New YWCA CEO Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron didn't want to be an ordinary physician, telling her parents she wanted to be "a doctor with a briefcase."

"I always knew I wanted to impact beyond what I could do in a private practice," said Richardson-Heron, an Oklahoma native. "I knew I wanted to have a greater role to utilize my skills, experience and expertise as a physician to make the world a better place."

A physician by trade and an advocate by choice, Richardson-Heron, 50, will headline today's Sonoma County YWCA fundraiser at 11 a.m. at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn. The visit is one of several she is making across the nation to local YWCA chapters.

Richardson-Heron took the helm at the YWCA in December after four years as the head of New York City's chapter of the Susan B. Komen Foundation.

Richardson-Heron, a breast cancer survivor, parted ways with the nation's pre-eminent breast cancer charity after a flap over the organization's withdrawal of support for Planned Parenthood made national news. Richardson-Heron was a staunch Planned Parenthood advocate. The funding eventually was restored.

Richardson-Heron also served as the chief medical officer of the United Cerebral Palsy Association, but her work with the YWCA strikes close to home. Her mother served on the board of the Oklahoma City YWCA during Richardson-Heron's childhood years.

"I remember my mom and several of her very close friends involved in something which they considered very important," said Richardson-Heron. "They wanted to make sure women were empowered."

As CEO, she plans on strengthening the YWCA to ensure the organization's relevance for future generations.

"We've centralized our organization to work as a national movement," she said.

Richardson-Heron praised the Sonoma County YWCA, noting the chapter's work with victims of domestic violence is an essential part of the organization's mission to empower women.

The Sonoma County YWCA runs a safe house for victims of domestic violence. The chapter also has a domestic violence hotline, which receives 3,000 calls a year.

"What makes us unique in our county is that we're the only confidential safe house," said Madeleine O'Connell, executive director of the Sonoma County YWCA. "We're the only refuge (here) for women and children fleeing domestic violence."

O'Connell noted the continuing importance of the safe house due to tragedies like last April's death of Kim Conover, the 37-year-old teacher and mother of four whose husband gunned her down outside her lawyer's Petaluma office.

In California, 40 percent of women experience domestic violence and 75 percent of those women have children under the age of 18, according to the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence.

"They're doing incredible work here in Sonoma County protecting women and their families and giving them safe harbor," said Richardson-Heron. "Their safe house has a 90 percent success rate."

As the head of an organization that describes itself as the "voice of every woman," Richardson-Heron outlined several goals she believes will further this effort.

While not only continuing to be an advocacy platform for women from all walks of life, the YWCA also is closely monitoring efforts to overhaul immigration rules, Richardson-Heron said.

"In the past, YWCA members in port cities welcomed new arrivals to the U.S., providing them with family connections, job placement and temporary housing," said Richardson-Heron. "Today is no different, (because) across the country the YWCA is continuing to serve individuals in their community -- and we don't discriminate against immigrants."

Another of Richardson-Heron's goals is to expand the YWCA's services to returning female veterans.

"Unfortunately, many women who have come back from military service have been impacted by domestic violence," said Richardson-Heron. "Though we have some services for military women, we're exploring opportunities to expand our services."

In 1970, the YWCA adopted the elimination of racism as one of their primary missions. It's a project Richardson-Heron isn't afraid to be critical of.

"I wish we were at a time of equal opportunity, but we just haven't reached that point," said Richardson-Heron.

Richardson-Heron's fight to overcome breast cancer made her intrinsically aware that tomorrow is not promised, she said.

"Sometimes I get tired, but then when I come and see this, I think 'This is why I'm doing what I'm doing,' " she said.

For information on today's fundraiser, visit ywcasc.org or call 303-8413.