January 1, 2024 | Local News
Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

Susan Montalvo-Gesser (right) with Suzanne Craig (left), co-winners of the 2022 Sherry Currens Excellence in Advocacy Award during the 2023 Conference for Ending Sexual Assault & Domestic Violence, which was held Nov. 29-Dec. 1 in Lexington. COURTESY OF SUSAN MONTALVO-GESSER

In receiving award for empowering domestic abuse survivors, Montalvo-Gesser looks back on those who paved the way


Susan Montalvo-Gesser, director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro, was one of two winners of the 2022 Sherry Currens Excellence in Advocacy Award during the 2023 Conference for Ending Sexual Assault & Domestic Violence, which was held Nov. 29-Dec. 1 in Lexington.

Together with co-winner Suzanne Craig, the program manager for community access projects in five counties with the Green River District Health Department, Montalvo-Gesser received the award on the final day of the conference, which was hosted by Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs and ZeroV. ZeroV (formerly the Kentucky Domestic Violence Coalition) is a nonprofit organization working in efforts to reduce violence in communities.

In her role as director, Montalvo-Gesser runs programming to address the social concerns of the Church, including tornado recovery and immigration services. Formerly, she was the managing attorney at Kentucky Legal Aid (KLA) in Owensboro where she represented clients in issues of family law, immigration cases involving domestic violence, housing, and estate planning.

Montalvo-Gesser praised the witness of her parents-in-law, William “Gus” and Helen Gesser, who founded Oasis Women’s Shelter in Owensboro with several other concerned citizens. (Montalvo-Gesser has been married to their son, Chad Gesser, for 26 years.)

“They were such great pioneers in the work to stop domestic violence and help survivors,” Montalvo-Gesser told The Western Kentucky Catholic.

Gus Gesser was the former assistant chief of police and a longtime officer with Owensboro Police Department, and Montalvo-Gesser said he was “very frustrated with the domestic violence calls he got and lack of options to keep victims safe.”

Founding Oasis “was a very unpopular idea at the time,” she said, adding that her mother-in-law spent “countless nights” at Oasis “with survivors and children, all without pay. She was called out to dangerous situations and went.”

Montalvo-Gesser added that the Gessers were pioneers in making Kentucky safer for survivors of domestic violence.

“In the late 1980s early 1990s a bill was proposed to make marital rape a felony in Kentucky,” she said. “Before that, there was no crime in Kentucky for raping one’s spouse.”

The Kentucky Speaker of the House at the time was from Owensboro and originally voted against the bill – until Gus Gesser, who knew him personally, invited him to Oasis to meet with survivors of marital abuse. In the next session, the Speaker co-sponsored the bill, which then passed and became a law.

“Gus and Helen made a huge difference and never received an award for it,” said Montalvo-Gesser.

Montalvo-Gesser said the first petition for a protective order that she ever filed was for her little sister, who experienced the effects of her abuser long after the relationship ended. To this day, Montalvo-Gesser sees her sister in every survivor she represents.

“Also, I dedicated the award to my clients that didn’t survive, Dami Ann and Grace,” said Montalvo-Gesser.

The following nonprofit organizations help in providing healing services to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.

  • Oasis serves the following counties: Daviess, Hancock, Henderson, McLean, Ohio, Webster/Union. 270-685-0260
  • Sanctuary Inc. serves the following counties: Caldwell, Christian, Crittenden, Hopkins, Livingston, Lyon, Muhlenberg, Todd and Trigg. 800-766-0000
  • Merryman House serves the following counties: Ballard, Calloway, Carlisle, Fulton, Graves, Hickman, Marshall, and McCracken. 270-443-6001
  • BRASS serves the following counties: Allen, Barren, Logan, and Warren. 270-843-1183

Susan Montalvo-Gesser (left) with her mother, Donna Montalvo, the day she received the 2022 Sherry Currens Excellence in Advocacy Award. COURTESY OF SUSAN MONTALVO-GESSER

Originally printed in the January 2024 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.

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