Domestic Violence Services: Maria’s Story (Video):
Maria felt like she lived in a cage while she endured domestic violence for 10 years. But with help from Family Services, she broke free-- for herself and for her children-- and now her boys call their transitional housing apartment their palace.
Legal Services: Silvia’s Story
Silvia was so afraid of her husband that she hid an ice chest and food in her closet. Cooking was too dangerous. When he went outside or to the bathroom, Silvia would quickly and quietly sneak to the kitchen to replenish her supply of food and ice. Sometimes, if she knew he would be gone for a while, she would pull out the electric skillet she’d hidden and cook something warm to eat in the bathroom.
The physical and verbal abuse she had endured during 33 years of their marriage had brought her to this point, but one day an incident of violence left her fearing for her life. Silvia came to Family Services’ Legal Services program, frantic and desperate for a restraining order. A legal advocate helped her create a safety plan and complete the restraining order paperwork.
Silvia eventually decided that she wanted a divorce. She only wanted two things: to live in peace and to stay in the house where she had lived for 33 years and raised her children. Her abuser had an attorney, but she knew she couldn’t afford to pay for one. She was intimidated by the attorney’s requests to sign paperwork. Family Services’ Staff Attorney, Jennifer, was able to take on Silvia’s case and represent her in the divorce at no charge. Now Silvia could face her abuser and his attorney on equal standing. After weeks of preparation and negotiation, Silvia arrived at the courthouse early for her final divorce hearing.
“I sat waiting on the bench in the hall and I was so relaxed because I knew my lawyer would come and represent me,” Sylvia said.
With Jennifer’s help, Silvia got to keep the house in the divorce. But life in the house is completely different than before.
“Now my life is peaceful,” said Silvia. “Now I can laugh and share a joke. I can leave the door open and watch my little dogs play on the grass. I can come and go whenever I want. Before, I would only cry and think about how to hide food. Now I eat like a queen in my kitchen.”
Silvia is still getting used to her freedom, but she is looking forward to reaching some of the goals she has set for herself, including taking a computer class and finding a part-time job that would help her save up for home repairs.
“It was a hard 33 years. God, Family Services, and Jennifer helped me through all of this,” she said.
Supportive Housing: Manuel’s Story
Manuel looked down at his shoes. They were worn out. He was worn out. He had survived domestic violence and maintained sole custody of his three children for over a decade. But his ongoing struggle with homelessness, coupled with his untreated, chronic mental and physical health conditions, left him feeling short on hope. He looked up at Cheryl, his Family Services Supportive Housing Case Manager.
“All I need is a safe place to get on my feet,” said Manuel.
Manuel became Family Services’ first male domestic violence survivor to be placed in transitional housing. Manuel cried when he saw his family’s new home, asking, “What did I do to deserve such a chance?”
Cheryl worked with Manuel to help him get his health under control. He started receiving mental health services at Family Services’ Counseling Center and pursuing medical treatment for his diabetes and a long-needed surgery. Perhaps the most telling indicator of the newfound stability and health in Manuel’s household is that his three children all raised their grades in school from D’s and F’s to A’s and B’s.
Today, Manuel is looking for his own permanent housing. Manuel not only got on his feet, but he and his kids are thriving.
Sexual Assault Services: Alicia’s Story
Ghosts. Everywhere. Her step-father had been arrested and was in jail, but 16-year- old Alicia was haunted by horrible memories of the sexual abuse he had forced her to endure for five years. She was still living in the house where all the abuse had happened, and the painful reminders that were everywhere she turned were too much to bear. Alicia was in extreme crisis.
At Family Services’ Rape Crisis Center, Alicia got the immediate crisis counseling she needed. Her Victim Advocate, Raquel, also connected her to other services like the District Attorney’s Office’s Victim Witness Assistance Division, which helped Alicia’s family relocate to a new home. Alicia started attending regular therapy sessions to begin the healing process.
But as she was trying to heal, Alicia faced yet another challenge: her step-father’s criminal trial. At first, Alicia said she would never be able to testify in court. Alicia regularly contacted Raquel for crisis counseling. Raquel focused on Alicia’s strengths and continuously praised her for her bravery in coming forward and reporting the crimes.
With Raquel’s support every step of the way, and the strong collaboration among Family Services, Child Welfare Services, Law Enforcement, and the District Attorney’s Office, Alicia displayed a dramatic improvement in her mental stability and personal strength by the time of the trial. At the last minute, her step-father took a plea and Alicia didn’t have to testify after all. She was relieved, but said she would have been willing and ready to testify if she had to.
Family Services supported Alicia through the unimaginable. Recovering from sexual abuse is a lifelong process, and Alicia may continue to confront those ghosts of her abuse for a long time. Alicia displayed great bravery and strength at a young age, and today, she is committed to continuing to recover and living a healthy life.
Human Trafficking: Ana’s Story
When I crossed the Mexico-U.S. border I thought I was going to be living a dream by being in a better country to raise my son. Unfortunately, we fell into the hands of bad people and everything changed. At first I didn’t mind working from sunrise to sunset picking fruit because I knew the money would come in handy. But when I was only able to keep $40 for a week’s worth of work, and went days without seeing my child, I was shattered. Not only was I working long hours, but my son and I were also confined to a small, dirty room. I would go nights without sleep protecting him from the roaches and mice that were in that room, too. I would beg the boss to let me go so that I could find a better place to live, but she always said I was never leaving.
One day when the boss wasn’t home, I had the courage to walk out of the house and seek help. I realized I was in the middle of nowhere and would most likely never get away. However, two good Samaritans walking by asked if I needed help and I yelled YES! I told them I needed to get away with my son, but a few minutes later the boss showed up. She dragged me back to the house and threatened me. I thought our chance to escape had passed, and I feared what would happen to us, but the good Samaritans called the police. When they arrived to the house we were finally freed.
