Somewhere in Arkansas, a woman sleeps lightly. She’s exhausted, but she can’t allow herself to fully drift off. Any minute now, she’ll hear the garage door of this sprawling mansion open, just off an elegant, picturesque street.
Once that happens, there’s no telling how much time she’ll have to process his mood, what topics to avoid, how quiet is too quiet or what look, what question about his day is tonight’s tripwire. Sometimes, just her being there is enough.
She steadies herself as she hears the keys in the door. He stumbles in the dark cloud of drunk he’s walking through and a curse slices through the room. It’s late; her night’s just beginning.
In a Hillcrest corner spot, Win Rockefeller Jr. folds his hands beside an iced coffee. Like all past and present board members for Women and Children First, the Little Rock-based domestic violence advocacy organization, he’s steeped in the facts and figures of the 41-year-old nonprofit. But it’s the faces behind the numbers that lend true perspective.
“One of my first board meetings, there happened to be some kids at the shelter and they’d done some pictures,” Rockefeller says. “An eight-year-old boy had drawn a Christmas tree, and when they asked him why he’d drawn that, he said because he’d never seen a Christmas tree before so he thought he’d draw one.
“It hit me like a freight train. Obviously, you’re aware that these things exist, you just don’t ever really connect to it. It’s still hard for me to wrap my brain around something like that, but at the same time I’m not naïve to the fact that it happens.”
Rockefeller, his wife Natalie and longtime pals Tiffany and Daniel Robinson are co-chairs for WCF’s Woman of the Year gala, the primary fundraising event for the nonprofit. Like Win, none of the others have been victims of domestic violence, but they know it’s happening all around them. For this reason, they devote their time, resources and connections to providing a safe place for people in crisis.
They all agree the ultimate goal is to see a day when WCF is obsolete, when the line of bruised and battered people no longer appears at the door. But that is not reality, so they work to help WCF remain the beacon in the storm it has been for so many.
“Can you imagine leaving your home, with your kids in tow, maybe without even your wallet? Knowing you’re starting completely from scratch and dealing with the emotional and sometimes physical damage that’s been done?” Natalie says.
“In that situation, just finding a safe space, where you knew you could go to sleep at night and sleep all the way through the night without anyone harming you or your children, that in itself is huge.”
Somewhere in Arkansas, a man rolls out of bed and makes his way to the bathroom. He stares at his reflection in the mirror, the welt under his eye and the scratches on his neck. It’s not too bad this time, he thinks. Fortunately, she only used her bare hands.
The first time she hit him, over texts from a co-worker, it was more shocking than painful. But it opened a door that never fully closed. Even as things grew progressively worse, he’d never hit her back. The thought alone was repulsive to him, and she knew it.
Besides, who’s going to believe that it was really self-defense, that the former all-conference golden boy was getting the hell beat out of him by his wife? He catches the light and opens the bathroom door.
On average, one in three women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime. Incidents of domestic violence — of which Arkansas’ tally perennially ranks among the highest in the country — don’t discriminate by gender (one in seven men are also victims), socio-economic status, age, race, religion or sexual orientation.
Domestic violence can be physical, emotional or both, fueled by one partner’s desire to exert absolute control over the life of another. Abusers’ psychological tactics are atrocities in their own right, keeping victims docile by degrading their self-esteem and reinforcing just how much they need the relationship to survive.
Women and Children First
A Year by the Numbers
People were provided emergency shelter by WCF
Calls the WCF staff took on the Domestic Violence Hotline ranging from people in crisis to referrals to and from other shelters
Orders of protection (or restraining orders with teeth) the WCF court advocate helped file last year. This number was more than from the rest of the state combined.
Families, including 47 children, who received WCF help finding permanent housing
Who benefited from WCF-sponsored classes on life skills and parenting, counseling and support groups
Statistics are from 2016. Numbers from 2017 are trending similarly.
It’s this conditioning that helps explain one of the more baffling phenomena of domestic violence — the victim’s tendency to return to his or her abuser, on average seven times. Even when WCF enters the picture, the average person still returns to the abuser twice.
