“What was being communicated to us was, ‘Go on and continue doing things as you would regularly do.’ We were planning to open tomorrow,” Rhonda Williamson, Executive Director of Safer Path Family Violence Shelter said on Monday. “So I’ve got towels washed and folded and ready to go in bathrooms. I’ve got beds made with sheets, all of which had to be purchased. We did what we were supposed to do.”
On Thursday, Dec. 13, the community celebrated the opening ceremony of the newly completed Safer Path Family Violence Shelter, formerly the Atascosa Family Crisis Center, with a reception and guided tours. Williamson and staff were looking forward to a special and much needed milestone, with the facility slated to open in January as a residential shelter.
However, the recent federal government shutdown has stopped the grant payments vital to Safer Path’s daily operations. Not only is it unknown when the residential shelter will be able to open, but now the facility will have to reduce its services.
Williamson explained they have already gone through what little cash reserve they had preparing for the shelter, under the assumption that they were going to get reimbursed for that money because it was in their grant budget.
“They stopped all of that and here we are,” she said. “We did finally get November’s payment on Friday, an hour before an emergency board meeting to do contingency planning knowing, okay, this is the reality. This is not coming in. What are we going to do?”
The shelter will run full-time through the end of January. Then they will go down to 75 percent Feb. 1. They will go down to 50 percent after Feb. 15, and then hold at that 50 percent status until Williamson hears something, or until they completely run out of money.
Their top priorities remain keeping the hotline going, so that they can do immediate crisis intervention and safety planning with victims, as well as their existing caseload that is coming in.
Williamson said they may have to move to a waiting list for the first time in the agency’s history. On average, statistics show a victim tries to leave an abusive relationship seven times before she or he walks out. When a person decides to leave, that is the most dangerous time for them, because the abuser often picks up on it.
“We’re calling creditors and the people we owe money to and asking, can you float us? Here is where we are. We’re trying to free up as much money as we can to pay staff as long as we can. I’ve got staff that are willing to work without pay. I’m trying to find the forms and legality around that, so that they get paid when this gets done. It’s heartbreaking,” Williamson said.
She added they are even looking at selling property they were counting on as an administration building and an education center. They are in need of getting some cash reserves and the situation is serious. Since Williamson is hearing so many conflicting stories, it is difficult to know what to believe.
“I’m hearing two weeks from now is a turning point that some people are counting on. I’m hearing that we need to make contingencies through March 1. We’re just trying to hold on.”
Just like the clients Safer Path serves, the agency is operating paycheck to paycheck.
“I’ve worked hard since I became executive director here to build some kind of cushion, a little bit of a cash reserve for us. I’ve gotten us to, not quite 60 days, maybe 45-50 days in cash reserves that I’ve accumulated by pinching pennies and managing tightly. We’ve burned through that quickly because of that supply build up. We’re owed a big chunk of money for December and now, who knows when we are going to get that back.”
After Jan. 15, Williamson is working without pay.
“I have three staff members who are willing to work without pay. These women are phenomenal. Nobody makes a ton of money here, but they are passionate about the clients that we serve. They are passionate about keeping them safe and they are willing to do whatever it takes to get it done.”
Safer Path Executive Board president Susan Phillips has served in that position since September and been involved with the center for six years.
“These girls do an incredible job. I ran EMS for many years and I dealt with many victims of domestic abuse, from beatings to sexual assault. I saw that side of it, so when I was asked to be on the board I thought, well this is a good opportunity to try and help. I wanted to help get things in a more service type area, and we have finally done that with, hopefully being able to open the shelter soon,” Phillips said.
Need for a residential shelter
Williamson’s interview on Monday was a significant change from only a week and a half before, when Williamson met with the Pleasanton Express, eagerly anticipating how close they were to finally operating as a residential shelter.
“We are so close. We are waiting on our fire monitor system to go in. The plans for that have been approved by the city. Our contractor has their permit. Just like you and I just talked about the holidays, there are people just now getting back in and getting things figured out. So we’re hopeful by the end of this week we will have our schedule and at least have a plan for when that’s going to happen. We are so anxious to open.”
Safer Path staff transported clients Christmas Eve in the middle of the night and on Christmas Day.
“We are so ready to be open. I need them off the roads in the middle of the night.”
Safer Path was founded as the Atascosa Family Crisis Center in 1992.
“So we started as an off-site advocacy project of the Seguin shelter, and then they found a group of women who wanted to champion the cause and move it forward, so it became the crisis center. But they knew from 1992 on, that the shelter was a need.”
