A Second Home
The Windward Spouse Abuse Shelter gives battered women more than just a place to stay.
The Windward Spouse Abuse Shelter looks a lot like any other home in the neighborhood-a two-story, plywood house, with a barbecue grill on the länai, where every birthday and holiday is celebrated. Cubbyholes painted red, blue and yellow are stacked near the front entrance. Herbs and vegetables grow in wooden boxes in the backyard.
It's called Hale Ola, "House of Life," but it's more than a house. It's a safe haven for the more than 3,500 abused women and their children who've stayed here since its opening 14 years ago. The shelter, which is located in an undisclosed neighborhood in Windward O'ahu, isn't just a place to stay. The organization offers numerous services, including counseling and help in applying for domestic-violence funds and welfare assistance.
Its executive director, Avis Alokele Jervis, makes this shelter feel like a home. Everyone calls her "Aunty Avis," even if they are older than her 56 years of age.
"It feels like a typical house-we take turns making meals in the community kitchen, we all clean up," Jervis says. "As soon as someone walks in that door, they are my 'ohana," Many Hawai'i residents will recognize Jervis as the ex-wife of Gerard Jervis. She talks freely about her publicly problematic marriage to the former Bishop Estate trustee, who was her second husband.
Fewer residents know that this outspoken advocate for battered women was once a victim herself. Married and pregnant at age 14, she endured years of abuse from her first husband, until he was killed by another woman.
|Hale Ola executive director, Avis Alokele Jervis. Photo: Macario|
Jervis helped found Hale Ola in 1991, in response to the growing need for a second shelter in Windward O'ahu. But in 2003, the organization lost its state funding and, naturally, its staff. That's when Jervis volunteered to take over as executive director of the shelter. Now, it's basically a two-woman operation, with Jervis' twin sister, Alyce Sua, helping run the shelter and answer its 24-hour hotline seven days a week. With the demanding, round-the-clock position, Jervis even bunks at the shelter herself, sleeping on a mattress wedged into one of the shelter's closets. The meager accommodations, even if they are a far cry from the Lanikai home she once owned, don't bother her.
"I've been inundated with tragedy in my life, and now I am truly a survivor," Jervis says. "My job on this earth is to make sure no one ever comes close to my personal experiences of abuse. What could be more important than helping them?"
Horror stories abound in this household. A few months ago, a woman who was nearly stabbed to death in front of her 5-year-old son arrived at the shelter in bandages. Her wounds were so fresh that they ruined one of the shelter's 26 twin mattresses.
Other victims come to the shelter with less obvious injuries-missing teeth, bumps under their hair, bruises concealed by clothing. Bev (clients go by first names only here) arrived more than two months ago. The 36-year-old accountant suffered through eight months of abuse from her then-boyfriend. But when he punched her 5-year-old daughter, she fled their home. Her daughter now stays with her at the shelter.
"It started out with little things-he'd ask me why I was coming home at 6, if I got off at 4, or who was I talking to when I was on the phone," Bev says. "The first time he hit me, all I thought was, 'What did I do wrong?' He was apologetic every time, bought me gifts. But as soon as he decided to pound my child, I got out of there. That's when the lightbulb went on."
A pastor at her church referred her to the Windward Spouse Abuse Shelter.
"When I first got here, I was afraid to talk to anybody or do anything; I was constantly crying," Bev says. "But because of Aunty Avis, I've really come out of my shell. I know I don't need to go back to that situation."
"We take care of them all," Jervis says. "What I notice about all the women who come here-they sleep. Sometimes three, four days. They're in a strange environment, and there are kids running around, but they just sleep. Because for the first time, in a very long time, they feel safe."
Since Jervis took over operations in 2003, the shelter has felt more like a second home for the women and children who stay here. Once there, women rarely leave, for safety reasons. So Jervis cooks for every single birthday, even rounding up a cake with candles. She helps the children plant seeds in the box garden out back and harvest the vegetables and herbs left by children who've stayed here before.
Windward Spouse Abuse Shelter
"Aunty Avis lets us know that we can talk to her anytime of day or night, even if we have to wake her up, she's here for us," Bev says. "It really helps to be around women who know exactly what you've gone through."
The community pitches in, too. Everything the shelter has-food, clothing and supplies-comes from private donations. Local doctors and a psychologist volunteer their services. A massage school sends students to give free massages. A salon donates cosmetics and hair products for makeovers.
Other community members and organizations help these women find jobs or apartments, even furnishing their rooms if necessary-anything to keep victims from returning to their abusive situations.
"It's not about how many people work here, how many beds we have, how many clients," Jervis says, "it's meeting every individual's unique needs."
Even though Jervis' hands are full playing aunty, counselor and cheerleader, she's got a bigger dream for the shelter-financial stability. She's working with local rapper Stephen Takamori, who recorded a song about domestic violence. All the proceeds from the CD, titled "Please," will benefit the shelter. That's why Jervis wants national exposure for the CD, even sending the song to Oprah Winfrey.
"When I die, I want my headstone to read, 'Changed One Woman's Life,'" Jervis says. "It's my passion. It's in my gut. That's all I live for."Making a Difference is presented in partnership with Hawai'i Community Foundation, a statewide grant-making organization supported by generous individuals, families and businesses to benefit Hawai'i's people.
For information: www.hawaiicommunityfoundation.org.