Empowering Women – The women of the Women’s Shelter have risen from their own abuse to give hope, strength and courage to women living in fear

0041“Women’s Shelter, Melissa speaking. How can I help you?”

    Calls to Women’s Shelter, Inc.’s crisis line conform to no predictable measure. They come day or night, in every season, seven days a week and 365 days a year.

    A call might be from a woman whispering, “Please help me,” just seconds before the phone is disconnected because the abuser has ripped her cell phone from her hand or torn the cord from the wall. St. Marys Hospital may be on the line looking for shelter for a frightened, wounded woman being treated in the ER. A call could be from someone who desperately needs an empathetic ear to listen and to understand.

    “Calls like this come in every day,” says Jackie Foley, community coordinator. “People call for shelter, resources, phone numbers, help writing orders for protection and with questions regarding where to get food, housing and childcare. Sometimes they call just to talk about what’s happening in their lives.”

One in four

Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women—more than car accidents, muggings and rapes combined. Women comprise 84 percent of spousal abuse victims and 86 percent of abuse victims at the hands of a boyfriend.

    One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Men are victims as well with one in 33 men having experienced an attempted or completed rape. Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to become abusers of women and children themselves.

    In the late 1970s, four domestic abuse survivors founded the shelter in Rochester. Their mission was to provide temporary shelter, education and resources to other victims. Nearly 40 years later, the shelter’s physical space has expanded to house greater numbers of women and children in need. Services are free to all victims who seek help, whether they stay at the shelter or not. In 2010, the shelter served 513 women and children. In 2011, the shelter served 473 women and children. The numbers decreased due to increased average stay. They turned away about 17 women each month because they were full.

    Two community advocacy programs, one in Dodge County and one in Wabasha County, provide similar services in those communities.

Abuse does not define me

Suzie Christenson is the shelter’s executive director. Christenson has worked for the shelter since 1990, starting as bookkeeper. Her educational background is business administration. Christenson admits that she has been victimized and can relate to those the shelter helps.

    “Part of my life does involve having been abused by another person. I choose to look at it as just a portion of my life. It does not define me as a person, as a mother or as a woman,” Christenson says. “Victims are merely ‘bystanders’ to the other person’s abusive behavior. I encourage women to move past the abuse. Let it lie with the abuser and move on to make your life the life you should have been living all along. I feel extremely blessed to be given the opportunity to be a stepping stone to so many other women’s success.”

To empower women

Jackie Foley’s ties to the shelter go back almost three decades. Mother of four and grandmother of four, Foley’s degree is in education, and she was a Montessori teacher for many years. She first entered the shelter at age 19, married and pregnant with her first child.

    “Over a three year period, I would enter the shelter five more times before I left my abusive marriage for good,” Foley says.  After a tragedy several years ago that claimed her career, her home and her second marriage, Foley returned to the shelter to work and to empower women. Much of her work is public advocacy for the shelter and its place in the community.

    “When a woman enters the shelter she is greeted as if she is in a warm, welcoming home. She is offered food, something to drink and a room to rest,” Foley explains. “Women are assigned to a primary advocate for help with safety planning, goal setting, resources that are available and how the shelter can assist her. Our job as advocates is to stand with her, supporting her decisions and her goals.”

When their lives are anything but normal

Like Christenson and Foley, three fellow coordinators come from diverse backgrounds and life experiences. Shelter coordinator Melissa Schroeder has worked at the shelter for 18 years. She has a master’s degree in social work and supervises the women’s advocates and the transitional housing programs.

    “I do what I do because it is so important that this work be done. It is truly humbling to work with people who have been abused, and I’m honored they allow me into their lives for a very short time to work with them to achieve their goals.”

    Facility coordinator Chris Round says her experience comes from “the life of hard knocks” and a lot of living and learning. A shelter employee for 15 years, Round takes care of all shelter properties and does almost all the repairs and maintenance by herself.   “I do everything it takes to run a home, times four, with multiple families all with different needs and requests. I come to work every day knowing one day will never be like the next…but I really come so that women and children have a safe place to stay when their lives are anything but normal.”

    Sonji Davis, volunteer coordinator, grew up in a family that stressed the importance of giving to and helping others. She has a degree in psychology and worked in California as a patient rights advocate for the mentally disabled. Four years ago she began working as a court advocate and “found myself.” In her current position, Davis says she is able to “help bring together a wonderful community of people to assist the women and children who are victims of domestic violence. I will advocate for women for the rest of my life and am truly thankful for the opportunity to help others.”

Discovering the unimaginable

About 20 people are active volunteers at the shelter. One volunteer learned that abuse could be subtle. She graduated from college, taught, married, had children and kept up with a “normal” life as she knew it. One day, she lost her job, left her husband, came to the shelter and discovered help. “I am extremely grateful for the peace and the freedom I now have in my new life and I desire this for the brave women in this awesome place. I now live authentically and my heart is where these women and children are.”

    The shelter is also grateful to local women’s groups, businesses and children’s groups whose service projects aid the shelter and to local churches for their support.

    Abused women discover strength, hope and courage—once unimaginable—through the Women’s Shelter. The shelter is vitally important to Rochester and to the community at large.

    Hear these words of a recent resident: “Before the nightmare began, I was a beautiful, vibrant, confident, successful 36-year-old ‘young lady.’ Then I fell in love and made plans with the love-of-my-life at the time. Fast forward a few years, and I realized the dreams of happiness had turned into nightmares. I felt trapped, fearing for my life and that of my child. Through the Women’s Shelter, I was able to begin a new life. The advocates are a team of dedicated women for whom I cannot express enough gratitude and admiration. They gave me strength and hope by providing legal, emotional and financial support, and most importantly, a safe place to live while I figured out my next step in recovery. To those who support the Women’s Shelter in any way, I thank you all very much.”

Katherine Shine is a Rochester freelance writer.