Note: This story won first place in the Minnesota Newspaper Association annual contest in 2008 in the Best Social Feature category.
$200,000 grant from United Way makes Black Dog Hill Shelter possible.
by Tesha M. Christensen
STAR Assistant Editor
A shelter for battered women will soon open up in east central Minnesota.
It is for women like Teena Carson, who faced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of the man she loved. When she did leave, he stalked her and their two children and threatened to kill her.
The shelter is for women like Penny Peters, whose ex-boyfriend drove his truck into her Rush City home one night and then stabbed her six times.
It is for women like Carol Folsom's sister, Barb, who was murdered in Mora by her boyfriend on June 8, 1996.
It is for these women and others who until now have had to leave their homes, their jobs, their family and their friends for shelters in the Twin Cities area.
Because of the distance involved, neither Carson nor Peters nor Folsom's sister went to a shelter.
If she had left the night her ex threatened to show up at her house and kill her, Carson thinks she might have been able to sleep.
Peters thinks she might not have felt so afraid.
Folsom wonders if her sister might have lived.
IS A RURAL SHELTER NEEDED?
Some question whether a shelter is needed in the rural area.
Dave Ellis of the Twin Cities United Way knows that it is. He believes that the reason so many instances of domestic violence aren't reported locally is because of the lack of resources for women in Isanti and Chisago counties.
"I can't imagine what it would be like to move everything into the Twin Cities," observed Ellis.
"The lack of a local shelter means women are forced to choose between staying with an abuser or leaving home," pointed out The Refuge Board Chair and Isanti County Commissioner Susan Morris during a special ceremony at the Black Dog Hill Shelter on Friday, July 18, 2008.
A report in 1991 by the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse pinpointed the need for a shelter in this region.
In fact, according to The Refuge, which serves Isanti, Chisago and Kanabec counties, there were 36 families that could have benefited from a shelter in the area in 2007.
Because of the need, the United Way has made a donation to The Refuge. The shelter will receive $100,000 to add onto to the three-bedroom farmhouse and another $100,000 for program costs. This won't pay for everything, and The Refuge is embarking on a fundraising campaign to come up with the rest. Prior to this donation, The Refuge had been receiving about $15,000 a year from United Way.
The size of the $200,000 donation to one organization in Isanti County is unprecedented, pointed out Ellis, but is proof of the United Way's commitment to decreasing domestic violence in order to achieve family stability.
"United Way is proud to be a part of this," said Ellis.
"The mission of the United Way is to unite caring people to build a stronger community every day," said Frank Forsberg on behalf of the Twin Cities United Way Board. "I can't think of a better example of caring people."
THE BLACK DOG SHELTER
You could say that the shelter was inspired by Oprah.
After watching her show on domestic violence two women (who wish to remain anonymous) took her challenge to heart. They would do what they could to stop domestic violence.
They decided to donate their second house, an immaculately-kept farmhouse with 10 acres, for use as a shelter. A quick Internet search revealed that the local service for those in abusive situations was The Refuge. A call was placed and the offer made.
From the board's point of view, the donation came out of nowhere.
It took the board several months to decide whether to accept it or not, knowing this would double The Refuge budget. While staff had dreamed about having a shelter, it was in the future, not within the next year.
As the board hesitated, they began researching possible grants. They learned they couldn't get the grants without having the property, but they didn't want to accept the property without having a grant, recalled former board chair and Chisago County Commissioner Lynn Schultz.
The board finally decided to take a leap of faith. "It looks like it is meant to be," said Schultz.
With the acceptance of the farmhouse came the donation from United Way.
The shelter will open later this year, following an expansion of additional rooms and office space. When it is complete, the shelter will have room to house 15 women and children. Staff will monitor the shelter 24 hours a day. Advocates will help residents set goals and find jobs, go back to school and figure out how to live on a fixed income. Services will be free of charge, and there will be no limit on the length of time women can stay.
A support group for women affected by physical violence will be offered. A youth advocate will work with children and help them develop a safety plan in case they are ever in a dangerous situation again.
"This is an incredibly exciting time for the Refuge," said Karelis.
"We believe this to be a tranquil, peaceful place that women and children can come to relax. They can rejuvenate and rebuild their lives."
"Many people say 'Get out and get safe' as if it were that easy," said Teena Carson.
"It truly would have been a valuable resource to have in Chisago County at the time," said Carson.
"He sounded so desperate, and I knew he had nothing to lose. I was so afraid it hurt to breathe. "
Too many times people turn away from those who have suffered from domestic abuse, noted Carson. Instead, these women who have such deep self-hatred and suffer humiliation need to hear a few kind words. "I'm so sorry you have had such a bad experience."
She no longer has the husband and the home with the white picket fence and 2.5 kids. But she's flying high because she's found her voice again. She's found herself.
"I can't even begin to explain what a valuable resource The Refuge has been," said Carson.
"When my friends and family had walked away because they were overwhelmed by the situation, Shellene Johnson was there. Without Shellene I would have stayed a victim and would not have become a survivor."
Penny Peters spent 13 years of her life with her abuser. "Statistics say it takes seven times to leave," she pointed out. Over the course of time that it takes, friends and family get tired of hearing, "I really mean it this time. I'm leaving."
"They don't believe you any more and they get tired of bailing you out every time you call, so you stop talking to them," said Peters.
It was when she went to The Refuge and spoke to a staff member who had been in her shoes that Peters was finally able to stop the pattern of violence. "That made all the difference to me," said Peters.
At The Refuge, Shaleen offered to take Peters' pets until she was back on her feet. Fearing for her pets had stopped Peters from leaving before, because her ex-boyfriend threatened to harm them if she did leave.
The Refuge "saved my life," said Peters.
"Now I have the chance to be happy again," she noted.
Twelve years, one month and 12 days ago, Carol Folsom was returning rom a baseball game when she learned that her sister had been gunned down in cold blood along with a friend, by her ex. He then turned the gun on himself, making it a double murder/suicide.
"You feel like screaming and yelling and crying and hitting," said Folsom, "but there is nothing you can do for the loved one we have lost."
People told her the pain would go away eventually. It hasn't. It may scab over, but it always getting bumped and bleeds again, she said.
Folson offered this advice to people trying to decide whether to leave someone. "The right time to bring change in your life is when you begin to die to keep something in your life," she advised.
• Helps 1,200 new victims a year
• Makes over 5,500 contacts with victims a year
• Offers safe houses for short stays of up to 72 hours
• Sees that kids are involved in 3/4th of the cases
• Teaches classes at Ogilvie High School, Mora High School and Cambridge-Isanti High School
• Spends $280,000 a year on existing programs
• Helps victims through the court process (explaining services and how the process will go)
• Has six staff members
• Directed by Roxie Karelis
THE NEW SHELTER WILL
•Total 2,800-square-feet after the expansion
• House up to 15 women and children
• Be available free of charge
• Provide space for pets
WHY BLACK DOG HILL?
•Dudley, a black dog, used to live at the farm with the last two owners. The farm was named after him in 2000.