Angels at the Gate

BY Stephanie Miller

“I was sitting in the kitchen last night ” says one young resident at the Domestic Violence Shelter “listening to the moms talking at the table. You would have thought they were all married to the same man.” This young girl and many like her stays with her mother at the shelter to escape a living nightmare at home.

“Part of the beauty of the shelter ” says executive director Mary Ann Lama “is women sitting around the kitchen table and talking. They never had that freedom before. They were so controlled and isolated and that was part of the abuse.”

The women who come to the shelter have a secret they are finally ready to share. These women have been cut off from family and friends by their abuser. They come from various backgrounds but all have one thing in common: They have summoned considerable courage to escape from the cycle of abuse that has dominated their lives.

“They are leaving a war zone and coming to people strangers and are willing to entrust us with their lives their stories their children. That takes a lot of strength. They dont know anything about us what we do how were going to treat them but they have decided it is better to leave than to stay at home ” says Renee McGill-Cox residential services director.

Women have been coming to the Domestic Violence Shelter since 1986 when the Womens Shelter of New Hanover County and the Task Force Against Family Violence merged to form the new entity. The executive director then Mary Ann Lama is still involved today as are many of the volunteers who first started with the agency.

At the beginning the agency was so busy “mopping the floors we didnt have time to turn off the faucets ” says Lama. Limited by resources and time all the staff could do was put Band-Aids on the problem; there was no time to devote to prevention.

Over the years the agency has grown to offer support groups to women of all ages from teens to seniors and outreach programs in the schools jails businesses churches courts community centers anywhere it can go to get its message out.
It is one of only two programs in the state to receive a Delta grant from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) providing funds for a prevention specialist to monitor work in various sectors of the local community.

One of Lamas favorite outreach programs is called “Hands are Not for Hitting ” which is implemented in day care facilities and elementary schools. The program teaches children alternative ways to release anger. “I would love it if our court system would make abusers take that pledge that hands are not for hitting because its something that we should have learned as children.”

A large component of the work takes place at the agencys offices where ongoing support and empowerment groups (including one in Spanish) offer guidance and camaraderie. Lama does whatever it takes to get abused women into those rooms. She continually asks herself the question “Who isnt here and why?” and then removes the obstacles one by one offering child care providing transportation and food.

Group members in these 12-week courses learn how to understand and deal with abuse. The worsening economic climate and the increased availability of drugs and alcohol contribute to the rise in domestic violence but ultimately the abuser chooses to hurt his wife or girlfriend and not his boss a friend or himself. The roots of the issue are power and control. The shelter teaches women how to take back their power so they become survivors not victims.

To accomplish these goals the staff has created comfortable spaces for all who need help. The shelter provides the basics 19 beds are available on-site with additional arrangements in place if needed. “We want everyone to know and feel that this is their home while theyre here ” says McGill-Cox. The staff provides for the physical safety and needs of the residents which may be as simple as “I need to sleep late this morning ” or as emotional as “I need to make sure my children are okay.” Part of a womans freedom the shelter teaches is to assume responsibility and so the women do their own cooking laundry and childcare just as they would at home.

But the shelter provides more than just the basics. It offers a place for women to express themselves release their anger and find the person thats been buried for so many years. There are rooms for women to study work on creative projects exercise and meditate. The meditation room has a fountain chair blankets and a notebook for women to record their thoughts and offer hope to those who follow. “You are not alone ” these pages say over and over again. “I can make it and so can you.”

Many women cant leave their abuser on their first attempt. Statistically it takes five to seven times before a woman is able to leave for good. “We never tell a woman not to go back ” says McGill-Cox. “You cant do that because youre doing the same thing the batterer is doing.”

Although she wants these women to be safe it is more important for them to have a voice to make their own decisions. “That is the greatest part of what we do at the shelter ” she says. McGill-Cox supports any decision her residents make. She is even accepting when a woman chooses to return to the batterer. “That lets me know she trusts us. We know its going to happen again and we tell them they can come back and these are the things you need to do to be safe.” To do this they teach goal setting and how to implement a safety plan.

While the five full-time dedicated direct staff members are not licensed counselors they shoulder much of the psychological counseling both because of their experience and because of the cutbacks in the mental health system. A childrens coordinator is on-site to work with each child. For many children the work done in the shelters is not enough to recover from the scars of abuse. Many are deeply harmed and require continued psychological support.

The staff both at the shelter and at the workshops spends a lot of time teaching the dynamics of a healthy relationship. So when the residents talk about their love for their abusive partner the staff acknowledges that as a normal reaction. “Because if you didnt love him you wouldnt have stayed so long ” McGill-Cox reminds her charges. But she and her staff try to show these women that the way these men show love is not healthy.

“I want you to think about this. Does this person really know how to love and if they dont maybe they need the time to go out and learn.” She asks what they might say to a friend who tells them a story similar to her own. This is how the women begin to help each other.

To support this 24/7 work the agency turns to fundraising which makes up 63 percent of its budget while government grants contribute 37 percent. Among the biggest sources of income are the three Vintage Values Resale Shops on Castle Street College Road and at Monkey Junction. Recycled clothing items from the stores are featured in the lively annual fashion show Seasons of Love the agencys 17th annual show is scheduled for May 9 the Friday before Mothers Day. “People are blown away at the fashion show when they see what we have at the stores ” says Lama. Some of the donated items are from retail stores and still have price tags on them.

Another large fundraiser Fathers for Hope takes place on Fathers Day when names of male contributors appear in the Star-News. “This is not just a womens issue ” says Lama. “As long as its called that men are going to be hesitant to get involved.”