While local hotels have been good to the center, a hotel is not designed for the safety needs of somebody who is fleeing domestic violence, noted Williamson.
The staff is still closing out the year’s statistics and filing reports, so they are not all in. However, Williamson said in 2017, they spent 125 hours transporting clients out of the center.
“That’s three weeks of work. That’s a lot. We are transporting them to safety. A shelter represents security. Having one here means our clients get to keep the jobs they are passionate about. Their kids are rooted here. By sheltering locally, their kids don’t have to switch schools and go through all of that change. No one ever likes change, and some people think they are going to put their kids through something horrible if they move, and so they stay in situations that aren’t safe.”
“We know that by being here, things are going to shift and change, because there will be an option for them that is local.”
Some clients are calling and asking, “Hey, are you all open yet?”
Williamson said, “It’s killing me to have bedrooms and not be able to put people in it because of an alarm system we are waiting on, but we’re getting there.”
Williamson said she needed to focus on the fact that it took awhile to get the funding and a good plan in place.
“We know it’s done right. Everything is done up to code. Everything is done up to standard. We’re trying to make this as safe as possible. We’re moving at light speed, compared to how we’ve been moving,” Williamson said.
Her background includes serving as the primary prevention and education manager for the Women’s Shelter of Corpus Christi, which is now the Purple Door, as they went through a rebrand just like Safer Path did.
“So my job then was trying to find a way to stop domestic violence and sexual abuse. I left that to go to Girls Inc. in San Antonio.”
She researched the prevention of domestic violence and abuse and learned that one has to work with youth early on and be frank and up front.
“Girls Inc. had won all kinds of national awards for the things that they discussed. Girls Inc. in San Antonio is there to tackle teen pregnancy. The way that they do that is if girls have a long-term future plan for themselves and really clear goals, then they know what they need to do to get there.”
She did that for four years, until she devoted more time to caring for a loved one due to illness. Her family has lived in the Atascosa County area for almost eight years.
When she no longer commuted to San Antonio, she learned more about her neighbors, her community and local events.
“I had those years to connect with people and figure out what was going on in the community and I started volunteering here. I wrote grants on a contract basis. I did consulting work on a volunteer basis, trying to get everything situated and off the ground and running.”
She found out about the crisis center through an article in the Pleasanton Express about a bake sale and car wash fundraiser. She knew she wanted to help.
“So I’ve been involved since then. I started as the assistant director parttime in September 2017, so I’m going on a year and a half. I’ve been the executive director since September 1.”
Mark Pawlik of Southlan Homes, based in Jourdanton, is the builder of the project.
“He is fantastic.”
Pawlik started the project close to two years ago.
“We ended up pulling all the electrical and the insulation. We had to take it to its shell. We had to pull the AC units and once we got into it, it was worse than expected.”
“We got it done, so they ended up with a completely new building. We had a lot of asbestos removed, but got it all taken out. Now they don’t have to worry about anything. We put in all new units, new electrical wire. Their roof wasn’t the best, but now they have a new roof,” said Pawlik.
He was glad to be part of such a worthwhile project.
“J.W. Hughes Excavation has been our electrician. Susan Phillips is the board chair and Jessica Tom is the capital campaign chair.”
The residential shelter houses eight bedrooms and every bedroom sleeps at least two people. Most of them can sleep threefour.
“We have some larger bedrooms to accommodate larger families, so a queen size bed and two sets of bunk beds and then a toddler bed. We have pack and plays that can go into every bedroom. We have a set of adjoining rooms with a door between them.”
Shelters can be a difficult place to live in long term, since residents are already leaving a tense situation and are already on edge. So the shelter’s bedrooms house private closets.
The courtyard area is going to be the main point of entry and exit for staff and clients that live there. There are picnic tables, a playground and activities for kids to do in that area. Then there’s also a quiet outdoor space for adults who don’t have kids or don’t like kids.
“We are also creating something called a quiet room. There’s not a TV in there, there’s not a radio in there. Lights are kept low. Furniture is comfortable and it is designed to be a space to go and collect your thoughts and read, or journal,” Williamson said.
“All of our bathrooms are like large, family bathrooms. We have one washroom that is handicapped accessible and another one that is the size of a family bathroom. Then there are two other bathrooms in the kitchen and laundry room.”
Williamson has cried along the way as construction was completed, as she recalled how the project began as what was supposed to be a simple bathroom remodel.
“That has been the fantastic thing about Mark being a home builder. When we told him we don’t want this to look like a prison or a school, he totally knew what to do. He just did what he does anyway, and it is perfect.”
