The Clarina Howard Nichols Center last week celebrated another year of helping survivors of domestic and sexual violence find ways out of those relationships and into safer and healthier lives.
Becky Gonyea, the Center’s executive director, said the small group of paid staff worked with hundreds of people last year, including at the group’s shelter, which is perhaps the only refuge some women can find in Lamoille County.
The organization served 403 individuals over the past year, down from 454 the previous year.
There were 1,109 calls made to the center’s hotline, and there is no regularity to the calls, which come day and night, mid-week or weekend, in the heat of high summer or the dead of the winter.
Some days there are 15 calls and some days there are none, Gonyea said. The phone calls can last 15 minutes or they can last hours.
Similarly, the stay-overs in the organization’s shelter vary. This past year 37 people stayed at the shelter, including 19 children. Some were there just for a night or two, while some stayed there for two, four or even six months.
“Housing is next to impossible,” Gonyea said.
Housing tough for victims
She said whether it’s an emergency shelter or some transitional housing, what people getting out of abusive relationships most need is some sort of permanent housing.
The people who stay more than a night or so, “after they catch their breath,” have twice-weekly meetings with professionals, who help them set up goals and talk about housing, employment, child care and health needs.
The state has housing vouchers, but the problem is there are more vouchers than housing stock.
“They can’t even find a place to use the vouchers,” Gonyea said.
In the meantime, the shelter, the location of which is a tightly guarded secret, has seen some improvements over the past year. Hyde Park businessman Howard Manosh, who in recent years has used his accumulated wealth to give back to various community causes, funded an overhaul to the Clarina shelter kitchen.
The Manosh corporation has also set aside office space in its headquarters in the Northgate Plaza — near the hotel Manosh opened up briefly over the winter as an emergency homeless shelter.
Help from new laws
Sarah Robinson, deputy director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, laid out some notable legislation passed this session and some things to look forward to. She said the network monitored more than 100 bills and weighed in on 50 of them.
She said the comprehensive housing bill included language protecting people being abused or stalked by adding victims to the list of protected groups; it’s illegal to discriminate against them. Practically speaking, Robinson said the new rules allow victims to break leases and get them near-immediate access to lock changes.
Robinson said the Vermont Legislature expanded the statute of limitations for childhood abuse claims, which she said could eventually “help reform the system.”
The Legislature also set up a task force to look into sexual violence on college campuses.
Ongoing battles deal with money — more funding is always needed for the network and its 15 sister organizations, like Clarina — and guns.
“There is a unique and deadline relationship between domestic violence and firearms,” Robinson said.
Clarina Howard Nichols Center’s paid staff is still fairly new, with most of them having been on board for a year or two. Gonyea said turnover at these types of organizations is understandable, and when a few of them leave, it makes an immediate impact.
“This isn’t a 9-to-5 job. They all take shifts, and they have a five-week rotation where each of them is on call that week,” she said. “Their commitment is phenomenal.”
At the recent celebration, Sarah Henshaw, president of Clarina’s board of directors, had gifts for all of the women involved with the organization, the paid staff and a couple of departing board members, both of whom said they’d still be helping out when they can.
“I can’t even talk about you without starting to cry,” she said.
Henshaw and Gonyea also had gifts for a couple of young girls who performed original works of song and poetry for the annual meeting attendees.
The girls, both of whose parents volunteer with Clarina, provided a glimpse at a stronger future for girls and women.
Monelle Cote, 11, performed two songs on ukulele. One of them, titled “Outside In,” talked what it’s like to be a girl having to deal with the sometimes-crushing expectations of the real world that won’t let one be “the real me,” and even contains a shout-out to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
From the song:
“I just wanna be free
from this life I’m livin’
Cuz it’s not really me.
I’m still scared to be
who I really wanna be.
Wish I could be like RBG
And just take the lead.”
Next up was 13-year-old Izzy Choularton, who read a poem whose rawness talks about an emotionally sour relationship — both she and her dad said the poem wasn’t about anyone specific.
From Izzy’s poem:
“You left me broken, with no hopes of return.
But then I realize once again, who I am.
Not the player on the board.
Not the person who needed pulling out of the mud.
Not the girl who you fall hopelessly in love.
I am me. And I will not change,
because I have no need.”