Photos By Lori Sparkman

 

In Saline County, a woman opens a door to a trim villa and lets her eyes take in the fresh, inviting space. She does not own the house, but for the foreseeable future, it is hers, and after what she and her kids have been through, even a temporary place that is this nice and this safe will do. The keys she used to unlock the door feel like a prayer in her trembling hand as her children file in and start to tentatively look around. No, this is not where she pictured herself or her children, but it is what a second chance looks like. It already feels an inch closer to home.

 

Jajuan Archer knows every board and tile in these homes. As founder of Women’s Own Worth, a nonprofit that serves victims of violence, she dreamed of providing a place where survivors could begin to restart their lives in the aftermath of their ordeal. Not long ago these villas were nothing more than a crazy dream, the kind of wildly ambitious goal where people would wish her good luck to her face then discount her as delusional behind her back.

 

That is what makes these villas such a crowning achievement — the journey from dream to bare ground and bare ground to recruiting partners that donated expertise, labor or, in the case of Lowe’s in Bryant, materials. Then from there, at last, to the grand opening to welcome the first shaken survivor hoping to blur the images of the past and focus on the future.

 

“The villas were built for people to transition back into the community on their own,” Archer said. “They can live there six months to two years. They’re not living rent-free; it’s a hand up, not a handout. We’re helping them reestablish their work in their community, reestablish schooling and extracurricular activities for their children. The way they’re able to do that is by being able to help themselves. We’re just helping them.”

 

Archer also sees the villas with an understanding of their occupants that only comes from having been where they have been. To have known what it is to see death approaching and claw for an escape frantically yet in slow motion. She has smelled the acrid black power, heard a pistol bark loudly enough to drown out her primal screams. She knows what it is to have survived, only to wonder how to live from that day forward.

 

A dozen years ago, Archer was ambushed outside her home by Calvin Keith Brown, who forced her into a car at the barrel of a rifle, promising to end her life. Inside, Archer snatched a pistol out of her purse, emptying it into her deranged ex-boyfriend, then took off running down the street. Witnesses say Brown staggered out of the car to level the fully loaded .30-06 at her but crumpled to the ground before firing a shot.

 

“I really honor and appreciate people, other survivors, who tell their story,” Archer said softly. “We learn to live with it and over and through it.”

 

In the aftermath of the incident, Archer struggled to come to terms with what had happened, at one point spending a month sleeping on the floor of a closet in her home, too terrified to sleep in her bed. She quickly formed the resolve to help others by creating Women’s Own Worth to connect community resources and provide a general shoulder to lean on for anyone who needed it following an attack or living under the cloud of domestic violence.

Jajuan Archer, WOW founder

“Women’s Own Worth bridges the gap from all federal-and-state funded programs in our state,” Archer said. “We help them with therapy, housing, with transportation, with food, with everything. We let them know what food pantries are available. We help them to get established on SNAP if they’re in a low-income bracket.

 

“We help them to do all those things through our volunteers. No one is getting paid in this organization — not me, not anyone. We just use our connections in the community to help in any way we can.”

 

Archer has lived by an “all of one” credo in building WOW from a small personal ministry to its place in the continuum of local resources for survivors. As each goal was conceived, she found individuals along the way who were happy to share a little of the load by providing guidance, expertise and time.

 

For the most committed among them, Archer created WOW’s Woman of the Year. Since 2015, nine individuals have been so honored in recognition of their work helping survivors move past their circumstances and resume their lives.

 

“These women are an inspiration to others to get involved and do things in the community,” Archer said. “It takes a village, and all these ladies have been significant to our mission and to so many people.”

 

There has arguably never been a more dangerous time to live in Arkansas, and it is only getting worse.

 

In 1985, the first year of statistics available via the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer database, Arkansas’ rate of violent crime was 348 crimes per 100,000 individuals, nearly 200 crimes below the national average and far and away the safest crime period in the state’s recent history.

 

Three years later, violent crime began a steep ascent, peaking with the Bangin’ in Little Rock gang era of the mid-1990s, when violent crime incidents flirted with 600 per 100,000 people. The next decade saw dramatic reductions in the violent crime rate, bottoming out in 2002 at 425 crimes per 100,000 population. From there, the rate stair-stepped upward, crossing above the national average in 2003 and never looking back.

