I stepped out of my car and was greeted by a group of friendly children. "What's your name?" they asked. "Hi, I'm Ysolt," I responded. "Hey, Ysolt. How are you? Hello, Ysolt! Hi!" said the cheery, little voices. And unlike most adults, they pronounced my name perfectly. I couldn't help but smile -- they're beautiful. You'd never know they were the children of battered women.
It was my first visit to a women's shelter, and I didn't know what to expect. I had been inspired by Jacquelyn Aluotto's film, Not In My Back Yard, which documents the women of Strengthen Our Sisters, a grassroots community-based nonprofit organization that serves homeless and battered women and their children. "I spent years in underground shelters to see how battered women live. I wanted to show how these women live. These women go to these shelters, and they've created such a safe haven for them," she says. Aluotto's efforts in raising awareness for domestic violence fueled me to do the same. Here begins my journey to learn about Strengthen Our Sisters, how to get involved, and the extraordinary women who fell victim to domestic violence.
What I've found so far: a family.
According to the American Institute on Domestic Violence, every 12 seconds, a woman is beaten somewhere in America. The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control estimates that almost 1.5 million women a year become victims of rape and physical assaults by boyfriends and husbands each year, and about one in four women is likely to be abused by a partner in her lifetime.
Despite these alarming statistics, some turn a blind eye. At the Strengthen Our Sisters shelter, battered women told me that when they reported their cases, they had a hard time getting help from police officers and finding safety. In many instances, the women had pointed out that, before finding the shelter, they had nowhere to go and no one to talk to.
I'm guilty -- I've suspected a handful of circumstances when a friend or acquaintance might have been abused, and I did nothing. There have been moments when I wanted to open my mouth -- my chatty self has never had a problem giving gal pals advice when it came to their loser boyfriends -- but when it comes to issues regarding domestic violence, I've been mum. I've often thought I don't want to put my friend on the spot and embarrass her, it's none of my business, I shouldn't get involved.
The reality: It is my business. It's your business. It's everyone's business. Domestic violence is an epidemic in this country -- in the world, for that matter -- and it can affect you, your friends, your daughters...
Finding a Safe Haven
Thanks to Strengthen Our Sisters and other organizations like it, women do have somewhere to go.
Laurita has been at the shelter for nine months. Her son's father tried to kill her by strangulation. She got away somehow. "I went to work, I blinked my eyes, then I was here. Coming to the shelter was an eye-opening experience," she says. "I'm here, and I know the power I possess as a woman. I'm so happy and thankful that someone has created a place like this."
"It's not just about giving the women a home," Laurita adds. Not only does Strengthen Our Sisters provide shelter to the women in need and their children, it also takes some measures to disable the cycle from perpetuating. At the shelter, they have relaxation classes, battered women's meetings, even swimming. (A lot of the women said they love to go swimming. A woman, who fled from Kenya because her husband tried to kill her, just learned the breast stroke, as a matter of fact.)
"I got to the core why I was putting myself in the situation. Being here has been a beautiful journey. Counseling helped me realize things and when someone is trying to change you," Laurita explains. "Now, I know to stay strong and stay firm in who I am."
Women also take computer classes to enhance their skills, so they can try to get jobs and get back on their feet.
A Woman's Needs
Whether you're a mother or not, whether you're a victim of domestic violence or not, you're a woman first. Think of fleeing from your home at an instant. Yes, you need shelter, but you also need the basic necessities regardless of situation. Besides a roof over their heads, these women need -- well -- stuff. "They move with nothing. Imagine leaving all of your shoes, your purses, everything... You need all of that stuff -- they don't have makeup, toiletries, underwear..." (A benefit of being a beauty editor: a tremendous beauty bar. I bagged all of the makeup I hadn't yet opened in sight and brought it to the shelter, which housed over 50 women.)
And beyond that, every woman deserves to feel beautiful. On July 19, the World Peace Begins At Home Fundraiser raised about $10,000 for Strengthen Our Sisters. The women and children at the shelter walked the runway after a day of pampering. ESPN personality Ashlee Ray co-hosted the event with Aluotto. And, Real Housewives of New Jersey's Danielle Staub, celebrity hairstylist Eric Alt and celebrity makeup artist Jacqui Phillips were in attendance; Staub and her daughter who's a model, Christine, even gave the women a catwalk crash course.
So you know those women who I didn't want to put on the spot? I ignored their problems instead of confronting them to try to help? Boy, was I ignorant. In my head, they were these fragile people. The truth is, they're just like me -- they love to play around with beauty products, they like to try on clothes, they want to feel good. "These are beautiful women; they're joyful women. They're just like everyone else. They're normal people that got in a really bad situation," says Aluotto.
If you're interested in helping these women, visit StrengthenOurSisters.org to find out how you can contribute. Or, if you want to get involved on a local level, find a women's shelter near you and make a quick call or shoot a short e-mail. That's how I met Aluotto and became inspired. Don't tip-toe around the subject anymore. Do something.