Domestic violence shelter has its own school for young residents

04/15/2014 12:00 AM

04/14/2014 10:37 PM

The Newhouse domestic violence shelter in Kansas City’s urban core held an open house earlier this month for its new on-site school.

The Rev. Sharon Garfield School, named after Newhouse’s founder, opened in August and serves students from kindergarten through eighth grade. It typically has five to 10 children at any given time, said Bridgette Mavec, the shelter’s vice president of clinical services. The median stay for a family at Newhouse is 17 weeks, and residents are allowed to stay as long as two years.

The school’s teacher is Erin Wilson, a Kansas City native and graduate of what is now Avila University. Wilson is certified in special education and elementary education.

She taught at two alternative schools before she became coordinator of special education services for kindergarten through 8th grade at Saint Peter’s Catholic School in Kansas City in 2007. She took the job at Newhouse in June.

“I’ve always had a passion for any kids in need,” Wilson said. “I wanted to get back to helping kids with needs, help them get their voice, to help break the cycle,” she said. “The violence keeps going. Here, the education is just downstairs.”

The school also offers services such as parenting education, child and family therapy, nutrition classes and economic empowerment classes. It plans to expand its services in part through a $25,000 grant from the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund. The grant

will help fund a GED-preparation program, adult basic education and computer training. Wilson will teach the classes.

Newhouse runs the school in partnership with the Kansas City Public Schools, and the school follows the district’s curriculum.

R. Stephen Green, superintendent of KCPS, attended the April 4 open house and said the district was honored to collaborate with the school’s staff.

“Children don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Green said. “This is the only residential facility like this in the state of Missouri — and Kansas,” he said.

Newhouse President and CEO Jim Bogle also praised the school’s staff.

“It’s the women on this staff who do all the hard work,” he said. “They just allow me to have the title. This is the most rewarding and the hardest job I’ve ever had.”

Bogle had a corporate background before he took the helm at Newhouse. He and his mother were victims of domestic violence when he was a child, he said.

In many situations involving domestic violence, children living outside a shelter typically aren’t in school, which is part of a cycle of multigenerational poverty, Wilson said.

The idea of setting up the school within the shelter came from Bogle, Mavec said. The school provides an environment in which the children are free from ridicule by their peers and from being taken away by the family’s abuser, Mavec said. It also has a therapist on site.

Wilson said she wants to treat the children at Newhouse like any other children.

“They want to be regular kids,” she said.

Many of the children are behind in their studies and self-conscious about it, she said.

“I look at it like ‘I’m going to meet you where you’re at,’ 

“ she said. “I try to be as real with them as I can. I’m trying to build their confidence, because they have none.”

Mavec said that “amazing things have happened” at Newhouse, such as mothers becoming more engaged in their children’s educations.

Safety is the first priority at Newhouse, Mavec said. The second priority is asking what the family’s emotional ability is. Many times, a mother who has arrived at the shelter feels rushed to find a house. The Newhouse staff encourages mothers to take advantage of a safe environment for their children.

“It is no shame to stay in this program for a year or two,” Mavec said. “Get the benefits. If he’s still stalking you, how are you going to keep safe?”

A shelter like Newhouse can’t fix people or solve all the problems of an abused woman and her children, Mavec said.

“It’s not a women’s problem,” she said. “It’s not a men’s problem. It’s a community problem.”

Dortha Mae Olsen has been part of the community trying to help with the problem since Newhouse’s inception. Olsen is 93. She was the volunteer bookkeeper for the shelter for 10 years and helped with fundraising. She still volunteers for the shelter, which has a meditation garden on the grounds named after her.

“I saw the need,” Olsen said.

Olsen said that battered women need help because “the woman is the victim.”

"The man takes the checks, and she and her children are left with nothing," she said.

The profile of a battered woman might surprise some people, Olsen said.

"People have the mistaken notion that this happens only to poor women," she said. "It happens in high society, too."

Newhouse is funded through government and private foundation grants, individuals’ donations and fundraising events.

It was founded in 1971 as Northeast Ecumenical Witness and Service (N.E.W.S), a community service of Grace Presbyterian, Independence Avenue United Methodist and Columbus Park Presbyterian churches.

Garfield started the organization’s shelter for battered women and their children in 1979 and became its first executive director. The organization’s name was changed to Newhouse in 1990. Garfield died in March.

In 2013, Newhouse sheltered 423 women and 228 children, according to its promotional literature. It answered 9,362 emergency hotline calls and helped 872 victims in Kansas City Domestic Violence Court.

Ninety percent of recipients of its services are from the Kansas City area, 7 percent come from elsewhere in Missouri and Kansas, and the rest come from cities across the country.

The average age of a woman who stays at Newhouse is 35, and the average age of a child is 6. Women who stay at Newhouse suffer rom a range of abuse, including physical, sexual, emotional and financial; stalking; and destruction of property and pets.

Children living in a home with domestic abuse have witnessed traumatic events or have otherwise been abused, according to the organization.

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