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United Way agency helps create Safe Haven

            The statistics are startling. Nearly one-third of American women (31 percent) report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives. Approximately 1.3 million women are physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States. About 50 percent of offenders in state prison for spousal abuse kill their victims. Yet research shows that a woman will leave her significant other seven times before actually staying away.

            Luz, whose name has been changed due to confidentiality, is a 37-year-old Hispanic woman. She tried to leave her abusive husband 20 times in the course of her 19 year marriage.

            “From the beginning of our marriage there were problems. I got pregnant with our first child three months after we were married and I saw that my husband had issues with alcohol and drugs,” she said. “Sometimes he would come in drunk and he would put me down and would be so critical. I was an object to him, not a person. When he was drunk, he targeted me and my feelings did not count. I was his punching bag and he turned into an evil monster when he drank.”

            No matter the amount of abuse endured, she remembered how he befriended her during her teen years and she was able to share with him the difficulties she was having at home. 

            “I had problems growing up with my stepfather because he was very possessive and controlling and would never let me do anything as a teenager,” Luz said. 

            She often resented it and dreamed of running away. 

            “My husband was the first person to stand up to my stepfather; and I felt like he was the prince I had been waiting for,” she said.

            After their first of four children were born, Luz thought that having a baby in the house would change him. For the first seven years of marriage they lived next to her parents, who never knew of any of the abuse. 

            “There was verbal and physical abuse at this point and it was pure hell,” she said. “He would hit me on the head or slap my body, but he knew how not to leave bruises. But I still loved him because I had grown up without my biological father so I held on to the fact that my children would grow up with a father."

            However, as the marriage continued, the children became more fearful of their father and were able to comprehend more of what was happening in the home. A turning point came in 1993 when her son was in an accident and lost an arm. 

            “I had to turn my life around when my son lost his arm. I started to work and I would leave my husband for a few weeks at a time and go live with relatives,” she said. “I also started to go to church and got into my faith because I knew I couldn’t change him, only God could.”

            When she returned to work, she became a workaholic. 

            “I would lose myself in work and I was employed at two jobs so I did not have to go home to him,” she said. 

            Due to her absence though, she also lost part of her relationship with her children. They began blaming her for everything and began acting like their father by hurting her feelings.  “It felt like a knife cutting me, wounding me when the children would verbally abuse me," she said. "I knew at this point I had to get out of the marriage because my children were going to crush the little bit of self-esteem I had left."

            “I knew what I had to do, but I was scared of the children’s reactions,”Luz said. 

            She called Safe Haven in Statesboro and talked to Cindy Armel, a case manager at the shelter. 

            “Basically children need to hear that it’s okay and the shelter is not a scary place," said Armel, who has worked in counseling for 13 years. "They need to hear that mom is doing what is necessary to allow them to be safe and that their lives will be better.  I got on the phone that day with Luz’s children and told them all of this."

            Luz and her children moved into the shelter on Dec. 26, 2006.  “I knew that I could not reconstruct my family in a place where he demolished it,” Luz said. 

            Safe Haven can house 21 people in its shelter and offers an additional 14 apartments in its transitional housing program. A staff of 24 full time and part time employees is available around the clock to be advocates for the residents. Both individual and group counseling sessions are offered to both women and men who have been abused. 

            “Here I have learned my children again," Luz said. "We stay up late at night and talk. We are safe to be a family and all of the counselors have given us so much care and love."

            This time Luz will not return to the man who abused her. 

            “This shelter has made me strong," she said. "It has made me face my fears, my weaknesses. I know that God brought me here for a reason. I was given a second chance at life.” 

            Safe Haven  is one of 20 agencies in Bulloch County that receive funding from United Way.  If you would like to give to United Way, send your tax deductible contribution to United Way of Southeast Georgia, 515 Denmark St., Suite 1100, Statesboro, GA  30458

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