The officer took us to a shelter and said everything was going to be okay. The next day I met Linda from Family Services. She explained she was going to help my son and me with anything that we needed. I told her I was scared for our lives and that I didn’t feel safe not knowing exactly where I was and what was going to happen. Her tone of voice and words of encouragement made me feel so comforted. She spoke Spanish just like us, and that was a huge relief. She asked a few questions and explained that I had been a victim of labor trafficking.
I am really grateful for Linda and the other people from the different organizations that have been involved with my son and me in overcoming these difficult situations. Thanks to these programs I have the opportunity to incorporate myself into society and feel free. These programs give us the opportunity to have a better life, a roof over our heads and food on the table. Without all your help, I think we would still be stuck in the same situation, and forgotten. I am thankful to all who work to help and support people in need. I hope that by sharing my story, more people can learn about these programs and get out of their misery.
Outreach & Prevention: Celeste’s Story
When Celeste Lemus started at Lindsay High School a little more than four years ago, she was withdrawn from her family, quiet, and afraid to speak out. Classmates bullied her and made fun of her baggy clothes—ironically, the ones she wore to avoid drawing any attention to herself. No one knew that Celeste had been a victim of child sexual abuse, a secret she had kept to herself since it happened.
“I felt so much hate,” Celeste remembers, “not toward others, but toward myself. I blamed myself and felt regret for what had happened, even though I didn’t understand it at the time.”
When she heard about a student club on campus for young women called MyVoice, she was interested but was reluctant to go. Finally, Celeste found herself walking into a club meeting her sophomore year. The topic that day was valuing yourself.
“We were writing words to describe ourselves,” Celeste said. “Everything I wrote was negative. When I saw the words on my paper, I realized how weak I was. I thought of my younger sisters and cousins and the children I might have one day. I didn’t want to be a bad example for them.”
That first MyVoice meeting was the beginning of a new life for Celeste. MyVoice is Family Services' primary prevention program aimed at changing community attitudes and norms around teen dating and sexual violence, while increasing student health, safety, and leadership skills. Students participate as part of two school-approved student clubs: MyVoice for young women and MyStrength for young men.
MyVoice and MyStrength Club members learn the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships and learn how to effectively intervene as a bystander to violence. They explore notions of masculinity and femininity in their community, and how these notions might support teen dating and sexual violence.
Meanwhile, members develop leadership skills by organizing community action projects and outreach efforts that raise awareness about these important issues. The clubs started at Lindsay High School in 2007 and expanded to Woodlake High School this year.
By her senior year, Celeste was president of the MyVoice club in Lindsay, and was an inspirational leader in her family and in her school.
“My shell broke and I changed completely,” said Celeste. “People who had bullied me before looked up to me. But the biggest change in my mind was going from weak to strong. From a victim to a survivor.”
After graduating from Lindsay last spring, Celeste studied to become a Certified Nursing Assistant and is now working as a CNA. Her goal is to become a Registered Nurse. She has bonded with her mom and sisters and works hard to mentor her younger sisters and cousins. Her passion for MyVoice didn’t end when she graduated. She is proud that three of her younger sisters are now members. She recently visited the new MyVoice club in Woodlake to share her story and encourage the members.
“You don’t know what the person sitting next to you has gone through,” she told them. “Someone has to take a stand and do what’s right. If not you, then who?”
Mental Health Services: Ramona’s Story as told by Leticia, a Therapist at Family Services
Ramona, a survivor of domestic violence and a mom of three, gives me hope. When I met Ramona at our first therapy session this spring, she had been enduring domestic violence for 20 years and was facing the opportunities and challenges that come with living independently for the first time. Ramona had very limited resources to start with. She had no driver’s license, no work history, no experience managing household finances, and was illiterate. Ramona and I have been working together to identify small steps she can take to become independent, build her self-esteem, and begin to trust others again.
She has made incredible progress in just a few months, steadily setting and working toward her goals. Two of the big ones: She is learning to drive alongside her teenage daughter, and she has secured employment. A positive side effect of her own personal progress is that her three children are becoming more independent themselves. They no longer expect her to do everything for them, and are taking more responsibility for their own choices and routines. As a therapist, it is so rewarding to see clients reap the benefits of their hard work.
Children’s Counseling: Sofie’s Story:
Sofie, a victim of child sexual abuse, was able to process her trauma, talk with her parents about what happened, and find hope again with help from her Child Therapist at Family Services’ Children’s Counseling Center.
Parenting Resources and Support: John’s Story, as told by Lupita, a Parent Educator at Family Services
John, a husband and father who graduated from the Gang Awareness Parenting Project (GAPP) after four months of dedication, gives me hope. In the GAPP program, I work with inmates who are close to being released to help them develop healthy parenting skills they can put to use when they go back to their families. John was released from jail with an electronic monitor but had a month left in the GAPP program. Because he had a job waiting for him, he thought he might not be able to finish. But then he had a great idea: What if he asked his employer if I could come to the farm and conduct the class with him during his break? His employer agreed and a week later I arrived at the field to see John rushing over to the hose to rinse the dust from his face. Then he set up our “office”: a table and a couple of chairs under a leafy tree. The certificate I presented to John for graduating from the program was the first certificate he had ever received. John is proud of his outcomes as a father and husband. Now that he is able to control his own anger, home life is more peaceful, and his wife and children are more comfortable opening up to him. John ‘s desire to change and his dedication to the program gave me hope this year.