WRC: A Shelter for Victims of Domestic and Sexual Violence
Written by Kate Houser
This is the deep, startling sound that the bell to the locked door made. This door was located on the side entrance of a tucked away, faded brick building. Driving through the streets of Radford, one would not think to enter this building; however, the purpose of its existence is for unimaginable support and compassion. This brick building is home to the WRC, also known as the Women’s Resource Center.
There are many things in this life that the volunteers and employees at the WRC said they have learned to never take for granted; things like: safety, trust and knowing you’ll make it through the day unharmed. Most people never have to question these things every day they wake up, but the WRC has seen one too many people who do.
The following is an interview with Whitney Miller, the director of the children’s program at the WRC. She may only be in her early 20’s, but she has already learned lifelong lessons from the people she has watched come through the shelter.
Q: What is the mission of the Women’s Resource Center?
Miller: I wish I had a brochure for you [picks up brochure from desk] oh look here one is. Our mission is: “creating a community free of domestic and sexual violence through services, support and education.” All of our services are free and confidential. We serve the entire New River Valley, so that’s Pulaski, Radford, Floyd, Giles and Montgomery County.
Q: Who do your clients mostly consist of?
Miller: Women and children mostly, but also men who are victims of abuse whether it be sexual assault or domestic violence. We don’t serve perpetrators or abusers, so the people that are committing the acts of violence are not are clients.
Q: What is a common experience that these victims have been through?
Miller: Well, it all depends, I guess we can start by saying that violence does not discriminate against anyone. It does not matter if you are rich or if you are poor, or if you are black or if you are white. So that does not define who we’re working with at any point. The typical person that I work with is a child coming to the shelter with their mother. That’s basically who I see the most of, but here at the office the sexual assault team serves Radford University and Virginia Tech students as well as the community at large. They do a lot of work with children and their families as well so if you consider the child being the primary victim of the violence we help them, but we also serve the secondary victim of the violence. This is anyone in their family, friends or support system that has also been affected by it. So were working with the person that’s directly affected by the violence, but also the people in their lives that are as well.
Q: What would you say a normal day at the children’s shelter looks like?
Miller: Crisis is the name of the game here and you can’t ever predict that. So, a typical day could be going in and having a morning group with the kids, checking in with the mom, taking someone to a doctor’s appointment or a dentist appointment, having the after school program where we do homework, snack, etc. My basic goal with the kids is to help them too learn how to cope with what they’ve experienced. So, anyway that’s possible. It can be coloring or letting them play the Wii so they’ll sit down and talk to me afterwards; but, just fostering a sense of trust in an environment that they feel safe in, that they feel like they can share their story.
That would of course, be a typical ideal day, but then you run into your crisis days when something traumatic has happened and someone doesn’t know how to function and your day revolves around how to help get them through that crisis, whatever it may be.
Q: Would you say that in dealing with these crises’ you’ve had to develop somewhat of a thick skin to do what you do?
Miller: There’s a term we use frequently around here, “vicarious trauma”. We all talk a lot about how we can get wrapped up in people’s experiences and let it affect us. We do have weekly staff meetings where we can kind of de-brief and get things off our chests because it can become really personally frustrating at times and it is hard to keep it out of your personal life and not let it affect you. You have to have thick skin and you have to be certain about your own personal boundaries to be able to go in and do this work because it really is intimate work. We’re working where people live so there aren’t a lot of secrets and we become a very integral part of their lives. They depend on us on a daily basis. And you know, the goal is for them not to depend on us, but when someone’s coming from the situation of a typical woman who’s a victim of domestic violence where the man has excessive power and control over this woman for years, then she’s become completely dependent on him for probably everything; financial resources, the car, the gas, the food, everything has to go through him first. So to come out of that experience and to come straight to us at a shelter where it’s like, ‘okay, you take care of yourself here’. It’s hard for some women to fully take on that role as the sole provider and be an independent person [beginning] day one. So there’s definitely a period of dependency where we’re helping them get their feet under them. But ultimately our goal is to help them regain independence, get reconnected to their own lives and experience their new joyous, peaceful lives all around. But there is a fine line between helping someone and being a crutch, that’s the hardest part I think.