 

Except for a mild lowering in 2011 to 2014, the last period numbers were in the 400 crimes per 100,000 population tier, the crime rate has reached one historic peak after another. By 2019, violent crime had equaled the Bangin’ years, and 2020 saw the single largest one-year spike on record, jumping to 672 per 100,000 individuals, a mark 273 crimes higher than the national average.

 

In 2020, the aggravated assault rate was the highest on record with 536 crimes per 100,000 individuals, a 95-crime increase from the previous year. Homicide and rape crimes were the third highest since 1985, at 10.6 murders and 74 rapes per 100,000 individuals. In October 2022, USAFacts.com reported Arkansas had the highest violent crime rate among the 43 states reporting at a sobering 709 crimes per 100,000 people. To put that into perspective, Arkansas’ rate was nearly seven times that of the lowest crime rate in the nation, New York’s, at 102 crimes per 100,000 people.

 

Heather Baker, president of AY Media Group and publisher of this magazine, was attacked with her husband in a carjacking attempt on Nov. 12, 2021, following dinner out in the posh Heights neighborhood of Little Rock. Two individuals approached with guns drawn, opening fire on the car. Despite 30 shots fired, resulting in 18 slugs striking the car’s frame and interior, neither occupant sustained a serious physical injury. The psychological wounds have been slower to heal.

 

“You don’t know who you’re going to talk to on any given day or what they’re going to say to you that will bring you back into it,” Baker said. “I have had to learn to cope and be on a level where people aren’t overwhelmed with my situation. People have empathy, but they don’t understand this unless they’ve gone through it.”

 

Armed with this realization, Baker took her newfound awareness and redoubled her efforts to support organizations working with violence victims, WOW among them. She and her husband, Ryan, also spoke extensively to lawmakers to increase awareness and resources for mental health services through the state’s Crime Victims Reparations Board.

 

“We met with lawmakers to really advocate for mental health awareness,” she said. “Less than a quarter of a percent of the money through the reparations board was going to mental health awareness. I think that’s a huge faux pas because people who have dealt with violence have to get help or it destroys their lives.”

 

The scope of domestic violence is murkier to ascertain because such crimes are often prosecuted under existing statues for felony or misdemeanor assault, murder or sexual assault, per the Office of Violence Against Women of the U.S. Department of Justice. While more states now have more specific language on the books that defines domestic abuse offenses up to and including animal abuse, many experts believe domestic violence crimes are among the lowest reported, which makes it difficult to compile reliable statistics.

 

That said, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence suggests about 20 people per minute experience physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner, more than 10 million Americans every year. About 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe physical violence by an intimate partner at some point during their lives. In Arkansas, 41 percent of women and 35 percent of men surveyed reported experiencing domestic violence in their lifetime, ranking the Natural State 10th and 11th in the country, respectively.

 

Yet as common as it is, domestic violence still hides in plain sight in many neighborhoods either through apathy, ignorance to the problem or the simple disbelief that it is anything other than a crime found among other segments of society. Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood said this point was driven home for her when, while starting out as an attorney, she began taking cases that help women dealing with abusive situations.

 

“I had one really terrible case,” she said. “The husband was in a position of enormous power physically, professionally, economically and in every way was abusive. My client saw no way out; she said he told her ‘No lawyer can protect you from me, no one will even take your case to get you out of this situation, and if you try to leave, I will have the kids,’ and he was physically abusive in every way.

 

“I remember in taking on that case and being successful in getting her and her kids away from him, it really tugged at my heart. Her children were in school with my children, and I remember thinking how they were all portrayed as being this perfect family. Nobody knew what was going on behind closed doors. I think that gave me a passion for this issue.”

WOW’s immediate goal is to raise enough money to construct another villa, like this one, to help survivors start over.

In stepping into the breach, WOW provides myriad services to help survivors get back on their feet, connect with resources and normalize their lives. The group fits into a spectrum of agencies in central Arkansas, each with their own approach to the problem but all highly necessary in the continuing battle to serve families, said Arkansas Rep. Charlene Fite, longtime WOW board member.

 

“It’s not a competition because sadly, there are plenty of victims,” Fite said. “There’s plenty of work for everyone, but I do think one difference in WOW’s approach is that we come alongside survivors after all the legal work is done and things have settled down a little bit to see what they need. We provide ongoing counseling as they need it. We provide medical services. We have dentists. We have people willing to help with transportation, with providing cars or furniture — all the things that they’re going to need to build a new life for themselves and for their children.”

