By Emma Bowen Meyer
For The Herald Bulletin
---- — ANDERSON – While holidays are supposed to be filled with joy, they can also be filled with stress. Increased stress can push some families over the edge into violence. Alternatives is the local emergency shelter available to house women and children seeking to escape domestic battery.
“Movies often portray shelters as a warehouse setting with rows of cots,” said Mary Jo Lee, CEO for 20 years. “We have had women say they would have come sooner if they had known what a wonderful place this is. They feared their children wouldn’t be safe. We have extensive security and we respect the dignity and privacy of the families that come to us.”
A beautiful and welcoming facility built in 2005 meets all the unusual space needs of a shelter. In addition to a suite that offers a bedroom and bathroom that can house four family members each, the layout features gathering rooms (much like living rooms), a commercial-sized kitchen (where meals are prepared by staff members), a large dining room for fellowship, a preschool, playground, job training facility and offices.
“A shelter has so many unique needs,” said Lee. “We looked at existing structures and consulted with architects but their estimates were always higher than building new. So we got to design our own building.”
Alternatives has been serving the community for 35 years and was formerly occupying three adjacent houses on West 10th Street. Trying to cram 40 women and children into two-bathroom homes became a monumental struggle.
In the new location, 48 beds comfortably accommodate clients. Cots are kept on hand to service overflow and avoid turning away someone in need. Overflow has been fairly common since last spring.
“This has been a really tough year with domestic violence,” said Lee. “The economy has affected homelessness but also domestic violence. Some families pull together when they experience a crisis. But families on the edge of abuse who experience a crisis, such as a job loss, erupt in violence. A high majority of our clients say that they had not experienced this level of abuse before (the economic downturn).”
Clients often find their way to Alternatives through a referral from hospital staff, police officers social service agents or church officials. On average women stay 22 days, but some only need one night. Some are moved to transitional housing and remain for two years.
Cheery walls are dotted with artwork from children who have enjoyed the on-site preschool. Two-story ceilings and high windows in the bedrooms provide a spacious feel and beautiful tile work in the bathroom rivals those of nice hotels.
During the holiday season, Christmas trees adorn most rooms. Small, desktop trees grace the bedrooms while large trees are the focal point of the main foyer and gathering rooms. Snowmen, gingerbread men and lollypops also spread joy to visitors.
Robbie’s Room, however, is a feast for the eyes all year round. A preschool room full of color and light, shelves crowded with books and bins full of educational toys is waiting for the children to enjoy. In fairer weather, the playground also offers loads of fun, but is surrounded by the walls of the building to ensure safety from both intruders and wandering feet.
“Robbie, his sister and his mother came here (the old facility) five or six times,” said Amy Bond, residential services manager. “The last time she returned home, her husband got drunk and angry, put the kids in his truck and drove off the road. He killed both the kids. We found Robbie’s handprint and decided to name the room after him as a constant reminder of how much we can lose to domestic violence.”
Rather than the dreary atmosphere of shelters on television, Alternatives is a comfortable and pleasant place to regroup.
“I was talking to the teacher of a child who had been staying with us recently,” said Lee. “She reported that he said this was the best place he has ever been. That’s a little sad, but it feels good to know we are making such a difference in the lives of children.”
Each week, Emma Bowen Meyer features a Madison County home. If you know of a home that should be showcased, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.