“Mommy, can we spend the night?” pleaded 5-year-old Gabbi from the backseat as they pulled into Bridgeway’s Women’s Center.
It had been just over a year since she and her four daughters had escaped the hands of her abusive husband, and it had been one year to the day that they had left the safety of United Way supported Bridgeway Women’s Center — a place they used to call home — to move into a permanent home of their own.
Before their arrival to the Center, Tracey, her husband and their daughters resided in Affton. Warning signs began showing when what began with a hunger for control quickly turned physical after Tracey’s husband began pushing their children. Growing up with a father who did the same, Tracey dismissed the behavior as “tough love” and discipline. On several occasions, things escalated to the point where Tracey took her girls and left. But time passed, and they returned in hopes of change.
“I finally realized that the anger and abuse wasn’t just directed toward me,” Tracey said. “It was directed toward the girls.”
Eventually, his rage reached an all-time high, a level Tracey had never seen before. Tracey recalls seeing her daughter, Kelsea, who was 13 at the time, pinned to the ground, her husband sitting atop her, choking her. Kelsea was left with bruises covering her neck, chest and back — so severe, she had to be hospitalized. It was at that moment, Tracey realized they had to get out — she and her girls were leaving for good. Grabbing nothing but a hamper of clothes, the five fled that night.
“It’s easy to convince yourself that things will get better if you just hang in there, do better at this and do better at that. But better is never good enough,” Tracey said. “Eventually, you reach a point where better has nothing to do with you at all.”
For weeks, Tracey made numerous phone calls, searching for an available shelter she and her girls could call home, but all shelters were full. The group of five was down to $18 and contemplating spending the night in their car when Tracey made one final call. It was a call to Bridgeway Behavioral Health’s Women’s Center, a United Way supported domestic violence shelter. Volunteer Coordinator, Cathy Sandy, remembers answering the call.
“I knew this was a family I needed to bring in,” Cathy said.
In the U.S., one woman is beaten by her husband or partner every nine seconds. For Tracey, hope lied in the hands of Bridgeway’s Women’s Center. The Center is one of two emergency domestic shelters available in St. Charles and Lincoln counties, meaning thousands of women rely on the help and protection they provide. In many cases, having a safe haven from abuse is crucial to these women — their lives literally depend on it.
Survival —it became a mindset for Tracey. And it’s this mindset that kept Tracey going and left the Center staff in awe of her strength. It kept her going through long tedious days, days that would start early in the morning dropping her daughters off at three different schools and end working late into the evening.
“I wasn’t 100 percent sure we were going to make it,” Tracey said through tears. “But here we are, a year later, and we’re doing more than just surviving.”
The Women’s Center recognizes that every woman’s situation is different — no two are alike. They start by helping each woman set goals based off their individual needs, such as employment and housing, and provide them with the necessary resources to achieve them. Residents are given comprehensive services including food, clothing, household goods and access to a 24-hour crisis hotline but most importantly, safety from the hands of their abusers. They also offer outreach to past residents as well as counseling services.
United Way’s funding allows the Center to provide all these services for Tracey and her daughters and the 150 other clients they serve each year. They provide residents with a safe place to call home until they find one of their own and supply them with the much needed love and support of a family.
“You don’t realize how much you miss a piece of normalcy until it’s gone,” Tracey said. “The Women’s Center gave us that feeling.”
When it was Thanksgiving, Tracey, her girls and the Center’s staff prepared a wide spread of food together — a Thanksgiving Tracey said was the “most normal feeling Thanksgiving” she and her girls had ever had. When it was Christmastime, staff provided each member of the family with presents, something Tracey said she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to give her daughters that year. When Tracey needed advice or just a listening ear, the Women’s Center was there.
“On hard days, there were hugs. On good days, they shared our joy,” Tracey recalled. “They made us feel like we were part of a family.”
And when it came time for Tracey and her daughters to begin looking for a house, the Center provided them with the necessary resources to do so. But the help didn’t stop there. The Center continued to walk with Tracey and her girls, even after they moved just five weeks later. The family of five had very few belongings so the Women’s Center staff with the help of several donors set out to make their house feel like a true home with furnished bedrooms and a fully-stocked kitchen that included everything from pots and pans to dishes and cutlery. They even provided them with gift cards for necessities and anything else they needed to start their new life together.
“It’s been an amazing year with a lot of ups and downs, but at the end of the day, I can come home and know it’s my home, and no one’s going to take it away from me,” Tracey said. “They [the Women’s Center] saved my family.”
Tracey took a moment to reflect on how far they all had come over the past year.
“Mommy?” Gabbi asked, breaking the silence. “Can we please spend the night here tonight?” It was the second time little Gabby had asked.
Tracey smiled. “If that doesn’t tell you something about this place, coming from a 5-year-old, I don’t know what will.”
About Bridgeway Behavioral Health
Bridgeway Behavioral Health is a multi-service agency that is actively involved in creating safe and healthy communities for those struggling with addiction, domestic violence and sexual assault. They strive to improve the mental, spiritual and physical health of the individuals and communities that they serve. Since 1983, Bridgeway Behavioral Health has been a United Way funded agency.
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