 

Archer has a goal of building one more villa to fill up the parcel of ground, a $250,000 proposition. Part of her fundraising effort is WOWapalooza, which this year will be a luncheon at the Governor’s Mansion on Oct. 10. The 10th annual event will also serve to recognize the 2023 Women of the Year.

homes of hope wow

“Is that our goal, to raise it all through the luncheon? No,” Archer said. “That would be amazing and wonderful, but we know that it’s going to take more fundraising than that. We’ve been blessed with people who really care and go above and beyond to help us. I know that we’ll reach our goal one way or another and continue to help families and work with people who have been victimized in order to get their lives back on track.”

 

Every home is an album of snapshots, capturing thousands of moments within the frame of its walls that are spliced together to create the life story of those who dwell within. Some of the images glow with joy; others, however, are darker. Ask a woman who has been beaten in her home or any person who has been shot at random in an act of violent crime, and they could affirm how the mind holds these images closer in consciousness, projecting them on the lens of the mind’s eye again and again in agonizingly sharp detail.

 

Archer, knowing what it feels like to live with those images cluttering the walls of one’s psyche, pours herself into WOW, determined to provide homes of hope to help others step towards a brighter future, with a little help from her friends.

 

“Our Women of the Year, like all our volunteers, are so different, and yet they have all made such a substantially significant impact in our mission,” she said. “We want survivors to use their stories as inspiration to do great things with their lives and within the community in whatever avenue that they want. That’s the dream.”

 

WOWapalooza Luncheon

Arkansas Governor’s Mansion

11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 10

For ticket or to make a donation, visit womensownworth.com.

 

2015 WOMAN OF THE YEAR

Kimberly Key-Bell

Social Worker

In her professional life, Kimberly Key-Bell helps juveniles deal with the fallout of bad situations at home. She got involved with Women’s Own Worth as an extension of her passion for breaking the cycle of abuse in young people.

 

“Domestic violence is a direct contributor to our kids becoming or [being] adjudicated as delinquents,” she said. “When you’ve grown up in a home where you watched a mother be abused or neglected or you’ve been neglected or abused yourself and are traumatized, those things aid in delinquency.

 

“People don’t always want to talk about that which is unfortunate because our kids don’t choose to wind up in delinquency; it’s a result of trauma that they often find themselves in a juvenile justice system.”

 

During the early days of Women’s Own Worth, Key-Bell served as referral therapist for the families the organization served. She said WOW has an uphill battle to fight as society in general becomes more desensitized to violence.

 

“We accept violence as a norm in this country,” she said. “Yes, you can say there is mental illness at play here. However, we don’t talk about the ills of poverty. We don’t talk about disenfranchisement. We don’t talk about the blatant acceptance of violence that breeds systemic issues among women, children, among the poor, the elderly.

 

“As a clinician, I know there are several organizations that all fill their niche in this process. WOW has been one of them that has done it very well.”

2016 WOMAN OF THE YEAR

Penny Waldroup

Survivor

In October 2006, Penny Waldroup drove her children to her husband’s Tennessee residence. She had suffered years of abuse with him, and the couple was now going through a nasty divorce. Along for support was Penny’s friend, Leslie Bradshaw. When they arrived, an armed and intoxicated Brad Waldroup was waiting. An argument ensued wherein Brad blamed Leslie for disrupting the marriage, ultimately shooting and killing her.

 

Penny was also shot and bludgeoned in front of the couple’s children but survived. Now, almost 20 years later, time has done little to dim the terror of that day, but like Archer, Waldroup is determined to channel her painful experiences into a resolve to help others. It is a path both scary and of solace.

 

“WOW is providing not only material things that are needed when you walk away from abusive relationships, but most importantly, stability, support, understanding and love,” she said. “Essentially, the material things like housing are a must-have for stability. However, understanding and having caring people to show you you’re not alone is critical in those moments.

 

“I’m not sure what the future holds for me other than trying to live life fully. However, I know I will continue to fight for victims of domestic violence. I will be a voice for the voiceless. I will be open arms and ears to anyone who is in need to the best of my ability. I will never give up this fight to help this cause.”

2017 WOMAN OF THE YEAR

Rep. Charlene Fite

Assistant Speaker pro tempore, Arkansas House of Representatives

During Arkansas Rep. Charlene Fite’s second term in office, she saw a social media post seeking a sponsor for a bill that would help train the state’s cosmetologists to recognize signs of domestic violence. Fite reached out and met Jajuan Archer for the first time. The bill ultimately passed.

