|Freeman Center Continues Fundraiser During Time of Heightened Need|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff |
05:23AM / Saturday, August 29, 2020
|The Elizabeth Freeman Center's Walk A Mile fundraiser has gone online.|
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — After a drop at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, calls to the Elizabeth Freeman Center's domestic abuse and sexual assault hotline have returned to the kind of numbers the non-profit saw in the summer of 2019.
If anything, it's getting more calls. And the callers are in greater peril.
"Beginning in May, we started to see a sharp increase in hotline calls, particularly those coming in on the weekends and evening hours," Freeman Center Executive Director Janis Broderick said this week. "We could get between 12 and 15 calls on a weekend alone.
"And the calls were different, too. They're more severe. The violence is more extreme.
"We're seeing a greater risk of lethality."
In April, the center was seeing a 20 percent drop
in the number of calls to its 24/7 hotline, (866) 401-2425.
But even then, social workers knew that drop was not due to decreased demand for support. If anything, history showed that during times of economic crisis — like a global pandemic that threw thousands of people out of work — domestic violence was likely to increase.
What changed in the spring was that many victims were housed with their abusers 24 hours a day and unable to safely reach out to services like the Freeman Center.
What never changed was the dedication of the Elizabeth Freeman Center staff, which continued to offer its counselling, emergency intervention and shelter services throughout the global health crisis.
Those services are supported, in part, by the center's fundraising efforts, and this summer, by necessity, its signature fundraiser, the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event, has gone virtual
Last year, the event, held in conjunction with Pittsfield's Third Thursday, raised more than $90,000 to support the Freeman Center. This year, participants are being asked to register online, solicit donations and take photos and videos of themselves walking for the center to post on social media with the hashtag #WereHereWeWalk.
It has not been easy to keep the center operational in the age of COVID-19.
"We were one of the few domestic violence shelters in the state that kept our shelter open," Freeman Center shelter director Jennifer Goewey said. "A lot of people moved to motels."
The Freeman Center also had to use motels to supplement its shelter, partly because social distancing requirements altered the shelter's capacity, Goewey said.
"In the past, when we had single people in, we often doubled them in a room," she said. "We no longer do that. Each household has its own room. We've been using more alternative sheltering means, mostly motels, to provide immediate help to people in danger.
"We don't send anybody back to a dangerous situation."
Increasingly, those victims are referred to the Freeman Center by law enforcement.
"We're getting more calls from police departments around the county because they're responding to calls coming in," Broderick said. "When [the pandemic] started, we did mailings to all the police departments in Berkshire County saying that we're open. We have been leaving safe phones around the county in case someone needed one. … We leave them at major police departments. We leave them at all the courts in the county. We've left them at hospitals.
"Often, it's not safe to call from your own phone. You might have a joint plan with the person who is hurting you."
The rise in both the frequency and intensity of calls to the center's hotline has taken a toll on the Freeman Center's staff.
"It's been intense," Broderick said. "We talk to each other a lot. We have folks get clinical supervision here to work through the feelings they have following these calls. We've really come together as a team.
"As an organization and as an employer, our staff struggles with the same issues as everyone else does. We have a lot of staff with kids, which makes it hard to work. We have people with medical conditions. It's a skeleton crew in the office. But our people are very committed. People are dedicated to being here.
"We're getting through."
Broderick said she appreciates the energy and the excitement generated by the virtual Walk a Mile fundraiser, which has brought in a few new tech-savvy volunteers to help keep the decade-long tradition alive.
But there is no doubt she misses the opportunity to raise awareness at a high-profile event like the popular Third Thursday street fair.
"Community involvement in the walk is huge," Broderick said. "I think of it more as a community event than a fundraiser. And the community awareness has just grown every year. It involves people from all over — every background, age, race, gender identity, socio-economic group.
"I love that it's a community march, and everyone is involved."
The Walk a Mile event started with 100 people in 2011. Last year, 900 people participated.
"It is disappointing that we can't get together, but that is reality right now," Broderick said. "We decided to do a virtual walk because we didn't want to stop completely the momentum created by Walk a Mile. We still want people involved in the effort to end violence. And we want people to get the word out that the Elizabeth Freeman Center is open and ready to help.
"And we're hoping to raise some money."