New Beginnings for Domestic Violence Survivors

New Beginnings for Domestic Violence Survivors
Mother and son at New Beginnings, a transitional housing facility. Photo by Rebecca Craig.

In a county with a domestic violence rate three times the national average, United Methodist Women-supported Navajo United Methodist Center offers a safe place and opportunity for a new life.

When domestic violence strikes homes, women are often forced to flee quickly — children in tow — seeking safety with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. A woman is battered every 12 seconds in the United States, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In New Mexico’s San Juan County, law enforcement receives close to 1,500 domestic violence reports each year — three times the national average. 

Known as the “heart of America’s Southwest,” Farmington, N.M., sits on the border of the Navajo and Ute Indian Reservations. The bustling town is home to Native American cultural treasures and is the economic hub of the Four Corners region, a spectacular mountainous area that includes southwest Colorado, northwest New Mexico, northeast Arizona and southeast Utah.

But in this town of picturesque natural beauty, at least 60 domestic violence cases occur each week. Countless more occur on the nearby Navajo Nation Reservation, which spans 26,000-square-miles and three states. The Navajo Nation Tribal Department of Law Enforcement statistics from 1998-2000 revealed 6,703 domestic violence calls over a three-year period. Many cases simply go unreported.

The New Beginnings program of the Navajo United Methodist Center, a transitional living shelter in Farmington, offers survivors of domestic violence and their children a safe sanctuary where they can get back on their feet and develop essential skills to prepare them for independent, violence-free lives.

The center was formed in 1994 after Native Americans in the community, in conjunction with the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, decided a long-term care program was needed to empower women and children to escape violence and become self-sufficient.

“We have a lot more women who need our services than in other parts of the country,” said Susan Kimbler, executive director of the Navajo United Methodist Center. “Most women entering our program have no income, no means of transportation and few personal possessions.”

Building a life after leaving an abusive relationship can be a daunting task. Most shelters allow survivors of domestic violence to stay 30 to 90 days at a time. “What makes us different from a crisis shelter is that the women stay in the program for up to a year,” Ms. Kimbler said. “Ninety days is not long enough to put your life back together.”

Indeed, studies reveal that women leaving a short-term crisis shelter are more likely to return to their abuser.

Navajo United Methodist Center, which opened its doors in 1996, is the only transitional housing facility serving the 200-mile Four Corners region. The center is located on the sprawling grounds of the former Navajo Methodist Mission School, a boarding school founded by the Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1891. It operated until 1980.

The center is composed of nine buildings on 13 acres. Women and their children reside in transitional living facilities of two homes and two trailers where they cook, do household chores and put in volunteer hours in a family-like setting. An office, storage area and shop, chapel, director’s home, and Jones Hall are other on-campus buildings used for the program.

“We want them to feel at home,” Ms. Kimbler said of the facility, which presently accommodates nine women and up to 18 children. In 2009, the center provided housing and services to 24 women and 47 children. Ninety percent of the residents are Native Americans.

Designed by local social service agencies, including Navajo Social Services, the program combines transitional housing with case management support and resources to help survivors achieve self-sufficiency.

Once women enter the New Beginnings program they must develop a plan for self-sufficiency to keep from returning to an abusive relationship. Thus, the program encourages independent living from the start.

Unlike some shelters with regimented schedules, residents can grocery shop and prepare meals on their own. They are required to help maintain the upkeep of their homes and are given clean up duties and chores for daily living.

Residents receive a full range of supportive services, such as assistance in gaining access to an education, job training and employment skills, affordable housing, transportation and child care. “The number one reason for going back to the batterer is financial dependency,” Ms. Kimbler said. “We build self-sufficiency so they don’t need to go back to abuse.”

If residents don’t have a high school diploma, the program helps them obtain an equivalency general education diploma (GED) before they apply for jobs. Staff review college applications and identify scholarships for Native Americans at area colleges.

When residents obtain employment and garner a livable wage, the program facilitates the search for affordable housing. Individual and group counseling, life skills training and parenting classes further bolster the support. “We instill a survivor mentality. They need to see themselves as people who can overcome. It is for the long term,” Ms. Kimbler said.

Shirley* is one success story of New Beginnings. After fleeing an abusive relationship, Shirley entered the program with her children, finished her education and obtained certification as a pharmaceutical assistant.

Within a couple of months, she found a job and later a house in Shiprock, N.M. From donations, New Beginnings purchased a used washer, dryer and furniture for her home.

A woman who had seen some hard times herself donated a 1983 Chevy, Ms. Kimbler said. Despite the rust and dents, Shirley could make a 60-mile roundtrip between Shiprock and her job. By chance, she became reacquainted with a cousin she had not seen in many years who repaired the old car. “His hobby was working on old cars, and with a day’s work, he was able to get the old Chevy humming, and it is still running smoothly, a year later,” she said.

While the sluggish economy has taken a toll on funding for the program, Ms. Kimbler is optimistic. “I’m proud of the history of this mission,” she said. The Woman’s Home Missionary Society’s work in Farmington dates back to 1891, and history shows that although funds may be tight, the programs endured.

“You do what you can with what you got and keep on going,” Ms. Kimbler said.

*Shirley’s name was changed to protect her identity.

Shanta Bryant Gyan is a freelance writer and strategic communication consultant based in the New York City area.

Posted or updated: 9/30/2010 11:00:00 PM
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