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Breaking Free
El Refugio celebrates 25 years of helping domestic-violence victims

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   October 2008

Breaking Free

El Refugio celebrates Domestic Violence Awareness Month and 25 years of helping and educating victims and their families.

Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder

"It's gotten bigger over the years. In a way that's good. In another way, I guess you'd say, it's not good," says Rachel Sierra. "It's good that more and more people are becoming aware of the problem of DV (domestic violence). It's sad because it means violence continues. It means more lives have been lost."

El Refugio
Women fleeing domestic violence often bring their children with them. Rachel Sierra sits with stuffed animals designed to give children a warm welcome.

Sierra, director of shelter services and victim advocacy at El Refugio shelter for victims of domestic abuse in Silver City, is describing the organization's annual candlelight vigil. Many attendees are mourners, she allows, lighting a candle and perhaps bringing a photo of a loved one, a woman killed by someone she thought loved her.

"People tell their stories, they sing. They come together and remember those who have died," Sierra says. Some attendees may be victims themselves, she adds, victims who have broken the cycle of domestic violence.

"We want them (the victims) to know they are never going to be forgotten. We want to talk about what happened to them," she adds. "Maybe, through this event, one person in that crowd will realize that this is her life, that she is being abused. Maybe she will realize that there is a way to change her own life."

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month across the nation. In the US, one out of every four women will experience violence by an intimate partner sometime during her lifetime. In New Mexico, more than 25,000 incidents of domestic violence are reported to law-enforcement annually, with even more incidents unreported. In almost 60 percent of the reported incidents, there were children at the scene.

El Refugio Inc. is celebrating 25 years of helping women, children and families choose and create a life without domestic violence. Along with the traditional candlelight vigil at Gough Park, Oct. 16, 5:30-8:30 p.m., the organization will observe Domestic Violence Awareness Month with several events to educate the public and disseminate information on the support it provides for local women and families.

Before El Refugio, victims of domestic violence had few options. "Way back, Ron Hall used to take the (abused) women home with him," Sierra recalls. "He was in law enforcement then. Now he's a magistrate judge. He gave abused women a safe place to go."

In 1983, Dorothy Bullock, an active local community member, wrote a grant that got funding to establish a physical shelter for abused women and their children in Silver City. Originally housed in the basement of what is now the New Mexico Public Works building, the space provided a safe haven, if a bit minimalist on accommodations.

"It wasn't much. But when you are running for your life, trying to escape being killed in your own home, well, then it's everything," Sierra says.

The organization continues to run on state and federal grants, which have grown over the years, and through community donations of money, goods and hours of volunteer labor, Sierra says.

Now housed at 800 S. Robert St., just behind the historic La Capilla church on the hill in Silver City, El Refugio also has a location in Lordsburg. That site lacks a shelter but offers victim services and can put up victims of domestic violence in a Lordsburg hotel in an emergency.

"What we have here today is just amazing. It is safe and so welcoming," Sierra says, offering to give a tour of the facility.

After being buzzed in by the front desk, a visitor to El Refugio is greeted by a small room with several chairs. A colorful collection of huge plush animals sits in the corner by one of the chairs.

Domestic Violence Awareness Month Events


Silver City — Sponsored by El Refugio

Oct. 1, 9 a.m.: DV Proclamation reading. El Refugio, 800 S. Robert St. Recognitions: Judge Ron Hall, founding member of El Refugio; District Attorney Mary Lynne Newell.

Oct. 2, 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m.: Gender Violence Institute, Coordinated Community Response Training, Rydeski & Co. 1120 West. St.

Oct. 3, 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m.: To Work on CCR Agreements, WNMU Seminar Room, 3rd Floor

Oct. 16, 5:30-8:30 p.m.: Domestic Violence Candlelight Vigil, Gough Park. Bring a blanket and/or folding chair. Open mic for stories, poetry, prayers, musicians. Featuring State Sen. Howie Morales.

And coming up:

March 7, 2009: El Refugio 25th Anniversary Celebration, Hanover Outpost. Individuals and organizations can reserve tables now.

Las Cruces — Sponsored by La Casa

Oct. 10, 9 a.m.-noon: Walking in Her Shoes, interactive domestic-violence role-play simulation. Peace Lutheran Church. Call Ryan, 526-2819, to sign up. Also Oct. 28, 5:30-8:30 p.m., for religious communities.

Oct. 14, 5:30 p.m.: Candlelight Vigil, Young Park. Meal at 5:30 p.m., ceremony at 6:30 p.m. Guest speaker Dr. Cynthia Bejarano, discussing violence on the border.

Oct. 15, 9 a.m.-noon: Economic Justice and Domestic Violence in Immigrant Populations Workshop. Peace Lutheran Church.

Oct. 22/23, all day: Domestic Violence Conference: VAWA and U-Visas for Immigrant Victims of Violence. Hotel Encanto. Small fee. Call 526-2819 to reserve a place.

Nov. 15, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.: Men's March, Downtown Mall.

"For the children," Sierra explains, patting a velvety blue elephant. "It takes their mind off what's been happening — maybe their mother threw them in the car and brought them here and they don't know what's going on. These animals tell them that this is a friendly place."

Seeking to protect the shelter's current residents' privacy, Sierra buzzes an office and asks for permission to bring her visitor — one armed with a reporter's notebook and camera, no less — through the facility.

Around the first corner, on a hallway wall, hangs a quilt made by some of the residents who have passed through. The colorful squares — some cheery, some serious — deliver messages about recognizing, rebuffing and surviving domestic violence. Some look to have been made by children. "Smile," says one bright square. On another, a bright red hand accompanies the message, "Don't hit children. Use words, not force."

"Any chance there is to educate," Sierra says.

El Refugio's mission statement reads: "El Refugio empowers all persons affected by domestic and sexual violence by providing advocacy, education and services in a safe and supportive environment." Sierra says education is a key component to breaking the cycle of domestic violence. To teach women and their families that "Love shouldn't hurt," as one of the center's brochures proclaims, El Refugio offers ongoing classes in parenting and issues related to domestic violence.

A special program for children and adolescents includes play therapy, puppetry, sand tray therapy, games and educational groups. In weekly parenting classes, shelter clients and community members offer each other support and exchange their concerns and successes.

"Women who have been abused often need to learn how to handle their own anger, so they don't take it out on their kids," Sierra says.

The ongoing weekly Women's Freedom from Domestic Violence class provides information designed to help women recognize the dynamics of DV and support one another as they endeavor to break the cycle in their own lives. There also is a court-ordered 52-week Offender Program — also open to voluntary attendance — that is monitored by the courts.

A moderated men's peer group is designed to help men recognize and deal with their own domestic-violence issues. El Refugio is listed as a hotline resource for the Better Man program, a national effort to help domestic abusers break the cycle in themselves.

Down another hallway, Sierra points out the facility's open kitchen area. Women at the shelter are expected to share in the tasks of cooking and housekeeping.

"Learning to cooperate and work together is important to begin building a healthier life," Sierra says. "Also, it just feels normal to be able to cook for yourself and your family."

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