opportunities or an internship. Interested individuals may contact Brian Grove, volunteer and training coordinator, at BrianG@truenorthofcolumbia.org.
“Domestic violence can happen to anybody,” Snodderley says. “It doesn’t matter your race, it doesn’t matter your sex, it doesn’t matter your age. You’re not alone. You can always reach out for help.”