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Jenelle Mooney is one of the nine domestic violence advocates who serve the women and children in the new shelter. PAULA QUAM/TRIBUNE

Women's shelter up and running

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The women’s shelter in White Earth has been like an oasis in the desert providing hope and new life to abused women on the reservation for a little over a year now.

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Domestic violence is often a curse handed down from generation to generation, and White Earth is no exception.

But since the new 20-bed shelter opened last May, advocates there have been dedicating their lives to working out all the bugs and challenges that come with getting a much-needed facility like this not just up and running, but effective for the women and children who walk through their heavily secured doors.

“I think we’ve all caught on rather quickly considering the fact that we’ve never run a shelter before, and we really hit the ground running,” said Program Manager Tanya Vold, who is proud and impressed at the advocates who have worked tirelessly to put their heads together time after time to figure out resolutions to just about every problem imaginable. 

And although the seriousness of their jobs is certainly not lost on them, there are still giggles and little jokes that echo the halls of the beautiful new facility as the women strive to make the place one that is comfortable and welcoming.

“Sometimes it’s kind of comedic some of the things the staff here are forced to do,” said Vold, who says the group of nine shelter advocates and six community advocacy workers have become a jack of all trades in what can sometimes be hectic situations. 

“But everybody steps up and helps each other out with things to get it all done,” she added.

From bringing battered women and children into safety to running their support groups to helping them run errands in between hospitals, schools and social services, the women of Dove have learned to do it all. 

Dove is the program on White Earth that started in 2003 with only two advocates determined to make a dent in domestic abuse on the reservation.

Although the program has continued to grow as their outreach, education and sense of empowerment seeps into every corner of the large reservation, the cycle they are determined to help break can at times seem iron-clad. 

One might think every single one of the shelter’s 20 beds would be full every night, given the fact that it sits in the middle of a reservation where domestic violence rates are high, but that’s just not the case as the shelter sees an average of 10 to 15 residents a night.

“There are so many barriers here that for some, make it much easier to stay (in the abusive relationship) than to leave,” said Jodie Sunderland, community advocacy coordinator. 

“It takes a lot to find housing on the reservation — the list is very long for housing — and so they don’t want to jeopardize having a stable place to live and don’t want to move off the reservation because that’s where their friends and family and support system are.”

Statistics show that one in three native women will be raped in her lifetime, but Sunderland says out of the little less than 300 clients Dove served last year, only 17 of them admitted to being sexually assaulted.

“Does that mean that the one-in-three number is exaggerated?” she asked, “No, we know it’s true; we know it’s happening.  We just have to get more resources to help them because we can tell them to come forward all we want to and help them with that piece, but we just need a bigger outreach — a way to help us find the resources for them as far as housing and things like that.”

Sunderland says without adequate housing and jobs, the chances of women on the reservation leaving will remain slim.  And even if they do leave, the reality is, they’re more likely to go back.

“Abused women leave an average of seven times before leaving for good, and I think here on the reservation it’s more than seven times because of the extra barriers like the housing issue,” said Sunderland.

Volt adds that in the Native American culture, domestic violence and sexual assault still aren’t talked about as openly as they should be, and many of the victims choose to go and stay with family instead of the shelter.

Another resource Dove advocates are hoping for is more help in dealing with the residents that have chemical dependency issues.  “And some of them do, because it’s a negative coping mechanism they use,” said Sunderland, who says they would love to have a chemical dependency councilor, but will do the best with what they’ve got in the meantime.

Education on all of these issues is a critical piece of the puzzle, as Dove advocates are going into schools and into the general public to let their presence be known.

They’re also hoping to soon begin recruiting elder volunteers to help out at the shelter. 

“In our culture we look up to and respect our elders, so we like to have them come in and work with the younger generation teaching them the culture and traditions,” said Vold, who says they’re also always looking for volunteers to help man the crisis line.

“And then donations too,” said Vold. “It would be nice if we could load them up and take them to a rec center or something just to get them out to do family activities together.”

Movie passes and gift certificates for places to eat are also always a welcomed escape for residents at the crisis center.

Although the Dove advocates could likely sit down and quickly come up with a lengthy wish list of resources that would help them help the abused women and children they serve, they also go home knowing that for some, they’ve already made all the difference in the world. 

“For our first year we did see quite a few success stories, too,” said Vold, “We were able to get them into housing and they were able to get employment and we haven’t seen them back,” she said, smiling. 

It’s those moments and those stories that keep the advocates going day after day in a job that is never done.  “Just as we have some residents moving out, we get new ones coming in,” said Sunderland.  And with those residents come new stories, new problems, new hopes.

To donate time or resources to the White Earth women’s shelter, call 218-983-4656.

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