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Rising from nothing

With help from local agencies, two survivors of abuse create new lives

Posted: November 16, 2013 - 8:34pm  |  Updated: November 16, 2013 - 8:50pm
Valerie works on a quilt for her granddaughter Thursday at her apartment in Kenai.   Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion
Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion
Valerie works on a quilt for her granddaughter Thursday at her apartment in Kenai.

Valerie was able to pack two suitcases before leaving St. Michael, but 38 years worth of her belongings remain there, including irreplaceable items like her children’s handprints from when they were young.

Amanda doesn’t even have an identification card.

But they also left behind the bruises, the fear and their abusers.

Valerie and Amanda are just two women out of the 48 percent of Alaskan women who have experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetimes, according to a 2010 Alaska Victimization Survey from the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center. As victims of domestic violence, the Clarion is not publishing their last names.

The women met this summer at the LeeShore Center in Kenai after suffering abuse at the hands of their husbands.

They are still fighting to take back their lives.

After living at the LeeShore Center for 23 days, Valerie, now lives her in her own apartment. Upon entering Valerie’s home, it looks like any other apartment. There’s a table and chairs and a small kitchen. The living room has a comfortable couch and chair, a coffee table and a TV. On the walls hang crosses and other decorations.

But the furniture isn’t Valerie’s; it’s her landlord’s furniture. The wall decorations were donated. The matching purple curtains and comforter, she bought on her own, but many things, like her sewing machine, are still in St. Michael.

It’s her first time living on her own; the first time she can eat when she wants, go to bed when she wants and do only her own laundry.

She said it is exciting sometimes, but it’s often frustrating and scary.

“I never had to be the one to get up and see what a noise was,” Valerie said.

Valerie’s abuser has her guns and everything except what she could pack when she left St. Michael on the western coast of Alaska and came to Kenai.

A work-in-progress rainbow colored blanket for her granddaughter shows Valerie’s dedication and caring personality. She’s spent hours on a bright, cozy blanket for the young girl, who, along with Valerie’s step-granddaughter, was the reason she decided to turn her husband in for abuse.

 

The girls were visiting Valerie and her husband in St. Michael for the summer and witnessed Valerie being abused.

“That was part of my resolve to stop it,” she said. “Because if they’re seeing this, that might be something they think, if I didn’t do (anything) about it, they may think it was OK. And it wasn’t OK.”

The first time Valerie turned her husband in for abuse was in May after he smashed the TV, DVD player, electric organ — just everything — and chased her with a knife, Valerie said. She decided to bail him out of jail. He was supposed to live somewhere else while they worked on their marriage, but he just walked in the house after he got out of jail. Valerie didn’t know what to do. She was scared, so she let him stay.

Valerie’s husband didn’t physically abuse the girls while they came to visit, but they saw him punch Valerie and knock her over multiple times. Valerie said he would pretend to trip and his fist would hit her in the back or he would knock her down as he fell. At first Valerie wondered why he was having such bad balance, but then her granddaughters helped her realize the incidents weren’t accidents.

“(The girls) both came to me one night and said that those are on purpose,” Valerie said. “‘We see his face, and we see what he does. Grandma, he’s punching you.’”

When her granddaughters told her that, Valerie realized her husband had been abusing her like that for months.

“Everything was sort of excusable or accidental and that’s how men get away with the abuse because, quite frankly, they’re really good cons,” she said.

On July 31 she turned him in again; they had been married for less than a year. She arranged for her granddaughters to go home a month early, and she got on a plane to Kenai, to the LeeShore Center.

 

Amanda came to the shelter with nothing but the clothes she was wearing.

“She had a pair of cut off sweatpants on and a T-shirt, that’s all the girl had,” Valerie said.

“And these shoes,” Amanda said, lifting her feet as she sat on the couch in Valerie’s apartment.

Wearing those clothes, Amanda hitched a ride to the LeeShore Center from Wildwood. She had been jailed after breaking a window on her husband’s pickup while trying to stop him from drunk driving, she said. Both Amanda and her husband had been drinking that night, and she said he shoved her out of the truck so hard she had a bruise on her chest and a bump from hitting her head.

She was arrested after the fight; her husband hasn’t been charged.

The couple, living in Seward, had been married for four years and had been dating for three years before that. The first time Amanda’s husband grabbed and pushed her was in April of this year, and the next time was in July, when she was arrested.

Amanda was still living at the emergency shelter in mid-October, but has since moved to LeeShore’s Transitional Living Center, where she can live for up to two years. Without her ID or Social Security card, Amanda hasn’t been able to get a job to pay for her own place.

 

The LeeShore Center’s service area runs from Clam Gulch to Moose Pass, but 18 percent of women and children staying at the center during the last fiscal year have been from outside of that area, said Cheri Smith, LeeShore Center executive director.

Smith said women from beyond those points come to the center for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the women aren’t safe in their communities and other times they have friends or family in the area. Many women who stay at the shelter decide to apply for housing in the area, Smith said.