Lamas favorite story is of a woman who spent time at the shelter and was packed and ready to leave. As the woman walked out the door for the last time she yelled down the hallway “Thank you for my life.”

“You just cant put a monetary value on saving a life ” says Lama. “We are the last resort for these women.” These survivors are fortunate to have a place to call home as they build up the strength and knowledge necessary to care for themselves their children and the women who follow.


Brave Women

(names changed to maintain anonymity)


Domestic violence usually sneaks up on its victims. If theyre violent one time theyre going to do it again says survivor Christine. “Theyre going to test the waters to see what youre going to put up with.”

At first Christines boyfriend promised her the world. Later the abuse started: first verbal then physical. Her boyfriend even invaded her sleeping hours waking her to question the sounds she made while she slept.

Christine was a prisoner of war. Her boyfriend would lock up the phones in the trunk of his car when she was home alone lock her in the house. He threatened her with death and outlined the details of her demise. The night that he began his final assault Mothers Day eve he grabbed their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and told her to say good-bye to her mommy because she was never going to see her again and then proceeded to try and kill Christine.

Convinced he had succeeded he fell asleep. Christine awoke on Mothers Day to find she was still alive crept into her daughters room grabbed her snuck out of the house and went to a neighbors home and into a new life.

Christine now a UNCW student and a volunteer at the Domestic Violence Shelter wants to work with trauma victims upon graduation and talks to audiences all over the state.

Her greatest sorrow is her greatest motivator. “It is hard to know what to say when she (her daughter) asks why her daddy hurt her mommy and why she cant see him ” Christine says. To make up for the trauma in her daughters life Christine has dedicated herself to helping her grow up to be self-sufficient and empowered. “I want her to know she can make it on her own.”


Leslies children stay nearby during the interview one in her lap a beautiful pigtailed kindergartner and the other on the seat next to hers a handsome elementary school boy. They usually stick close by. After years of trauma they know their mother offers a safe haven.

After years of verbal abuse from her ex-husband Leslie hit the breaking point. A strong woman who now juggles a full-time job a home and two young children Leslie used to sleep with one eye open when her husband got into one of his moods. To the outside world she tried to paint a “pretty picture” while holding and hiding her fear and anger. Her ex-husband although not physically abusive took out his rage verbally and emotionally locking her out of the house screaming at her in front of the children.

Leslie and her children found their way to the Domestic Violence Shelter which she refers to as their “vacation home.” The shelter opened its arms to her offering her security and the physical items she and her children needed to feel comfortable. The weekly empowerment sessions were eye opening for both Leslie and her children. They gave her what she needed to transform herself from a “victim” into a “victor.”

Life is hard for the two youngsters who miss their dad and sometimes direct their anger at their mom who now must be both parents. Leslie tries to be the best she can be for her children “so they can enjoy the rest of their lives. Its a sad thing to go through and now they see were living on the positive end. Its something theyll always remember but it will make them even stronger as they grow up.”


Lisa always believed in “until death do us part.” Its the reason she lasted eight years in a marriage filled with physical and emotional abuse.

Lisa reached her limit the night her husband ripped the cord out of her mothers beautiful Tiffany lamp. He needed a cord and that was the closest one at hand. “At that moment I realized this person doesnt care anything about me.” Days later she discovered letters from a woman her husband was having an affair with and confronted him. He responded by throwing her over the couch while their seven-year-old daughter jumped on his back screaming “Leave my momma alone.” Her eight-year-old son was frozen to the spot.

After finding a safe place for her children “If he killed me I didnt want my children there” Lisa finally ended up at the Domestic Violence Shelter in Wilmington where she began her recovery. The staff took her in and loved her while the women in her support group took up a collection for a lawyer to help her gain custody of her son who was legally her husbands child. They gathered $27.15 a lot of money to those women enough for a kind-hearted attorney to take her case. When the boy chose his mother over his father in court the judge granted Lisa custody.

Lisa never forgot those women and tries to give back every day. She is passionate about the success of her children and how they keep reminding her: “Momma you couldnt help what happened.” To this day she brings that awareness those words into her 13-year marriage to a wonderful man. “You have to be patient ” she cautions other victims “and know who you are before you can ever decide you are going to be with someone else.”

If you or anyone you know need help

Domestic Violence Shelter & Services Inc.
2901 Market Street
Wilmington North Carolina 28401
(910) 343-0703 24 hours every day

Shelter residency is not required in order to receive any of the following services:

24-Hour Crisis Intervention: Trained staff and volunteers are available in urgent and emergency situations to assist with and provide for victims immediate safety shelter and supportive needs 24 hours a day 7 days a week.

Emergency Shelter: The shelter offers a caring and non-threatening refuge where residents can be safe find support and use goal-setting techniques to plan for the future. Basic assistance for food clothing baby supplies and emergency transportation are all provided.

Information Advocacy and Referral: Through an established network of social agencies and private practitioners the shelter is able to provide referral and assistance for victims with legal medical vocational housing financial and educational concerns. Court accompaniment is also available.

Individual Support: The staff and trained volunteers are available for confidential telephone and in-person support sessions.

Support Group: A series of workshops designed to help women empower themselves by addressing issues of violence against women womens roles in society and women advocating for themselves. Night groups meet weekly with transportation and childcare provided.

Childrens Programs: Weekly programs providing positive interaction and addressing issues relating to domestic violence are available including the Family Nurturing Program. Childrens activities also take place throughout the week for children staying at the shelter.

Community Education/Outreach: Programs are available for groups schools and professional service agencies. Youth programs include: Hands Are Not for Hitting Safe Dates STARS Teen Night and Foster Grandparent Program. An Elder Abuse program focusing on family abuse in later life is now available.