When Shirley Kathryn Webb was a little girl, the middle sister of an older and a younger brother, she played with the 50 children in the woods of her Southside neighborhood.
“We ran from sunup to sundown,” said Webb.
It was back when University Boulevard was the two-lane Love Grove Road and Beach Boulevard was paved just part of the way east to the Beaches.
“It was a great time for kids to explore, be a little free and develop characteristics to determine what was right and wrong when parents were not there,” she said.
Webb’s characteristics, borne also from her early involvement in the Jacksonville Women’s Movement, took her on a run of more than 40 years to create and lead three of the city’s most significant organizations.
Now 65, Webb was recognized March 31 as the Lifetime Achievement Honoree by Women Business Owners of North Florida. She was a founder and executive director of the Hubbard House domestic-violence shelter, the University of North Florida Women’s Center and, her focus now for 20 years, the Women’s Center of Jacksonville.
“I’m such a behind-the-scenes type person, but I’ve realized that every once in a while it is nice to be recognized and have people say thank you,” she said.
Webb was born to a stay-at-home mother and a father who worked in the commercial tire department at Montgomery Ward. A brother was two years older; another came almost five years later.
She became the first person in her family to not only earn a bachelor’s degree but a master’s as well.
After graduating from Englewood High School in 1968, she attended what was then Florida Junior College, now Florida State College at Jacksonville. She left to work as a dental assistant for five years, and loved it. Then came the women’s movement.
Webb focused on what was then called the “battered woman movement,” taking phone calls at home for the new hotline for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. The problem was, there was nowhere to send them for help. “So we started Hubbard House,” she said.
The facility continues to be an award-winning organization that shelters about 90 victims and their children a day and serves more than 5,000 victims a year.
Webb remembers Hubbard House being the 13th or 14th shelter in the nation when it opened in 1976. For $75 a month, it rented a two-story house with three bedrooms, first furnished with mattresses and then adding bunk beds. “We were winging it,” she said.
Within two months, it was full, sheltering 10 women and 15 children. “It took off like crazy,” she said.
It opened with $2,000, thanks to a couple of donors and other supporters, and then was accepted into the United Way of Northeast Florida.
In December 1975, she married Dr. Wayne Wood, and they remained married for 21 years. They have two adult children –– Grady, a financial executive, and Sarah, a pediatrician — and four young grandchildren, who all live in North Carolina.
When Grady was born in 1978, Webb couldn’t continue working 18-hour days, sometimes longer when her responsibilities kept her overnight at Hubbard House. By then, the shelter outgrew the house and was moved.
She left to complete her associate degree at FJC and transferred to the University of North Florida. She gave birth to Sarah in 1981.
At the time, UNF offered only upper-division courses. Webb was elected vice president of the student government, which also was the position of president of the student senate. She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and then entered graduate school.
In 1986, she was instrumental in creating the UNF Women’s Center with $5,000 in startup funds from the student government. “We focused on some of the areas that were obvious to women,” she said, such as campus safety, education and emergency loans for books.
Her “teeny, tiny office” served women and men on the campus, expanding over time. Webb served as the volunteer director and then was hired as the paid director. She left in 1995 after completing her master’s degree in mental health counseling in 1994.
As a licensed mental health counselor, she was asked by Jacksonville therapist Banta Whitner what she wanted to do next. Her answer: Create a Jacksonville women’s center. Whitner’s response: “Me, too.”
“We provided a lot of referrals to community services at the UNF Women’s Center, so I knew what was out there,” Webb said.
Webb launched the Jacksonville Women’s Center from a house in Riverside. “We didn’t have a women’s center. We had a women’s room,” she said.
Eventually, it occupied the entire house and by 2001-02 moved to its current location at 5644 Colcord Ave. in Arlington. The center rented those offices for a few years. Webb soon launched a $1.5 million capital campaign to buy and renovate the structure.
“It was difficult for us because we were such a young agency,” she said. Yet with her experience, it was a well-thought-out venture. It bought the offices in 2004 from Gateway Community Services.
Today, she has 30 employees — including one man — and leads an organization with eight primary support, counseling and educational services and programs, including the Bosom Buddies support group for breast-cancer survivors.
Since Oct. 1, it assumed the responsibility through its Rape Recovery Team to provide sexual assault forensic medical exams for survivors age 18 and older, a service previously provided by the City of Jacksonville.
The team also provides 24/7 advocacy, a hotline and a prevention education program to survivors age 12 and older of sexual violence. A specialized program focuses on violence against elders.
It’s a big year for Webb, her staff, volunteers, board and supporters as they celebrate the center’s 20th anniversary. See womenscenterofjax.org for a list of events.
To mark the legacy year, the Delores Barr Weaver Fund will match donations dollar for dollar. Webb said Weaver, “God love her,” issued the challenge grant of $500,000 in November and gave the center four years to reach it.
Webb reflects on those calls she took on that first hotline. It was tough. “When you hear somebody who is terrified out of their mind because of the danger they are in, it is pretty traumatizing,” she said.
“But when you could help them, boy did you feel good.”