Women at center are charged 30 percent of their income, Smith said, but oftentimes, like Amanda, they don’t have a job when they move in, so that is one of the women’s goals, to get a job or go to school.

Some need to start at the beginning to reach those goals, Smith said. Speakers come to the center teach women life skills like opening bank accounts, grooming, writing resumes or budgeting.

“We really try to start from the ground,” Smith said.

Along with those skills, material donations are also given at the LeeShore Center.

Smith said two days a week the center receives donations of clothing and household items that the women can choose from. The leftovers go to the center’s community clothes closet. It is open two days a week for anybody to come in and take what they need.

She was able to get a full dish set from donations to the center and matching glasses.

“A lot of really generous people donate a lot of cool stuff to LeeShore,” Valerie said.

“If you get stuff that matches, you’re lucky,” Amanda said, who also got dishes for when she moves into her own apartment.

Some women don’t move into their own places when they leave the center, instead some move in with family or friends or move back home. However, Smith said fewer women are choosing to move back in with their abusers.

“It seems like more and more we’re having women focused on trying to get out of that and make a violence-free life for themselves and their children,” she said.

Domestic violence victims looking for housing can apply for rental assistance through the Empowering Choice Housing Program developed by the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault and the Alaska Housing Finance Corp.

AHFC locations with the program receive a set number of vouchers based on the number of domestic violence referrals and community populations. Soldotna got 20. Each voucher is good for 36 months. To get a voucher, victims have to go to the area’s shelter and are referred to the program.

“It’s really up to the shelter to decide if that person is needing the assisted housing with the voucher,” Cathy Stone, director of public housing for AHFC said.

The LeeShore Center gives referrals in the area. After a referral and voucher is granted, the victim has 60 days to shop for housing and two 30-day extensions if needed.

Stone said the Soldotna AHFC hasn’t leased all of its vouchers since the program began about one year ago.

Love INC doesn’t have programs specifically for domestic violence victims, but it can assist with housing, said Leslie Rohr, executive director. Applicants for housing assistance must have a sustainable income to qualify. Then depending on whether or not the housing options are subsidized, Love INC can pay a deposit or first month’s rent or a utility deposit.

The organization works with area churches to provide food and clothing assistance. Love INC also offers clothing vouchers to Bishop’s Attic, and it offers vouchers for transportation with gas cards and Central Area Rural Transit System cards, Rohr said.

Beyond material items, Love INC also directs people to area counseling services.

Oftentimes with domestic violence cases, Rohr said, Love INC refers victims to the LeeShore Center or the Na’ini Social Services Department of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe.

The Na’ini Social Services Department developed a program in 2007 called Healthy Relationships that provides housing assistance as well as vouchers for transportation, food and clothing for Native and non-Native victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.

“Especially since Merit Inn is no longer serving, we see a lot of housing requests,” said Lindsey Anasogak, social services specialist.

Anasogak said the program helps victims with housing by providing money for a security deposit or one month of rent.

Valerie has gotten assistance for food and outdoor winter clothing. Help from the program has been great, she said, but she gets nervous.

“I sit here and go, ‘How many months are they going to do this for me?’ And I get scared,” she said.

Anasogak said advocates work with victims on a case-by-case basis so they can become self-sufficient. They also work with other agencies if it can’t provide the services the victims need.

 

Even after moving into her own apartment, Valerie said she still doesn’t feel like she’s on her own because she gets so much help still.

Valerie is grateful for the services that have helped her, but said it will be years before she will be able to replace things she left behind. After she turned him in for abuse in July, her husband was sentenced to 140 days in jail with 80 days suspended for fourth-degree assault, according to the Alaska court database. She had wanted to speak at his sentencing, but said she wasn’t notified well enough in advance. The district attorney called her only hours before the hearing, she said.

“He’s home, everything’s normal, except he doesn’t have me to knock around, but I’m still suffering,” Valerie said.

Amanda spent more than a month in jail.

She can get over that her husband battered her and doesn’t plan to go back to him, but it’s the aftermath that’s been the hardest, she said. Amanda gets stressed and depressed, but even with the struggles she is determined to make a life for herself in Alaska.

“I have found a peace here that I haven’t had in a while, not since I was a girl in Washington, so I really want to stay here,” Amanda said. “No matter what I’m going to make it work.”

Amanda had been taking online classes for criminal justice before she was arrested. She wants to start going to college again. Valerie, who has a criminal justice degree, was recently accepted to UAA. If everything goes as planned, she’ll graduate when she’s 60.

The two women may not have much to start their new lives with, but they have found each other. Amanda has also learned a new skill, crocheting. In October, with Valerie’s help, she was working on a baby hat, booties and diaper cover to sell.

The two like to get together and visit and crochet in Valerie’s apartment surrounded by items from generous people in the community. Valerie works on her granddaughter’s rainbow blanket, and Amanda works on her baby hat. The women follow the patterns and start new rows on their projects as they continue down the new paths in their lives.

 

Kaylee Osowski can be reached at kaylee.osowski@peninsulaclarion.com.

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