[Noozhawk note: One in a series of articles highlighting Santa Barbara’s Man and Woman of the Year awards. This year's nomination period is now open.]
Toni Wellen has a soft voice, but in the world of gun violence prevention, she is a very large presence.
She has been opposed to violence of any kind since high school. She earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology and became a marriage and family counselor, helping people deal with personal crises using her specialization — hypnosis.
In 1994, she attended a symposium titled “Cease Fire” with her longtime friend, Ilene Pritikin. She learned that the 30,000 Americans dying yearly because of gun violence is a public health crisis. Her anti-violence philosophy suddenly had a concrete goal. Wellen and Pritikin were determined to establish an organization dedicated to reducing gun violence and protecting children from firearm accidents in the home.
They founded Women Against Gun Violence, and the first meeting was held in 1994. By 1999, 32 local nonprofits joined as partner organizations, endorsing WAGV’s efforts to curb violence, and the name was changed to the Coalition Against Gun Violence. The coalition remains the only gun violence prevention organization on the Central Coast.
Wellen dedicated CAGV to creating a balance between gun owner rights and a practical approach to responsible gun ownership, focusing on safety. She is currently advocating for mentally unstable people to receive help.
Pritikin encouraged her to write the organization’s newsletter and mentored her to become a spokeswoman for CAGV’s town hall forums and presentations. Wellen spent hours educating herself about the history and culture of gun violence, plus relevant legislation.
Her husband, Larry, always supportive of her efforts, prophetically stated: “Toni, this is not a sprint; it is going to be a marathon.”
In 2009, Pritikin passed away and Wellen took on sole leadership of CAGV. She began to devote more time to CAGV than to her therapy practice. She explains that each one of us is affected by gun violence: apart from the bloodshed and heartbreak, there is the cost of law enforcement, emergency rooms, paramedics, mental health counselors, courts and prisons. All of this costs more than $100 billion a year.
Wellen spends most of her time speaking, writing and raising public awareness about the tragedy that kills 87 Americans by firearms daily — eight of them children. She says that being a volunteer activist has expanded her universe, allowing her to meet a wide variety of people. Giving back to the community through gun violence prevention has been her calling. She knows many people whose lives have been forever negatively affected by gun violence, many of them parents.
Profoundly affected, Wellen says “their stories reach into your soul, and I feel that if I give up, I give up on them.”
Local leaders describe Wellen as tenacious and persistent — a label she wears with pride. She and the CAGV organize an annual fundraising luncheon, which includes their traditional Bell Ceremony, first originated by Mary Leigh Blek, whose son died at age 21 from gun violence. The concept was sparked by the last five lines of John Donne’s poem “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
For this year’s CAGV annual luncheon, the bell tolled in memory of the seven killed in the 2006 Goleta Post Office shooting and the 26 who lost their lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., in 2012. Members of the audience who have lost family or friends to gun violence are also invited to participate by naming their lost loved ones as they toll the bell. This is always a profound moment.
Wellen says most people are upset and concerned when a mass shooting occurs, but usually feel powerless to do anything. She believes they have more power than they realize. They can join organizations working to reduce gun violence, and can vote to strengthen the social fabric that supports everyone. Data show that states with the strongest gun laws have fewer firearm deaths.
Wellen is the first to acknowledge there are no easy answers to the problem of gun violence. She continues to organize educational events. This year, CAGV held the first-ever Gun Buy Back on the Central Coast, garnering 239 firearms. She is also planning a public forum on Sept. 28 that will include a documentary film and a panel discussion focused on the consequences of violence in the media.
Her fight against gun violence is a daily effort, and she fervently hopes that the bell will toll for fewer people in the future. Meanwhile, the marathon continues.
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Volunteers enrich all our lives.
Do you know a volunteer who has made a significant impact on the Santa Barbara community? You can nominate that person to be the next man or woman of the year! Just fill out a simple nomination form online by clicking here. Nominations are open until Aug. 26. The awards are sponsored by the Santa Barbara Foundation and Noozhawk.
— Suzanne Farwell represents the Santa Barbara Foundation.