Abused women want to come out of the shadows.
They don’t want to live in fear, hiding in homes scattered throughout the community.
“They don’t want to be called ‘battered.’ They want to be called ‘survivors,’ ” said Terri Heckman, who heads the Battered Women’s Shelter of Summit and Medina Counties as well as the Rape Crisis Center. “It’s a whole different philosophy, but it’s the women who are pushing it. They are saying. ‘If you can keep us safe, we don’t want to hide. We want to be proud that we are moving on or that we are at least working toward peace for our family.’ ”
The shelter, which served more than 6,000 in each of the last two years, continues to grow in the number of clients, staff and now, facilities.
In a swap with Akron and Summit County officials, the agency has taken possession of Middlebury Manor, a former nursing home on East Market Street that closed in 2011. In exchange, the agency gave up a former Department of the Navy facility on Dan Street and struck a deal with the city for a playground at Middlebury.
The agency also closed two offices by selling a property on West Exchange Street in Highland Square and ending its lease in the former Iacomini’s restaurant, also on West Exchange. The staff for both programs has been moved into Middlebury.
The money from the sale paid for renovations on the business side of the new location. There are offices, a computer room and meeting rooms for one-on-one talks, support groups, conferences and board sessions.
The next goal is to move 64 beds from two separate facilities.
“So far we have no debt, which is a fabulous thing for a nonprofit,” Heckman said. “But donations will dictate the remainder of the renovations on the other side of the building for the shelter.”
An east-side shelter has 20 beds, and a west-side facility has 44, neither of which is handicapped accessible.
At its new facility, the agency can grow to 90 beds.
A shelter and office in Medina County will remain separate from Summit County, allowing threatened clients to transfer, if warranted. Heckman said the most important thing is the safety of the abused person.
When Heckman took over the operations in July 1995, her office was a bedroom in the Highland Square shelter. She and a staff of 11 operated with a budget of $400,000. They absorbed the Rape Crisis Center from the YWCA in 2005. The agency now employs 55, with another 60 volunteers, on an annual budget of $2.2 million.
Now, they have a facility with great promise.
“This building just lends itself to so many things being possible. I’m trying to look for creative ways to move this agency into the future, knowing that money is getting tighter and knowing that domestic violence isn’t going anywhere,” she said. “The population is growing older, and with the baby boomers we’re starting to see more and more elder abuse, so we wanted to get something that could also be used with the senior population.
“That opens up tremendous opportunity for cross-generational programming. You can hand a baby to a senior, who may love to sit and hold a baby while the mom takes a shower.”
The business side of the building — about 10,000 square feet — is the home office for 26 employees. The shelter side of the building is 40,000 square feet on three floors. It has a commercial kitchen in the basement and an elevator in need of repair.
The rooms are two-bed units with a bathroom. Heckman would like to tear down walls in some rooms to make them more spacious for larger families.
Each family will have its own bedrooms and bathrooms, although shower and tub facilities will have to be shared.
She envisions rooms for meetings, homework, computers and play. A room equipped for a beauty and nail salon will remain; volunteer hairdressers already have signed up.
Teen boys often are not permitted in shelters. She wants the flexibility to separate families so the facility can accommodate older boys.
“We will be considering the possibility of a pet care area so that families are not forced to leave their non-human family member at home,” she said. “This is very important to the children in a shelter.
“We will also be looking at the potential of on-site day care, so that a resident does not need to take children on a job interview or to a court hearing.”
One client who identifies herself as PJ said the shelter was critical to the survival of her family a decade ago. The Beacon Journal does not use the names of abuse victims.
Now 43, she still recalls the fear.
“When I saw my son crying under the kitchen table, hiding as his father was hitting me against the wall, I knew I had to do something to keep us safe. I had to make that call,” she said. “The advocates are amazing when they answer the phone. They talked to me about the cycle of abuse and told me that I wasn’t alone … My abuser didn’t allow me to work. He didn’t allow me to go anywhere or do anything or see anybody. My own family couldn’t talk to me.”
She said she believed she was crazy because that’s what he told her.
After several months at the shelter, she was able to leave, but still attended support groups.
“Now I have a full-time job. I graduated from the University of Akron in 2010 and I’m independent from my abuser,” she said. “I’m divorced and I understood that my life was not going to get any better until I took responsibility and held him accountable for what he did. Until I did that, things weren’t going to change no matter how many times he said he was sorry.”
She said the new facility will be good for clients because they will be able to complete paperwork for services in the building where they live. During her stay, she had to travel to different locations. “I was afraid to drive or ride around in the area because he could see me.”
Shelter seeks sponsors
Heckman said the plan is to remodel two units with the help of sponsors, then hold an open house and invite additional support.
“We’re hoping that they are so impressed by our story and our stewardship of the money that the community gives us, that they’ll want to get onboard and say, ‘We’ll do one of the other rooms,’ ” she said. “We’ve already had some initial requests.”
She said they’ll create a list of needs, such as carpet, windows, paint — the costs for each — and labor.
“This community is rich with people who want to help,” she said. “They might not be able to donate a check, but they have skills.”
The agency also wants a name that is more positive than “Battered Women’s Shelter” or the “Rape Crisis Center.”
“We want an umbrella name that will go on the outside of the building that will tell people who we are, but not be limiting,” Heckman said. “It must be something easily found by people who need the services.”
Heckman said that when they roll out the new facility — targeted for March or April — they hope to unveil its new name.
“We just want to have a much more positive life-changing feel for the residents who unfortunately have to stay in a shelter. No one is going to come to a shelter if they don’t have to. No one,” Heckman said. “The shelters aren’t air-conditioned. You are living with 25 strangers, your kids are arguing with each other — at least at first because they are so stressed out.”
She said those stresses may cause victims to ask themselves whether they should stay or go back home.
“I don’t need a Hilton or a high-end place. I need clean and safe, something that people see as approachable, and that’s what we’re aiming for.”
Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or firstname.lastname@example.org.