Q: So would you say that working here has become more of a lifestyle as opposed to a “9 – to – 5” job?
Miller: Oh, yeah, it’s definitely not a 9 – to – 5 ‘cause there’s definitely days where I go home and a family has left the shelter in less than desirable circumstances. I think that the women and children that we work with, the women in particular, are coming to us with a lot more obstacles and hurdles to overcome in order to become independent. We’re dealing with a lot of mental health issues, double and triple diagnostics, substance abuse issues, bad credit and criminal records. All those things prevent you from getting an apartment, getting a license, getting a job and the things that make you independent.
Q: You help them achieve and gain these things though?
Miller: Yes, and that’s the most horrible thing about domestic violence is that there is no aspect of your life that it does not touch. Once you’re involved in it, it can literally wreck your entire life. Like I said, the point of it is power and control, and if he thinks he can control the money, well then he also thinks he can control your feelings and everything else. If you think about it, we’re kind of in the business of heart break. We’re taking these women away from the love of their life, even if he was a complete jerk. You [the victim] were still in love and you excuse all those things. My job is to help these woman and children to find their voice and be able to stand up for themselves.
Q: Have there been any bonds you’ve created with specific victims you’ve seen come through the shelter that have kind of stuck with you?
Miller: You know, yeah, there really have been. Actually one of the beautiful things about the WRC is that we get to see families graduate from the emergency shelter and into our Cornerstone program, which is transitional housing. This is an apartment for the family for up to two years. It’s an income based apartment, but the rent is capped at $100 a month. So, it’s a wonderful opportunity for them to really become independent. It’s another two years that they can work towards that. They’re close to us as well, so I get to see these children grow for another two years. So, yeah, there have definitely been families that have been in my life more because of the Cornerstone program.
It is a small town as well; rarely does a week go by that I don’t bump into a former client. You know, I was at Wade’s the other day and I saw a mom and her son [that had been clients previously]. He was probably like 12 months when he first came in. One of the effects of domestic violence on children is that he was kind of just shell shocked and he wouldn’t talk, he wasn’t babbling, hardly anything. Here he’s 2 ½ now and she looked wonderful; she was beaming and he was just chatting away, not that he remembered me, but it was just nice to see that. It’s the little successes like that that totally make it worth it, because there are definitely some hard days. And there are days where you don’t know if the work was worth it, but it’s all about planting a seed and hoping that somewhere along the way it will grow.
Q: So would you say that even if you only help one person substantially that that is still worth all the work you’ve done?
Miller: Oh, yeah, it is. You’ve got to look at it in the way that if you’ve help one mother, or one child or one family not get beat up one more time, then yeah, of course it’s worth it.
Q: So what would you tell women, men and children that are in violent situations that don’t really know what to do how to get help?
Miller: The bottom line, the one message I would like to get across to a victim is that there is hope, but that it’s not easy. You know, like I said, it’s the business of heartbreak. We’re not asking you to leave [a violent situation], but we’re here as a support system for someone whose ready to leave that situation. Someone who’s had enough of the controlling, manipulative behavior; who’s had enough of someone beating them down with their fist and their words. But there is hope and there is a way out of it even when it seems like everyone is against you. Because a lot of times what we’ve seen, or at least what I’ve seen with women, is that they just feel like everyone’s against them.
One of the ways to control someone is to isolate them, and you can isolate someone by turning everyone in the family against that person. You know, going and spreading lies to everyone else in the support system about that one person which makes no one believe them and that’s another key issue but we always just believe the victim and it sounds simple, but it’s something that they don’t get a lot. You know, simply just being able to go to the emergency room with a black eye and be able to say ‘my husband did this’. That’s really not easy to do and a lot of times people are afraid to say something because they think no one’s going to believe them and what’s the point of revealing a huge secret like that if no one believes you? That’s how we deal with our clients, you know, what do you need? What can we help you do? You know, ‘cause not every ones ready to make that step and take that clean break and say ‘yeah, husband of 20 years, I’m done with you’; not everybody’s at that point when they first come to us.
