Sheltering Wings Provides Hope for Those Affected by Domestic Abuse
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Since Sheltering Wings first opened its doors in 2002, the nonprofit organization has helped scores of individuals who suffer domestic abuse. According to Executive Director Cassie Mecklenburg, the nonprofit helps roughly 250 women, men and children annually through residential services. In addition, they provide prevention and education all across the county in churches, schools and workplaces. The organization also offers a 24/7 helpline, fielding thousands of calls each year. Sheltering Wings aids, in numerous ways, those who suffer domestic abuse, to help them get back on their feet.
“We know it’s not enough to just help a person get out of an abusive relationship,” Mecklenburg says. “We want to help them build safety, stability and independence so that they can move forward. Therefore, we work with them to develop all of the economic and emotional resources they need to do that.”
The fundamentals of all abuse are control and manipulation, so regardless of how it manifests itself, whether it is physical, emotional, verbal or sexual abuse, it all boils down to control. As Mecklenburg points out, during the pandemic, because many people have been isolated and quarantined together with spouses or significant others, the opportunities for control and manipulation have increased.
“People are much more hesitant to call a domestic shelter or service provider, or even a friend or family member, for help when their spouse or significant other is sitting right next to them on the couch or in the room next door,” Mecklenburg says, adding that this unique period of time has underscored the importance of community, and helping one another in times of crisis.
For instance, office colleagues might normally see signs that would prompt them to check in with a co-worker and ask if everything is OK. Teachers might see a change in student behavior at school and inquire if something is going on at home. During the pandemic, however, with so many individuals working and learning virtually, people haven’t had as many opportunities to be around one another as they would normally. As a result, many individuals have experienced abuse at a much more frequent and dangerous level, since abuse has a tendency to escalate over time.
“Isolation and quarantine created this perfect storm of an environment where abuse is ripe to happen more,” Mecklenburg says. “Unfortunately, it has and it did.”
In addition, the staff has seen a spike in deteriorating mental health in recent months.
“We’re seeing families coming to us with significant and severe mental health challenges – way more than we were seeing before,” Mecklenburg says. “It’s all interwoven together.”
As a result, families seeking Sheltering Wings’ services are in need of an extra level of care, concern and therapy, to help them not only address abuse, but also residual mental health effects.
The coronavirus has impacted everything, including the need for Sheltering Wings to decrease their daily census. While their full capacity is 80 beds, they had to drop that number to 55 in order to manage social distancing and minimize the risk of spread. Despite having a lower census, they still housed 8% more families than they did the year before.
“When you go from daily census capacity of 80 to 55 yet you still serve more families, what that means is that families are moving in and out at a much quicker rate,” Mecklenburg says. “Families were feeling much more unsettled, and more transient in the process. It pointed to two growing needs – our need to provide after-shelter services and help families find permanent, safe housing even more than before.”
That’s precisely why Haven Homes, an affordable, supportive-housing apartment community being built in Plainfield, is coming at just the right time. In June of 2020, in partnership with developer RealAmerica and Cummins Behavioral Health Systems, Sheltering Wings broke ground on Haven Homes, located across the street from The Shops at Perry Crossing. Sheltering Wings will have access to 13 of the 52 units for residents who move out of the shelter but cannot yet afford rent. Sheltering Wings families will have first right of refusal on the remaining 39 units, but the community at large can also live in the apartments. The staff is currently taking information from members of the community who are interested in living at the property, and placing them on a wait list. In the fall, those people will be contacted to determine their interest and connect them with availability.
Mecklenburg describes the clubhouse as much more than the average apartment community clubhouse. In addition to all the typical amenities, Sheltering Wings will staff the clubhouse, and the building is designed with the capacity to host life skills classes and programs onsite. It will be a vital extension to all that happens at the facility in Danville. Cummins Behavioral Health Systems will offer direct access to their therapeutic services.
Despite the pandemic, construction is still on track and the plan is to open in early December of 2021.
“What’s so wonderful about this partnership is that it allows our families to transition from victim to survivor,” Mecklenburg says. “They won’t be defined by their past because they are living in and amongst members of the general community. We are privileged to partner with RealAmerica to be able to provide this.”
Mecklenburg says one potential hiccup with the move-in date involves acquiring appliances, as appliance shipments have been impacted by COVID-19.
“It’s possible that we could have the entire community built out and ready to open, but we won’t have refrigerators, stoves and microwaves,” she says. “Right now, it’s on a months-long delay, but we’re hoping it all works itself out by December.”
The organization’s priority of providing emergency housing and helping to build stable and independent lives hasn’t changed, but the way they do this has changed throughout the last year.
“In order for us to be responsive to the evolving needs, as well as the growing demand on our services, it takes community support,” Mecklenburg says.
This support comes in all different forms, as the organization needs both financial resources as well as volunteers. For instance, the staff keeps an ongoing wish list of needed items. Currently, this includes toilet paper, paper towels, bath towels and twin-bed sheets. Linens and towels are always in short supply because whenever a family leaves the shelter, Sheltering Wings sends them off with the towels and sheets they used during their stay.
The organization is also constantly seeking volunteers to help free up staff time to address the ever-changing needs of the families.
“We’ve been unbelievably blessed and so appreciative of the way our community has responded,” Mecklenburg says. “History shows that our community really cares about our families and wants to take care of them. We are moving forward, adapting our programs and services, and trusting that we will continue to be able to do that based on the phenomenal community support.”