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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."

Down another hall, Sierra demonstrates the secure door through which victims of domestic violence enter the shelter. Women can walk in or call, she says. "When we do a phone intake, we also try to meet them," she says. In urgent situations, El Refugio will assist in getting a restraining order issued to protect a woman escaping from an abusive home situation.

El Refugio has group living rooms, too, with comfortable couches, a television and bookshelves. The walls are hung with art and the rooms are inviting.

"All of this, even much of the art on the walls, has been donated by Manzanita Ridge," Sierra says of the Silver City furniture and decor store. "They even came and did all the installation for us. They are our angels!" she says of the company's proprietors.

Further on there is a family room where the adults can relax and their children can play. Murals add an upbeat atmosphere.

El Refugio can house up to 32 people, including children, in its eight residential rooms. Sierra points out a somewhat utilitarian hallway, small lights illuminating each doorway. She says the rooms are warmly decorated and homey, however, thanks to donated efforts of groups like Women on a Mission of the Glad Tidings Church.

"I wish I could take you inside. The rooms are as nice as rooms in some fine hotels," Sierra says. "Sometimes it is the nicest place these women have ever been in."

Doubling back to go out a side door, Sierra shows El Refugio's well-equipped play yard for entertaining children who are brought to the shelter. Benches on a porch allow women residents to relax while keeping an eye on their children at play. There are chunky slides and climbing gyms in primary colors. Sierra says a big purple dinosaur on a spring is a favorite riding toy with the children.

Reflecting on the number of children who have passed through El Refugio, Sierra says, "They must learn that love is not supposed to hurt. It's so sad that some women never break the cycle. Their children learn that violence is a part of life, and they accept that kind of thinking. Some clients I've seen in the past and we tried to help them free themselves from DV but they never could. Sadly, now I am seeing their children who are grown and are in relationships in which they are suffering abuse."

She pauses, then adds, "Maybe we will be able to get through to them and they can learn a healthier way to live."

Reflecting on "success stories" that have come out of her work with victims of domestic violence, Sierra says, "Any woman, any person, who has been able to recognize the domestic violence in his or her life and to make some change, is a success story."

After another pause, she admits that there is one story that stands out in her long career.

"There is one woman I'm thinking of, and she's someone who I would say beat all the odds. She was raped and she was beaten (by her partner). She also had some mental illness to deal with," Sierra recounts. "Frankly, with all that against her, I didn't think she'd make it. I didn't think she'd survive."

Being careful to maintain stringent confidentiality, Sierra describes the woman's process without giving revealing any identifying details: How the client went through the steps of education, eventually moving away from her abuser.

"She went to work. She got a job and began establishing her independence," Sierra says with obvious pride. "She has made it! She has broken free from domestic violence. She has a new life, and she sets the terms for that life. How I wish that absolutely every woman affected by DV could have that kind of success.

"Awareness is our greatest tool, for a woman to realize that the way she's being treated is not right, it's not love. You don't have to hurt to earn love. Domestic violence is a crime — it's that simple."

El Refugio, 800 S. Robert St., Silver City. 538-2125, toll-free (888) 538-2125. Lordsburg, 529 DeMoss St., 542-8398.


For help in Las Cruces, contact La Casa, 526-2819, toll-free hotline (800) 376-2272, PO Box 2463, Las Cruces, NM 88004, www.lacasainc.org


Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure.

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