Welcoming Artyce Thomas

Women’s shelter embraces a new leader
By Terri Allred
Photography by Fagan Studios

When you walk into the Women’s Shelter and Support Center, it feels very much like walking into a home. A friendly advocate greets you warmly. The reception area has novels and self-help books, and there is a computer station for researching job possibilities or connecting to social media.  

The Women’s Shelter and Support Center (formerly the Women’s Shelter) has been offering shelter and support services to survivors of domestic violence in Rochester and the surrounding area since the 1970s. What began as an idea of a few advocates and the National Organization for Women (NOW) chapter has flourished to serving nearly 4,000 victims of domestic violence and their families annually.  

BEST-KEPT SECRET IN ROCHESTER

The Women’s Shelter and Support Center is often recognized as the “best-kept secret” in Rochester. The nonprofit owns multiple properties around town where they provide emergency housing, transitional living and a host of other services. They provide the only emergency shelter for victims in an 11-county region. At any given time, more than 30 domestic violence survivors, their families and sometimes their pets reside at the main shelter in Rochester.

The shelter’s vision is for women, individuals and families to have the freedom and dignity to live safely in our communities. They work toward that vision by providing the emergency housing that most people associate with a domestic violence shelter. However, their services are much more comprehensive than most people understand.

Emergency provisions also include food, clothing, toiletries and other items often left in the course of fleeing an abusive situation. Many families leave under such difficult conditions that they come with only the clothes on their backs. Children receive school supplies and backpacks, toys and art supplies—simple items that help them feel more at home during a tumultuous period in their lives.

SAVING LIVES, RESTORING HOPE, CHANGING FUTURES

You may not know that the shelter also provides transitional housing and support to women who don’t have resources to live independently. Maybe their abuser controlled the finances, and they have no resources. Some women have been prohibited from working and have no work history from which to build a resume. Women and their families who utilize the transitional housing receive very low-cost housing and services, including career counseling to help them become independent.

NEW LEADERSHIP, NEW OPPORTUNITIES

Recently the Women’s Shelter and Support Center welcomed a new executive director, Artyce Thomas. With a warm smile and calm demeanor, Thomas seems naturally at home in the shelter and for good reason: She has worked in domestic violence most of her adult career. She has a passion for social justice, particularly fighting against the oppression of women, kindled early on when she was an AmeriCorps service member placed at a domestic violence agency. During her time with AmeriCorps, she began understanding domestic violence through the eyes of the children for whom she provided care while their mothers were seeking outpatient treatment. From that experience, she realized her calling to work on behalf of individuals who experienced domestic violence.

Thomas’ career path led her to the Pennsylvania Immigrant and Refugee Network. There she confirmed what she already understood from her previous work: People who are marginalized by language barriers, immigration status, race, religion and cultural challenges desperately need advocacy and support. They face many more challenges and barriers to finding safety and services. However, while she loved the enrichment that diversity brought to her life, she missed shelter work.  

That desire to re-engage in the work of providing emergency shelter and care to domestic violence survivors brought her to Rochester. She visited Rochester and the shelter for the first time in May of 2019 and knew immediately, “This is the place.” She was impressed with the caring and competent staff and could see herself fitting in and leading the organization.

BEACON OF LIGHT

Early on in Thomas’ career, she faced the trauma of a close friend being murdered by domestic violence. That experience provided the unwelcome opportunity to experience deep empathy with those she was serving. “This work is vital. It is a lifeline and a beacon of light in so many communities and for so many individuals. Without these services, there would be no place for individuals to go,” Thomas explains.  

Losing her friend also helped Thomas appreciate the secondary traumatization that domestic violence workers face from being exposed to trauma on a daily basis. Thomas understands the importance of creating a safe space for shelter clients and staff alike as they manage the daily stresses of domestic violence. This is one of the gifts that she brings to the Women’s Shelter and Support Center.  

HOPES AND DREAMS

When Thomas thinks about her hopes and dreams for the future of the shelter, her eyes light up. She seems most excited about building relationships with other organizations, forming partnerships and collaborations that haven’t previously existed. “We can’t do this work in silos; the most effective approach to working with survivors is collaborative,” she shares. “There is so much intersectionality in the work we do, with law enforcement, social services and all of the other wonderful service providers.” 

She is also excited about becoming more visible in the community. “There was a wonderful foundation made already, and the shelter is a part of the fabric that supports the community. It is so important for people to know that we are here.”

HOW YOU CAN HELP

The Women’s Shelter and Support Center is always looking for donations and volunteers. Financial donations allow the organization to utilize the gift quickly where it needs to go. On any given day, that may be to purchase a bus ticket to get a woman to safety with family in another state, pay for a cab to transport someone to a medical appointment or assist with a security deposit for a family who is moving out of shelter.

The shelter also posts an updated wish list of needed supplies each month. Additionally, volunteers are always needed for a variety of roles including community education and outreach, data entry and cleaning. To view the shelter’s current needs, make a donation or volunteer, visit womens-shelter.org/waystogive.  or visit their FaceBook page

If you suspect that you or someone you love is in an abusive relationship,
call 507-285-1010 at any time day or night.

The trained advocates at the Women’s Shelter and Support Center are available to talk through your concerns and options, either on the phone or by meeting you at a safe space in the community. You are not alone. 

Warning signs of an abusive relationship include:
• Name-calling
• Jealously
• Possessiveness
• Isolation
• Intimidation
• Economic control
• Emotional abuse
• Forced sexual activity

Domestic violence often starts with emotional abuse and moves to physical abuse later. Advocates recommend creating a safety plan so that you know what to do if your partner abuses you again. Trained advocates can help you create a safety plan.

You have the right to live without physical, sexual, verbal, mental or emotional violence or fear of such abuse.