Christmas lights on at YWCA's domestic violence shelter
JANESVILLE--John Genore brought the Christmas tree out of storage early this month and set it up in the living room next to a bright window.
Later, a small group of women strung lights and ornaments on its artificial boughs, while children scrambled to help.
Genore wrapped garlands around the stairway and strung colorful lights in the office at the domestic violence shelter, operated by the YWCA Rock County.
“I like to create a happy environment,” said Genore, shelter assistant.
He and other YWCA employees and volunteers want to make the holidays special for shelter residents, who have fled their homes looking for the gift of safety.
“When they come here, they are rooted out of everything that is familiar to them,” said Jessi Luepnitz, YWCA women's advocate. “We try to create some normalcy.”
Some families don't know what normal means.
“If a woman has been enduring physical or emotional abuse for a long time, she will consider it normal,” Luepnitz said. “And if she has children, they will consider it normal. It is the bravest thing a woman can do to uproot her family, but it is empowering to realize that violence is not normal in relationships.”
A past shelter resident wrote a letter explaining her experience. In part, it reads:
“… there are no words to describe how awful it feels to remove your kids from a home, especially around the holidays,” she said. “I left my home with my two children after my husband demanded we live in the basement and only come up when he left for work. The threats were enough to keep us there.”
Shelter employees helped the woman file a restraining order, secure a part-time job and get child care.
Earlier this week, seven women and six children were staying at the shelter, which has room for 33.
Luepnitz predicts the number will increase.
“In the three years that I've been here, we are usually full around the holidays,” she said.
About half the residents will go to safe homes of family members on Christmas Day. Others will cook special meals at the shelter.
“Those who are staying are already planning the dinner,” Luepnitz said. “It is up to them whether they want to open presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.”
Women and children will have many gifts because of generous donors.
“For children, Christmas is all about gifts,” Luepnitz said. “We get donations of gifts from churches, schools and businesses. No one goes without a gift here.”
Presents are important, but the shelter also needs volunteers.
“The most valuable donation we can receive is someone's time,” Luepnitz said. “The shelter operates 24-7 and could not be run without volunteers. There just is not enough money to pay people around the clock.”
Among other things, volunteers work in the food pantry, answer the crisis line and provide childcare for mothers trying to fill out job applications.
Luepnitz has firsthand understanding about what women endure. She came to the shelter a decade ago for help getting a restraining order. Later, she volunteered to give back to the people who assisted her.
Now a YWCA employee, she is still giving back by helping women build safer lives.
She said people don't want to think domestic violence can happen to someone they know.
“Violence is not prejudiced,” Luepnitz said. “It comes in all forms. It can be a son abusing his mother. Or a caregiver abusing a geriatric patient. Or it can happen in a same-sex relationship. It can be emotional, verbal and financial as well as physical.”
So far this year, 86 women and 98 children have stayed at the shelter. Another 300 people, including 10 men, have gotten help through the YWCA's outreach program.
Patti Seger of the statewide End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin calls domestic violence an epidemic, which does not take a break at Christmas.
“Domestic violence is happening every day,” she said. “It never stops because of holidays. We have this idea that Christmas is a time of peace and goodwill, but there is no time of day and no day on the calendar when violence stops. It can happen anytime, anywhere, to anyone, regardless of age.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.