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SafeHouse Center marks holiday season with Washtenaw County survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault

SafeHouse Center executive director Christine Watson
SafeHouse Center
SafeHouse Center executive director Christine Watson


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David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And we're just days away from the Christmas and Kwanzaa celebrations. For most, it's a truly joyous time. For some, it's another period of being mostly concerned with staying safe and surviving. I'm David Fair, and there are too many women, many with children, who are going to spend the holidays at SafeHouse Center in Ann Arbor. It serves as temporary sanctuary for those who are survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence. Thank goodness it's there for those who need it. But we want to make sure that out of sight is not out of mind. Our guest today is Christine Watson. And Christine is executive director of SafeHouse Center. And thank you so much for carving out time for us today.

Christine Watson: David, thank you so much for having me.

David Fair: We have certainly become more open in the manner in which we talk about domestic violence and sexual abuse. But, societally, we still tend to brush a lot of that under the rug. Is the shelter at or near capacity for the staffing you have available?

Christine Watson: Yes, it is, unfortunately. And that is a trend that we've seen for the last 12 to 24 months. We tend to run near capacity, but we always make sure that we still have room for that person who needs it. So, nobody should ever think that they cannot call us. Please do, because we are here for you.

David Fair: I don't know if statistically it bears out, but there's this perception that the stressors of the holiday times, be it financial or overuse of alcohol, there tends to be an increase in the incidents of domestic violence. Do you see that play out?

Christine Watson: Absolutely, we do. And I think it doesn't even need to speak to this particular holiday, but a lot of holidays throughout the year. There's definitely an extra financial strain. People trying to leave live up to expectations, what they need to make do for other people. There's also increased family time. There's increased time away from work, maybe away from school. That can really increase the sense of isolation and feeling trapped at home and, therefore, feeling more trapped in the situation.

David Fair: Sexual assault and domestic violence--it occurs in every zip code. It occurs at every income level across every racial line. As we enter the holiday season and we have this opportunity to potentially get together with family and friends, what are some of the things perhaps we can be on the lookout to see if someone is in trouble but isn't really speaking out about it?

Christine Watson: I think that's a great question. And what I always tell people, if you see something, say something. And that could be something as simple as taking somebody aside and saying, "Is everything okay?" I think along a lot of times people forget just to ask those simple words, "Are you okay? What is going on? How can I be helpful?" And I think coming at it in the most non-judgmental and empathetic way possible will hopefully lead to a very productive conversation. And, sometimes, that is all that it needs to be. You see something that just doesn't sit right with you highlighted, but do it so privately to make sure that if the person wants to talk about it, they have a chance to do so without feeling there's going to be a fear of retaliation or recourse from the other person. Offer them resources. Have them call us. Be aware of us, so that if you see something and you say something, you can also back it up by saying, "I might not be the best person to talk to or get advice from, but I know these people at SafeHouse. And they are. And they're always available. Here's their phone number."

David Fair: And what is that phone number?

Christine Watson: That phone number is 734-995-5444. That is our 24-hour helpline. And it is answered 24 hours a day by an actual person who will take the time to speak with you and figure out what it is that you need.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair. We're talking with SafeHouse Center executive director Christine Watson. I know that the staff of SafeHouse Center wants to make the very best of a difficult situation for the women and children staying at the shelter. How do you go about trying to create some sense of a festive occasion as we approach the holidays?

Christine Watson: We try to make it, like you said, as festive as possible. We try to mirror what their experience would be like at home, so we make sure that we are representative in our celebrations. We want to make sure that everybody feels welcomed and included and belonging. And staff do an amazing job. They are really intent on making sure that people's needs are met.

David Fair: Fully decorated?

Christine Watson: Fully decorated for all the different holidays, I should say. And that's something they do throughout the year. But also, right now, we make sure that if people need extra help and that could be going back to maybe the finances doesn't stretch as far as they would like, we make sure that we are the passer-throughs of the big donations that we get from our community to make sure that they have the ability to find gifts for their children and even for themselves as well.

David Fair: And is that where all the gifts for the children come from? Through community donation?

Christine Watson: A lot of it is, yes. We especially enjoy this time of year because our community really shows up. Our community is so generous, and that really manifests itself in many different ways. And toys is one of them. If you go to our Web site, SafeHouse Center dot org, you will see our wishlist. Please shop off that because it tells you what we're running low on. And that's a great way to show your support.

