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Mid-Minnesota Women's Center: From trauma, hope emerges

"To be at peace. That's what I want. Peace." For women who've experienced domestic violence, Christmas wishes are often just this simple: a safe place for them and their children, security, support. Peace is what a 42-year-old resident of the Mid...

Katie Swenson (left) and Alex Dominguez assemble Christmas stockings for women and children staying at the Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center. Behind them is a Christmas tree decorated in memory of Dru Sjodin and Erika Dalquist, local women who lost their lives to sexual violence. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery)
Katie Swenson (left) and Alex Dominguez assemble Christmas stockings for women and children staying at the Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center. Behind them is a Christmas tree decorated in memory of Dru Sjodin and Erika Dalquist, local women who lost their lives to sexual violence. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery)

"To be at peace. That's what I want. Peace."

For women who've experienced domestic violence, Christmas wishes are often just this simple: a safe place for them and their children, security, support.

Peace is what a 42-year-old resident of the Mid-Minnesota Women's Center, a women's shelter in Brainerd serving the five-county area, hopes for this year. The woman, who asked not to be identified, has been staying at the center for about a month, seeking what she called a new beginning.

"My dream is to be independent, to stand strong and be a strong woman for my daughters and my granddaughter," she said. "Leave a mark in their lives. Even though Mommy went through what she did, she had to do what she had to do to survive, and she made it."

The staff at the center does its best to meet not only the basic needs of shelter residents, but also to create a holiday experience that won't be easily forgotten.

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Less than a week before Christmas, bags brimming with donated gifts lined the halls and cluttered offices. A pile of stockings laid near boxes full of candy canes and chocolates, ready to be stuffed with goodies. A tree decorated in pink garland and ornaments sat in a corner, honoring the memory of two area women - Dru Sjodin and Erika Dalquist - who lost their lives to violence. Soon, the pantry would be filled with specially requested ingredients, the makings of traditional holiday dishes for residents and their children.

"Most people are like, 'Ugh, I have to work on Christmas,'" said Vicki Flor, the volunteer and community outreach coordinator. "But for our staff, they're kind of lucky. The smiles they get to see and the excitement, the energy that's in the house on Christmas Day here is very different, I guess. It's higher."

For nearly 40 years, the women's center has provided a refuge from abusive relationships and a lifeline for women in dire situations. The residents, who stay anywhere from one night to several months, receive support for their mental health and assistance with becoming independent, financially and otherwise.

While each woman's situation presents unique challenges, a sense of community and a focus on routine and normalcy unite the residents with common goals. They take turns cooking family-style meals and completing chores, all while sharing in their past experiences and gathering strength to move forward.

"It's really helpful for them to be around other women who've gone through the same things," said Katie Swenson, the mental health program coordinator. "They know that they're not alone and it wasn't just happening to them. They really do bond over the common things that they've gone through."

The holidays can be especially difficult for those going through traumatic life experiences, said Kathy Northburg, the lead advocate at the center, and it's not just limited to those currently in the shelter. The staff goes beyond the shelter's doors and provides a better Christmas for past residents, as well.

"The first year out of the shelter can be extremely difficult," Northburg said.

Because women are often financially dependent upon their abusive partner, they rely on cash assistance, subsidized housing or public transportation after leaving the situation. One of these programs is the Minnesota Family Investment Program, which provides a grant to families with children in need while a parent is seeking work.

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"(The grant) hardly covers your expenses, let alone gives you extra money to get things like a Christmas tree and presents for your kids," Northburg said.

This reason, among the many other challenges these women face, is why the center continues to provide support. Rita DeChaine, the house manager, organizes an Adopt-a-Family program, collecting Christmas lists from the families and matching them with volunteers who shop for the presents. Patrons of the Westgate Mall in Brainerd can select a paper ornament from a displayed Christmas tree and purchase the requested gift written upon it.

A garage at the facility has been converted to a donation warehouse containing neatly organized rows of toys, blankets, kitchen equipment, personal care products and everything in between. The stock is used to as closely as possible fulfill the desires of the families.

Volunteers come to the center to wrap the hundreds of presents, although not quite all of them. Swenson explained they try to create as close to a personalized holiday experience as they can.

"All the women's gifts get wrapped, but kid gifts stay unwrapped so the women can wrap them themselves," she said. "We take pictures of them and their kids opening their Christmas presents and print them off for them, so they have pictures of Christmas morning."

If residents wish to spend the holiday with relatives, the staff honors those wishes. Conversely, former residents are welcome to attend the Christmas festivities at the shelter if they choose.

"It's really joyous," Swenson said. "We have a lot of fun. They're so excited and so thankful and surprised that they even get presents."

Community support is what makes the center's Christmas efforts - and their mission year-round - attainable. Northburg said the shelter's funding through the Minnesota Department of Public Safety has steadily declined over the past decade, now down 30 percent. At the same time, the shelter has remained full almost constantly in the past five years and the aging building and grounds are beginning to need repairs.

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"The biggest thing right now financially is we need the roof repaired, the fence," Flor said. "It's very expensive, but it's very important as well."

What is most gratifying for the staff is for that support to come from someone who once needed it. A woman who years ago stayed at the shelter for three months recently returned with a Christmas card, 18 bags of groceries, four turkeys, pies, diapers and wipes.

"It was really neat to be able to see that she's now married and is doing really, really well for herself," Flor said. "It meant a lot for her to be able to donate back to here something she knew we needed."

The staff asks the community not just for donations, but also to one day help put them out of work.

"The community has to be willing to not be that bystander and not be that onlooker and just walk away," Flor said. "They have to say, 'You shouldn't treat that woman like that. You shouldn't treat that child like that. You shouldn't treat that man like that.' They're all people."

SIDEBAR:

HED: How to help

• To volunteer, contact Flor at 828-1216 or visit midminwomenscenter.blogspot.com and click on "Volunteer Program."

• Donated supplies or gifts can be dropped off at the center, located at 1414 Maple St., Brainerd. It is open 24 hours per day, seven days a week. Items in particular the shelter is seeking include: gas and grocery cards, oil changes or minor vehicle repair, movie passes, snowtubing/skiing passes, pots and pans, cookie sheets and bed linens.

• Financial donations can be mailed to the Mid-Minnesota Women's Center, P.O. Box 602, Brainerd, MN, 56401.

• The staff needs support, too: "Our people work long hours and they experience secondary trauma from holding the trauma of the victims they listen to," Northburg said.

Interested persons are asked to consider a gift or other show of support for them.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Alex Dominguez assembles Christmas stockings for women and children staying at the Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center. Behind them is a Christmas tree decorated in memory of Dru Sjodin and Erika Dalquist, local women who lost their lives to sexual violence. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery)
Alex Dominguez assembles Christmas stockings for women and children staying at the Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center. Behind them is a Christmas tree decorated in memory of Dru Sjodin and Erika Dalquist, local women who lost their lives to sexual violence. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery)

Related Topics: CHRISTMAS
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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