“They know it’s not a free ride forever,” Daniel says. “They don’t know how they’re going to provide for their family, they don’t know what the future holds. That’s why the average victim goes back. It’s not that the situation there isn’t bad, but a known situation is better than the unknown.”
WCF provides a safe place for a person to take stock, determine their next move and get help. Case workers provide compassionate support and skilled services, from navigating legal channels to medical care, job training and counseling.
Unlike other organizations that focus just on stabilizing the current situation, WCF also invests considerable time and resources in breaking the cycle of violence through outreach in the community. These include a program teaching high school students about dating violence and Peacekeepers, a young professionals’ volunteer group.
“These are people who are trying to get help. They don’t want their kids to have to go through what they went through. They want to make it better,” Tiffany says. “That’s the whole idea behind the dating violence awareness [WCF is] doing in all the schools. These programs are designed to help these kids break the cycle so maybe someday domestic violence is not going to be so prevalent.”
Somewhere in Arkansas, a child stares into his bowl of breakfast cereal in silence. He’s groggy, roused from a sound sleep by the familiar, violent sounds in the next room. He can’t bear to look at his mother, but doesn’t dare raise his eyes to the man responsible, either. He remembers what happened the last time he did that.
The sickening, black-and-purple half of his mother’s face and a festering rage makes the boy want to kill the man, but that’s a fairy tale. He settles for acting out in school, punishing the kids who look at him wrong or withdrawing altogether.
Today feels like every other day as the object of his anger muscles his way from the breakfast table and off to work. But once the car is out of sight, his mother grasps his hand. Without a word or a look back, she walks him out the front door without so much as his backpack to remind him of the place. Half an hour later, they’re at a gate by a building he’s never seen before. His mother rings the buzzer.
Faces Behind the Numbers
The numbers speak for themselves. In 2016 and 2017, WCF provided emergency shelter to about 800 individuals, but that’s only a sliver of the story, as some people have the means to stay off premises but utilize other WCF services.
As Arkansas’ largest domestic violence shelter, it takes roughly $1 million a year to keep WCF’s doors open. Still the needs pile up, particularly at the holidays when the place is packed to the rafters. Fundraising can be tricky without photographs of smiling kids or details of a woman’s comeback, lest an abuser learn their whereabouts. Special events, such as the Woman of the Year gala, can only do so much.
“If you back into the numbers, $1,500 saves a life,” Daniel says. “When I was board chairman, there was a child who was there. They went home, a couple months later he was killed. If we had had $1,500 more, could we have saved him? I don’t know. But we’ve got to do something.”
In that spirit of doing something, the board has been thinking big about the future. Planning efforts are underway examining the feasibility of a new home that would provide more beds, services and ways for domestic violence victims to find their way back into life. It’s a bold vision and a far cry from the shelter’s first home — incredibly, located on Battery Street in Little Rock — opened in 1978.
Cathy Browne, current board chairman, is spearhead for the effort. Her visions for the new center are indeed grand, with elements drawn from the best programs from around the country. For that dream to come true, millions will have to be raised — a daunting task for even the most noble of causes.
But one look at the staff and all doubts vanish. One shy half-smile from a woman passing in the hall with her arm cast as fresh and white as bone, one giggle from an elementary-age kid opening his first birthday present, and hope is renewed.
“I’ve had so much joy in my life, I’ve had so much good in my life. You see these ladies come in here with no hope; you just don’t know what their life must have been like,” Browne says. “For me, this is the chance to give back that people always talk about.
“Yes, it takes time and it costs money, but wow, the reward for a little bit of effort? Come on, who wouldn’t want to be involved in something like that?”
The 12th Annual Woman of the Year Gala, honoring the Rev. Betsy Singleton Snyder, is set for Saturday, Jan. 20, at the Marriott Grand Ballroom in Little Rock.
Tickets + Info: Wcfarkansas.Org/Woy