Making Beautiful Music for a Good Cause

Sistercare's Song Bird Cafe

(L to R) Felicia Billie, volunteer and domestic violence survivor, and Nancy Barton, executive director of Sistercare, work to help women escape abusive relationships. (Painting in background, Jessie with Bluebirds, is by artist Suzy Scarborough)

The contrast between the horror of domestic violence and the beauty of great music is obvious. But these two seemingly disparate concepts come together through the work of Sistercare and the Song Bird Café, one of the non-profit’s signature fundraising events.

Song Bird Café is modeled after Nashville’s Bluebird Café, which showcases talented singer/songwriters, but has the added goal of raising awareness of Sistercare’s work to prevent domestic abuse and support its victims in Richland, Lexington, Kershaw, Newberry and Fairfield counties.

Nancy Barton, executive director of Sistercare, credits two Columbia businessmen with getting the event off the ground a decade ago: Jimmy Stevenson and Ricky Wright. Jimmy co-owns a number of venues in town, including Southern Way Catering and Leaside. Ricky owns Hampton Hill Athletic Club with Anne, his wife, and is closely connected to the music business, having toured with Hootie and the Blowfish for more than 10 years.

“In planning for that first event, we asked ourselves if we could hold a musical event that was smaller and more intimate than what people were used to. We’d fashion it after Nashville’s Bluebird Café using songwriters to tell their story,” Nancy says.

Jimmy and Ricky made it happen then and continue to do so 10 years later. Jimmy offers his venues as locations for the events, and Ricky’s connections to the music community have been key to securing high-profile singers and songwriters to perform, including Darius Rucker, Mark Bryan, Jim “Soni” Sonefeld, Edwin McCain and Tift Merrit.

“People really look forward to it,” Ricky says. “The event now really stands on its reputation. People don’t care who’s playing. They just know they will have a great evening of great music.”

The 2012 Song Bird Café, scheduled for Oct. 4 at Leaside, will be the event’s 10th anniversary and will feature special guests Radney Foster and Jesse Lee. “Radney is one of the most respected songwriters in Nashville,” Ricky says. “He’s a phenomenal singer and songwriter who has written for Keith Urban, the Dixie Chicks and other well-known artists.” Ricky describes Jesse, at age 20, as an “up and coming singer and songwriter.” She has opened for artists such as Ronnie Milsap, Willie Nelson, Keith Urban and Clay Walker.

Gary Cannon, an aspiring guitar player, has attended the Song Bird Café event for several years. “The small venue creates a sense of comfort and closeness to the performers. I liken it to having someone perform in your living room. Also, the quality of performers is outstanding. To see them up close and personal like this would otherwise require me to go to Nashville,” he says.

In order to keep the crowd smaller and more intimate, ticket prices are in the mid- to upper-range. “We do really well by using volunteers and musicians who perform to help the cause, keeping our expenses low,” Nancy says.

Beyond the intimacy and quality of the event, however, is the real reason for the gathering … bringing awareness of the important cause Sistercare supports. Ricky says that is why he stays involved. “I realize how much we are impacting domestic violence in South Carolina. It gives me a real feeling of commitment and obligation to know I’m really making an impact.”


Sistercare was founded in 1981 as a partnership between the Junior League of Columbia and the Columbia Young Women’s Christian Association to increase public awareness of domestic violence, research the scope of the problem in the community and offer support services and safety for battered women and their children. In July 1981, funding from the Junior League of Columbia, the South Carolina Department of Social Services, United Way of the Midlands and contributions from local churches, civic organizations and individuals gave Sistercare its start. In October 1981, Sistercare opened an emergency shelter in a house rented from the Columbia Housing Authority. In June 1982, it became a United Way member agency.

In the ensuing years, Sistercare has expanded into Fairfield, Newberry and Kershaw counties, providing increased availability of counseling and shelters. The average cost per day for Sistercare to provide shelter for one woman is $57, and the average length of a stay is 31 days.
“We will see more than 8,500 women and children in a given year,” Nancy says. “Most of them are served outside of our shelters through community based services and assistance in family and criminal court.”

Typically, criminal domestic violence cases are heard at the municipal and magistrate court level, and that’s where Sistercare provides support and advocacy. “We provide case management and crisis intervention in local communities so that women don’t have to travel to Columbia for these services,” Nancy says.

Sistercare provides more than 20 staff-led support groups for battered women and their children. The organization also uses volunteers to help with community outreach and awareness, speaking engagements, education and events. One of these volunteers is Felicia Billie.

Just two weeks after moving to Columbia from Connecticut in 2000, Felicia’s marriage turned abusive. “I stayed two and a half more years because I didn’t have resources and didn’t want the marriage to end. I didn’t understand what domestic violence was,” she says.

After the incident that Felicia describes as “the big attack,” she ended up in the hospital, where she first learned about Sistercare. “Because I didn’t have anywhere else to go, I went to the shelter until I found an apartment through another of Sistercare’s programs. They helped with my rent until I was able to carry on myself,” she says.

While Felicia was in the housing program, she also became a Sistercare employee and volunteer. “The biggest thing I did was speaking engagements – going into different communities to speak about my story.”

Despite leaving her abusive husband in June 2002, her divorce wasn’t finalized until December 2011. And because of the children involved, Felicia had to maintain contact with him. She says after she left, the harassment and verbal abuse stopped, and he started treating her with more respect. But in 2010, he attacked her again, leaving her with more than 60 stitches, neurological damage and other problems. “I didn’t know it at the time, but sometimes when you get away, it doesn’t mean you’ve gone from victim to survivor,” Felicia says. “I was still a victim because I trusted in him in a lot of different ways. I guess I didn’t have enough confidence in myself.”
Felicia says if Sistercare hadn’t been part of her life she wouldn’t have made as much progress as she has. “I’ve learned a lot about the dynamic of domestic violence and how it goes so much deeper than just physical or verbal abuse. If it hadn’t been for Sistercare, I would probably have continued to allow myself to be abused by other people. It’s not until you learn everything about domestic violence or abuse that you can get out of the trap.”

While Felicia says she still struggles daily, she knows she wouldn’t be as strong without Sistercare. And she quickly volunteers her time to tell her story to help others who have walked the same path.

To purchase tickets for Song Bird Café, to be held Oct. 4 at 8pm, call (803) 926-0505 or visit

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