 

“It was really a great deal, and there was no real opposition to it. It was one of those bipartisan things that everybody could get behind,” Fite said. “I really enjoyed sponsoring that, and Jajuan and I got to be friends.”

 

Fite served on WOW’s board and became a passionate advocate for families in crisis. She has also become astute at connecting the dots between violence and other societal ills, thereby passing legislation that better addresses root causes.

 

“One of the main reasons children enter foster care is because of drugs or violence in the home. All of those things go together,” she said. “Arkansas is one of the leading states in a bad way for domestic violence and in drug use, so my focus has been on how can we improve things overall?

 

“All the laws in the world can’t make things better, but groups like Women’s Own Worth, in giving women hope and seeing a different way that their lives can be, can change lives. When we can break the cycle for a family, we’re improving life not only for those children, but for future generations.”

wow homes of hope

2017 WOMAN OF THE YEAR

Jennifer Lancaster

Partner, Lancaster Law Firm

Having become increasingly aware of the prevalence of domestic violence in the community through her firm’s family practice, Jennifer Lancaster jumped at the chance to provide legal services to victims through WOW.

 

“When I met Jajuan and as we were talking, I realized she needed an attorney in Saline County who is familiar with the court system to assist the victims with obtaining orders of protection,” Lancaster said. “That is how I got involved and how I first started helping Jajuan and working with her.”

 

Lancaster said she is most impressed by what the organization has grown into over the years.

 

“WOW’s fundraising and connections serve people,” she said. “They’re bridging that gap, that lag time before the government can start providing some kind of assistance. WOW fills that critical role.”

 

Working with WOW inspired Lancaster to form her own nonprofit that provides protection for survivors’ pets, a byproduct of domestic violence most people do not think about.

 

“Domestic violence shelters here in Arkansas are not all equipped to accommodate pets,” she said. “Many victims don’t want to leave because they don’t want to leave their animal behind. We’ve personally represented somebody where the abuser killed the family pet.

 

“I started a program within my nonprofit where we would help victims by taking in the animal, providing them either with a foster home or covering the cost to board them at a local facility, cover the cost of food and any medical care the animal needed while the victim was getting back on his or her feet.”

wow homes for hope

2018 WOMAN OF THE YEAR

Jane Evans, R.N.

Nurse Educator

Jane Evans met Jajuan Archer as a client of Archer’s salon, and a fast friendship soon formed. She watched Archer deal with the emotional effects of her ordeal and readily agreed to help with the founding of Women’s Own Worth.

 

“Watching her live through that, I was, as anyone should be, impressed and deeply moved and deeply empathetic with her experience, although I have never been the victim of the kind of violence she was, whether from a partner or from anyone else,” Evans said. “I felt very privileged to be part of her support team and see this story evolve as it did.

 

“When she very quickly went to take that trauma and turn it into a powerful force for good and a sanctuary for other victims of violence, that was equally impressive.”

 

Evans pitched in as a fundraiser for the organization and said she has been gratified to see how her efforts have directly helped individuals in crisis.

 

“As a registered nurse, I’ve had a bazillion #MeToo experiences; every part of my body has been grabbed by some man throughout my life, but I’ve never been threatened with violence,” she said. “Jajuan enlisted a lot of my loyalty by how she transformed this hideous experience into a powerful savior for victims. It’s an extraordinary thing.

 

“Today, WOW has helped thousands of people, touched the lives of hundreds of families, and remained an excellent example to our community of what we can do to stop the violence.”

2019 WOMAN OF THE YEAR

Heather Baker

President, AY Media Group

Heather Baker was named 2019 Woman of the Year for her support and publicity of WOW’s activities, but two years later is when what she considers her authentic advocacy began. Baker and her husband were the victims of a would-be carjacking, narrowly escaping in a hail of bullets. The case remains open.

 

“I realize how blessed Ryan and I are. We had the safety of the Lord on our side, and without that protection, there is no reason we should be alive,” she said. “Knowing that, I feel like I need to go out and help as many people as I can.”

 

The couple worked with lawmakers to increase funding for mental health services via a state program serving survivors of violent crime. They have pitched in on a more personal level to help WOW and other organizations serve more families.

 

“We’ve helped connect people to support groups and church groups that offer some sort of counseling,” she said. “We’ve helped people financially get into some sort of therapy or helped them gain the resources to do so.”