David Fair: For the mothers in particular, getting necessities is vitally important. But what about something just to enjoy that just says this is a holiday and you are being celebrated for who you are, not what you need to provide?

Christine Watson: Exactly. And this is why it's so amazing to watch the innovative ways in which our community really shows up. We had a donation the other day. A couple came in with 15 bags, and there were gift bags. And they all had spa treatments in them for our residents. So, there was some furry slippers, cozy socks, facemasks, candles. You know, if you think about something that would make you feel comfortable, relaxed and calm, that's what was in these gift bags. And they had put that together by themselves and thought of us. And I was really grateful and appreciative. And I think that is really what comes through at this time of year.

David Fair: For the rest of the community, is through an official way you have to make a donation? Or is there an informal manner in which you can drop off gifts?

Christine Watson: So, our lobby is open every single day, Monday through Friday, from 9 to 4. People are welcome to just show up. Like I said, we do ask look at our wishlist. See what is most needed. And I will also say this. You can easily donate to us online at our website--again, SafeHouse Center dot org. There is a "click to donate here" button, and that is a great way to support us because those dollars goes directly to the direct service work that we do. Another great way is to present us with gift cards. We love giving gift cards out to the people that we work with. It's a great way for them to get to go out and then choose what exactly it is that they need. So, gift cards and cash donations, checks, credit cards: those are obviously our top requests.

David Fair: Our conversation with SafeHouse Center executive director Christine Watson continues on 89 one WEMU. I also want to talk about the staff because they're working so hard to make this a celebratory time for those that you work with. But there is a emotional toll, and having to go home and try and celebrate with your own family, watching the difficulties and hardships that others are going through, I would imagine that can be very difficult and disconcerting. What is the process for keeping staff spirits up, so they are best prepared to actually help those who come to be served?

Christine Watson: We take self-care of our staff--very important--because we have to be the best version of ourselves every day that we show up and our staff are amazing. Like you said, they go to no ends to make sure that our clients are well looked after, are well received, and centered in everything that we do. But it can take a toll. The work that we do can be emotionally taxing. So, we set a lot of time aside to make sure that we can check in with each other, that we can talk about what's going on. We also make sure that people have the ability to take time off, to take care of themselves and their family and meet their needs. We are having our annual holiday party for the staff, and that's an opportunity for us just to come together, hopefully spend a couple of hours, enjoy some food, enjoy some time where we can just sit and check in with each other. That's just one way I think that we try to come together as a team to acknowledge that, yes, the work is hard. It's also been very rewarding. And together, we are stronger.

David Fair: The end of the year: it's often when we spend time reflecting on the year that has passed, looking forward to the year ahead, and, sometimes, with new resolve and aspirations. As it relates to SafeHouse Center, are you doing any of that as 2024 approaches?

Christine Watson: Always. We're always trying to reflect and see how we can serve this community better and in more ways. And so, I think that is absolutely work that's going to continue in 2024. I want to remind people we have an array of services available to you if you need counseling. We have support groups. We have our legal advocacy program. We have our helpline. We have our shelter. If somebody is in need, please give us a call. And I think especially going back to how this time of year can be hard for people, it can be very isolating. Our support groups are a great way to connect with other survivors and sit in a space where you can talk about your experiences, where you can really feel heard and where you can share your advice. You can share your methods of coping with what has happened to you and maybe help somebody else along their healing path. If you go on our website, you will see a big array of different support groups that we host every single week. It's easy to get signed up. Just contact us. People don't have to sit alone. We're here for you.

David Fair: Again, it is SafeHouse Center dot org. And we'll have the link up on our website as well. Thank you so much for the time today, Christine. And happy holidays to you and to those that SafeHouse Center serves!

Christine Watson: Thank you much, David! Thank you to you! And thank you to our community! We are here because of you! And we are so grateful for the partnership! And we thank you, especially at this time of year!

David Fair: That is Christine Watson, the executive director of SafeHouse Center in Ann Arbor. It provides full service, including shelter services to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. To find out more about what the center does and to learn about how to help provide some cheer and comfort to those staying at the center through the holidays, again, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Go to SafeHouse Center dot org. We'll get you everywhere you need to go. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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