Williamson shared how when The Refuge Atascosa Pregnancy Care Center closed, they gave Safer Path their facility.
“They closed and with non-profits, you can’t sell your assets. You have to disburse them to another organization. That was a straight up blessing.”
The plan was that the old Refuge building would house Safer Path staff who serve in administration. It would allow for them not to compromise anybody’s safety, or privacy or confidentiality. They would also be able to hold meetings there and educational sessions, like the domestic violence classes and parenting classes CPS orders to non-offending parents so that they learn better skill sets. Currently, clients have to drive to San Antonio for such classes.
An administration building would also allow for supervised visitation and programs like BIPP, which is the Battering Intervention and Prevention Program. It is a 10-12 week curriculum, peer to peer based, that reteaches relationship skills.
“Those are our next big three goals. We work very closely with Jessica Tom with the Child Welfare Board and she is very closely working with the county.”
Safer Path still has the mortgage to pay off.
“We purchased the building for $280,000. The county and the cities from Jourdanton, Pleasanton, Poteet and Charlotte were extremely generous and made sure that we have the money for a down payment. You think the county is really small, but it is small but in a good way. People know what you are doing, what is happening and know what needs to be done.”
She still needs dog kennels for victims who will not leave without their dog or cat. Henry Dominguez is going to help with that in the short term by housing pets at the new county animal shelter.
One of Safer Path’s big annual fundraisers is HeartStrings for Hope in the fall. Plans are in the works for a competitive shoot in May.
“We have been going non-stop since the summer. The summer months were outrageous for us. To have 130 clients in a month for us is unheard of. The hotter it got, the more clients we saw.”
This past December’s Adopt-A-Family Program was a huge success, in which businesses and individuals donated toys and other items to families. Safer Path thanks everyone who gave from their heart.
“We had a lot of clients come in with lots of children. People didn’t blink at adopting a family with seven or eight kids. Over 40 kids we adopted out for Christmas and like, 12 whole families. It was like being in Santa’s workshop.”
Last fiscal year, Safer Path had 2,154 hotline calls. Fifty-six percent of their clients are under the age of 18 because of the number of children they are seeing. Other stats: 68 percent of their clients are female, 61 percent are Hispanic and 93 percent come from Atascosa County.
Advocacy and crisis intervention is the top service Safer Path provides. That is followed by legal advocacy. Other services are counseling and transportation.
Williamson said, “What I always tell people, if your gut is telling you something is wrong and you feel like you need to say something, but you are afraid to say something, you have to say it. You may be the only person that sees it and says something. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong, no big deal, but if you’re right, you may have saved someone’s life. Take our card, take our brochure, put our phone number in your cell phone. It may be a stranger at a restaurant that you’re at that needs the phone number. You never know.”
The name change
“We used to be Atascosa Family Crisis Center. Crisis centers around the country have come to mean organizations that help with a variety of crises. We serve victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. That is what we are trained for. That is what we are experts on. That is what we are able to provide resources and support for,” said Williamson.
However, the general label of “crisis center” can be misleading, and result in people calling for crises that Safer Path is not specialized in such as, “My house burned down. My husband has just been arrested for drunk driving and I need support.”
Williamson said she, the board and the staff are struck by what their clients are able to achieve with an advocate in their corner.
“They are focused on empowerment, unconditional support and regard. We don’t judge our clients. We’re here to help them through and it’s their decision. Nobody pressures them to make a decision. We provide them with every tool and resource, and help guide them, but it’s their decision. We’re there to provide support, with whatever that decision is.”
Since their tagline has always been, “Helping families walk a safer path,” it seemed fitting to call the center Safer Path.
“We are about lifting families out of crisis and into safety. What do we need to call ourselves that will reflect that uplifting focus, that empowerment focus? It just seemed like a no-brainer.”
The new logo is positive, bright and hopeful.
“I am just excited about what our opportunities are and what we have ahead of us. When you work in bigger cities, it is the same set of problems we have here. But you’re working on this one small piece of this massive problem. Sometimes you can see the needle shift. Sometimes it feels like you are just a drop in an ocean of problems. Here, it is the same problems. It is just spread over a larger geographic area with far fewer resources.”
“So here it is very clear that what we’re doing makes a difference. We’re seeing the numbers increase every year. This lets me know that our outreach coordinator Shawnene and you guys are helping us get the word out. People are hearing about us who need to hear about us. There’s movement there and you see that happen,” Williamson said.
A GoFundMe account has been established to raise funds for Safer Path. Please also read Williamson’s Op-Ed piece in this week’s issue.