 

Heather has also kept the issue of violence front and center in the public mind, be it through articles in AY About You and Arkansas Money & Politics magazines or via her personal testimony.

 

“The typical victim goes through something horrible, but because they’re not a public figure, they’re in the news for a day, and then it blows over,” she said. “When it happens to somebody who’s really visible, more people tend to sit up and listen. I have a platform to tell a story from, and that’s exactly what I will continue to do.”

2020 WOMAN OF THE YEAR

Misty Hunt

Development and Public Policy Specialist,

Children’s Advocacy Centers of Arkansas

Misty Hunt was introduced to the issues surrounding domestic violence in Arkansas during her time as chief of staff for former Arkansas First Lady Susan Hutchinson, and since February, she has applied what she learned to the mission of Children’s Advocacy Centers of Arkansas. She said she is still inspired in her work by what she saw from her former boss.

 

“Watching Susan’s determination, her passion, her attitude of never giving up and yet also, she led with such grace,” Hunt said. “[Child abuse] is such a hard subject, yet she was willing to go out and speak about it. People don’t want to admit domestic violence happens, and it does. It happens right next door, it happens to the people that you know. Susan was willing to sit up in front of an audience of 300 and tell them the truth. For me, that spoke wonders.”

 

One of the organizations the first lady advocated was WOW, which introduced Hunt to the organization’s mission. She worked directly with the group for special events such as Woman of the Year recognition events. She said she was shocked when the tables were turned and she was the focus of that recognition.

 

“Women’s Own Worth means, literally, to know your worth, but I felt undeserving,” she said. “There are so many more people that do so many wonderful things. It was a huge honor; I wanted to use it to make sure victims know that we’re here. It was something I didn’t expect. I hope and I pray that I’ve lived up to it.”

2021 WOMAN OF THE YEAR

Associate Justice

Rhonda Wood

Arkansas Supreme Court Justice

Associate Justice Rhonda Wood did not start her legal career as a crusader for the downtrodden, but the challenges of starting a law practice and her commitment to pro bono work for underserved populations put her legal career on a collision course with being a trial lawyer, which led to a justiceship.

 

“I did not see myself on the bench, so I would say that makes me an ‘accidental’ Supreme Court Justice,” she said. “It was just God opening different doors on my legal path.”

 

Since 2014, Wood has chaired the Supreme Court’s Commission on Children, Youth and Families, through which she crossed paths with Women’s Own Worth. She then became a valued point of contact for various tasks that needed to get done but had languished, especially updating the Arkansas domestic violence handbook, a self-help guide for survivors that explains legal rights and how to get help from the system.

 

Wood continues to advocate for families in crisis whenever the opportunity presents itself. She said while much has been made of domestic violence in recent years, there is still a long way to go.

 

“There is still the perception that [a survivor is] weak for staying,” she said. “In fact, some women in these terrible situations are so strong, and in seeing it as an inherent weakness, the rest of us are putting the blame on the victim. We think they have a door they can walk through, but it’s rarely that easy to see it in that situation.”

2022 WOMAN OF THE YEAR

Dawn Jones

Sissy’s Log Cabin

A few months into dating her future husband, Dawn Jones accompanied him to a WOWapalooza. She said she was already painfully aware of the problem of violence in Arkansas, but the event was inspiring in how it provided hope and healing for survivors.

 

Since joining the Jones family behind the iconic Sissy’s Log Cabin jewelry chain, which designed and produces the custom necklace presented to Woman of the Year honorees, Dawn Jones has continued to stay active with WOW through various projects and initiatives.

 

“To me, the biggest thing about violence in Arkansas and especially domestic violence is just how common it still is,” she said. “I don’t want to say every woman, but unfortunately most women have experienced some form or fashion of it at some point in their life. That’s just heartbreaking to me.

 

“Sissy’s still does WOWapalooza every year, and I work with Jajuan on that. I’ve worked with her on the halfway houses she’s building. Anything she asks, I usually do my best to say yes and make it happen.

 

As for being named a Woman of the Year herself, Jones was taken aback.

 

“It was very humbling,” she said. “I couldn’t really figure out why Jajuan wanted me at first. In my mind, I didn’t think I was doing much to help her. I was doing what I could, but I didn’t think it was award worthy. Jajuan told me, and I think this is a lesson for everybody, every little bit makes a much bigger difference than you realize.”

 

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