And you know, there’s statistics that say it takes like up to seven times for a woman to successfully leave her abuser. And we’re seeing that it’s a cycle of violence for sure. We’re seeing women in this shelter now that are coming as mothers that came to the shelter with their mother as a child and now they’re grown up and finding themselves in the same situation. It’s wonderful that they know that we’re here, but it’s sad that they’re still in that cycle of violence.
Q: So what would you say to people that are victims of domestic or sexual violence, or know someone who’s a victim that they want to help?
Miller: Starting with just believing the victim, you know, fill in the blank, this happened. Just listening to them and believing them because essentially that’s giving that person control. If they have control over their story, if you believe them then they control the truth, do you know what I mean? Other ways to help is volunteering. We have a wonderful volunteer program where volunteers are responsible a majority of the time for answering our 24/7 crisis hotline. We also have an emergency advocate program where we send staff and volunteers to the hospitals to the child advocacy center at Radford University to respond to a victim of sexual assault. So if anyone goes to the hospital and says ‘you know I’ve been assaulted, I’ve been raped’ then we’re going to send someone in the middle of the night to be with them through that process. And that’s something that a community member can come here, receive that training for, and be that advocate. So that’s a wonderful way to help someone in an extreme time of need. Donations is a big deal, because like I said, part of the control thing is financial so a lot of the times women come to us and they have no source of income. It’s simple to hook someone up with food stamps, but food stamps do not provide personal care items or toilette paper. So we rely solely on the donations from the community to provide these items. They can be dropped off at this office any time Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. And of course monetary donations is a big help.
Q: What are three words to describe your experience working with the WRC so far?
Miller: Hmm, eye-opening, or enlightening actually. You know, I helped one of our mothers who was nine months pregnant and they were inducing her and her family couldn’t get here. So, I spent the night in the hospital with her and watched her have her child. Who would have ever thought two years ago that this job would lead me down that road, not me [laughs], so, it’s been enlightening. I’ve learned as much about myself as I have about the people that are actually in our community; so enlightening in the sense that I didn’t know that this was such a huge issue in the New River Valley. I mean, 125 children walk through our doors in one year, and those are just the ones that knew we were out there, the ones that accessed the service and actually made it to the shelter. We’re not talking about the other 125 children that are out there and that are living in a violent home.
Um, another word…I’d say humbling for sure. You go home and you think there’s so much that I take advantage of. When there’s a family that’s staying at the shelter and they came in with their set of clothes and that’s all they brought. So definitely it’s been humbling, and that’s ok, you know I think that everyone needs to be brought down a notch and realize that I don’t need all this extra stuff in my life sometimes. Sometimes simpler is better.
And I’d say it’s been inspiring. You know, to see a woman that’s been making $60,000 a year and she gave that up for the man that she loved who just turned out to be a worthless alcoholic that wanted to beat her and her 19-month-old daughter. She gave up that whole entire life that she had developed for herself and she was independent and then here sneaks up domestic violence and takes you by surprise and you’re left with no independence, no way to support your daughter, but the knowledge that you just have to get out of the situation. So it’s inspiring to see someone rebuild themselves to the point that they want to be at and to just fight through such odds.
You know, like I said, when you’re essentially homeless and you don’t have a car, and you’re pregnant again, so you have two children, you know, figuring out how to work and support your children after going through all that has got to be scary. So, it takes a lot of courage to pick up the phone and call our hot line and say ‘I need a place to stay’, because she’s used to a different lifestyle. You’re coming to a homeless shelter to live with 26 other women and children. I’m talking about one mother in particular here. She said ‘it really brought me down a notch’ is the way that she explained it. She thought she was better than all this, you know, she was a different person and this would never effect her, and here she is in the midst of it.
*Authors note: If you or someone you know is involved in a situation regarding domestic or sexual violence please call the Women’s Resource Center hot line at (540) 639-1123. You can also go to the website for more information: www.wrcnrv.org