Written by Anne Schafer
Date: January 18th, 2022
My First Twenty Years…
I completed my Civil Mediation Training in November of 2001. I had been volunteering both as a CASA and with the Victim-Witness Assistance Program at Juvenile Court for several years and was feeling the need for some new challenges. Once I learned about The Mediation Center and took the initial training (conducted by Wendy Williamson), I truly felt that I had found my new “home”. Wendy’s passion for mediation and incredible sense of humor led to an immediate friendship that continues to this day. During my twenty years, it has been both my honor and my pleasure to work with three extraordinarily talented Executive Directors: Connie Ward, Wendy Williamson, and Jill Cheeks.
When I first joined The Center, it was located in downtown Savannah at the corner of Charlton and Drayton. There were two conference rooms and generally only one mediation at any given time. There were two employees and one intern, who always had rolls of quarters and went around the neighborhood feeding the parking meters for the mediators and those participating in the mediations.
My first case involved a gentleman who lived in the historic district and owned a rooster. In the eyes of many neighbors the rooster had become a neighborhood nuisance, with early morning wake up calls that were not appreciated. I did not settle the case, but was quite surprised to turn on CNN the following week-end and see the gentleman and several neighbors being interviewed for the Saturday morning news. I then moved on to the man whose neighbor’s cat kept sleeping on the hood of his car and had scratched his car, but the final straw was when I walked in and Connie Ward told me that “today you have a case involving the dog which ate the horse”. I begged for some cases with a more human focus and moved on to debt collection, contractor disputes, and personal injury.
After a couple of years, The Center moved to the Executive Court Building, where it is still located today. We were at the other end of the building, had three and a half conference rooms and a parking lot with free parking!
When I first joined The Center, there were very few female mediators. While most attorneys were accepting and wonderful to work with, there was a definite learning curve for some. When I took my Domestic Mediation Training in 2004, I knew that I had found my niche. Even then, I was one of only two women in an eleven-person class. The other became a Recorder’s Court Judge soon after completing the training.
When Connie Ward decided to leave The Center to take another job, I was sorry to see her go, but thrilled to learn that Wendy Williamson had agreed to take her position. Beyond Wendy’s passion for mediation, she is one of the most creative and visionary people with whom I have ever worked. Under her leadership, and with her vision, The Center expanded to the much larger space at the other end of the building, including the training room, where both The Family Law Resource Center and the Transitional Parenting Classes were initiated. She was also instrumental in adding more women to the volunteer roster.
With Wendy’s encouragement, I joined the Board of Directors at The Mediation Center and remained on the Board for ten years. I think that we were often pushing the Board with new ideas and into new directions, where they were not certain we needed to go. At one meeting, a completely exasperated fellow board member accused us of being the “Thelma and Louise of The Mediation Center”. While the comment was most assuredly not meant as a compliment, Wendy and I have spent years enjoying the ride and having continuing conversations about which of us is Thelma and which is Louise.
When Wendy made the difficult decision to leave The Center so that she could devote more of her time and energies to her family, she asked me to be a part of the search committee for her successor. We had many well-qualified candidates apply, but were all unanimous in our decision to hire Jill Cheeks. Under Jill’s leadership we have survived a tornado, multiple hurricanes, and a pandemic, each time pivoting and becoming stronger. She has led The Center into multiple community outreach programs and has expanded The Center’s footprint far beyond the Savannah area. With Zoom mediation, we have added some fascinating and wonderful mediators from all over the state and have developed partnerships with the schools of law at both UGA and Mercer.
In closing, I would like to say that I enjoy mediating as much today as I did when I first joined The Center twenty years ago. Every day is truly a new adventure. While fact patterns may be similar, the human element makes each case unique in its own right. Hearing people’s stories and helping them during what is oftentimes one of the lowest periods of their lives is truly rewarding. Initially, I was very dubious about mediating on Zoom, but once it became clear that the pandemic would be a fact of our lives for the foreseeable future, I decided to give it a try. Zoom has allowed mediations to continue and The Center to broaden its reach. Yet I must admit that I do miss having direct human contact and the camaraderie of being there and sharing “war stories” with my fellow mediators. It is my sincere hope that someday in the not-so-distant future we will be able to conduct at least some mediations in person.
And now it’s on to my next twenty years…