Pictured above: “This is about passion. We’re making history,” said Cathy Browne, board member at Women & Children First. Browne, left, and executive director Angela McGraw display an illustration of the new center. Photo by Lori Sparkman.

 

The woman stands at the counter of the municipal building, a small notebook clutched in one hand and her fears in the other. As prompted, she repeats the why of her being here for what feels like the millionth time today. It seems like this stuff would get easier to say, but just standing there feels like being paraded in the town square, a crimson A stitched over the right breast of her garment — A for “abused.”

 

She has been shuttled about the building for six hours, talking through what look like the same windows, only to wind up back here, the desk where she started. She has ridden elevators, climbed stairs, sat on benches and watched the second hand glide in circles again and again and again. Everywhere she goes, she finds the place cold, sterile, as is the level of service she gets. After all, staff here have seen 50 of her yesterday, 30 more of her today and honey, there is a line coming after you tomorrow. For the umpteenth time today, papers she does not understand slide towards her. ‘Upstairs,’ says the clerk, barely looking at her as she stands and walks toward the back.

 

The woman turns and sighs deeply. It is like being hit all over again, and God knows she knows how to take that by now. He had certainly given her enough practice. She shifts her purse higher on her shoulder and feels the remnant ache from last week. It still hurts, but the worst of the pain has receded from that electrifying, sparks-before-your-eyes jolt that came when he wrenched the joint — hard. She remembers how it sounded like a raw drumstick being twisted off a chicken carcass.

 

Her gaze comes to rest on her two children, an 8-year-old girl and a little boy, age 5, growing understandably more tired and cranky with each phase of the plodding rat race. They do not deserve this, both what they have seen and what she is putting them through to try to make it stop. They should be in school like the other kids or playing in the nice yard she had always imagined she would have for them instead sitting around this dump. The imaginary A sears a fresh hole through her clothes and her body, heavying her heart. She motions them over, but instead of heading back down the hallway, turns and leads them out the door.

 

The hell with this, she whispers.

 

••••••••••

 

Angela McGraw, executive director of Women & Children First in Little Rock, is a numbers girl. It typically takes 22 different locations, she said, to get domestic violence survivors the help they need to get out of a bad situation and get on with their lives. At each stop, there are multiple departments they must visit — six alone for an order of protection, for example — and that is if things go perfectly, which rarely happens.

 

“Now you take that situation times 22 places,” she said, “and put them on the bus system to get there besides, you see why so many just give up and go back home.”

 

There are other numbers on the tip of McGraw’s tongue. She said the victims Women & Children First serves every year number in the hundreds, thousands if counting the frightened and shell-shocked children that are often in tow. She also noted the national average for times a victim will leave and return before leaving for good (seven) and what that average number drops to if that same victim goes through Women & Children First’s system (two).

 

McGraw knows all this not only from her career with the nonprofit, but personally. Two decades ago, she fled her native Kansas after leaving an abusive husband. It was her second time leaving a situation so personally embarrassing to her she did not even confide its goings-on with her family and came on the heels of what she calls her rock bottom. A lifelong friend of hers was murdered in her own home, along with her three daughters, all under age 5. They were killed by a shotgun blast from her husband as they slept. Then he turned the gun on himself.

 

To this day, McGraw does not know if her friend had planned to leave or if that night was just the last act of a twisted mind, but it was enough to move McGraw to leave for good, eventually landing in Arkansas and launching a career to help strangers she somehow intimately knows.

 

“A victim will go back to their abuser out of fear,” she said. “You know when I say that, people will say, ‘Oh I can understand that. I would be fearful,’ but they don’t know that I mean fearful of everything — the fear of going to a shelter, the fear of not having food, the fear of him finding you, the fear you won’t find a job, the fear of having to take kids out of school, and the biggest fear of all: that by making the decision to leave the relationship, you now have an 85 percent greater chance of becoming a homicide victim.

 

“Every person I’ve worked with who was shot or something like that had left the situation already, and they were either doing an exchange with a child or something like that when it happened. That’s a legitimate fear when you think about it.”

 

Lately, McGraw has had other numbers on her mind, such as those having to do with fundrais­ing. The organization’s annual Woman of the Year Gala raises about a quarter of Women & Children First’s roughly $2.3 million operating budget. The 2024 gala, which will take place Feb. 3 at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock, will recognize Sharri Jones, owner and event coordinator of Sissy’s Log Cabin, as Woman of the Year because of the business’ long-standing partnership with Women & Children First.

Another quarter of the organization’s operating budget comes from private do­nations, and the remaining half comes from grants. Wom­en & Children First’s aging shelter is a 100-plus-year-old Little Rock mansion that is in constant and sore need of repairs and improvements, keep­ing the financial pressure at the top of McGraw’s mind.Finally, one number stands above all for the newest staffer up through leadership such as McGraw and Cathy Browne, a longtime board member and aggressively enthusiastic advocate for Women & Children First, its mission and the people it helps. That number — $18 million — is the cost to build and create a new facility and fundamentally change the way services are delivered to domestic abuse survivors and their families in Arkansas.

 

“We’re a statewide organization that receives and helps women from all over Arkansas,” Browne said. “Someone that lives in Garland County and can’t go to the sheriff, can’t go to the priest, they come here. That makes us the mothership, and as such we are being asked to serve way more people than we can in a 100-year-old building that’s falling apart. We need this new facility to meet those demands and meet those responsibilities.”

 

Women & Children First’s proposed new facility will employ the Family Peace Center Model, a programmatic framework created in 2002 in San Diego. Under that model, services are all integrated at one site, from sheltering to handling legal issues to providing access to law enforcement to connecting with different community resources related to housing, education and employment. 

 

“This is a very successful model,” Browne said. “What’s going to happen when the doors open is it’s not going to be a confidential location. We want it to be visible because we want the person who’s thinking about leaving their abuser to know they have a place to go that’s secure and where everything is in one place.”

 

The new shelter will encompass 40,000 square feet, increasing the number of shelter rooms and offering amenities many people do not think of, such as a new and expanded play area for children and a kennel for the often-overlooked family pet caught in the midst of domestic abuse situations. The new structure is a dream the group has been working toward for nearly a decade.

 

“2015 is we brought it to the board,” Browne said. “I went around and had each board member say their piece, and we started getting together all the materials and everything for a capital campaign, mobilizing.”

 

COVID threw momentum into reverse, and following the pandemic, Women & Children First leadership discovered just how shifting the sands of politics could be. Although money flowed out of Washington in the form of recovery funds – some of which was specifically earmarked for victims fleeing domestic violence situations – Browne and McGraw were dismayed over not being able to adequately articulate their vision to lawmakers who held the purse strings.

 

“We simply couldn’t make the people in the legislature understand what we were proposing, even though we were applying for funds exactly as they were intended to be used,” Browne said. “We found that unfortunate because it was such a successful model in many places and one that can absolutely save lives here in Arkansas.”

 

“When I see some of the things that got money, and I compare that to a domestic violence shelter that was desperately needed, it’s really hard for somebody like me to be able to compare the two,” McGraw added.

 

The organization’s leaders came away smarting from the experience, unsure of what to do next. Browne said it was a low point in the years-long march toward getting the new project underway.

 

“It disappointed the hell out of us because we had worked with the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration to create a capital projects fund, which was another bunch of [American Rescue Plan] money,” she said. “We’ve been working on this for years, and then to have this totally crater when we’ve been putting off fundraising with our donors because we were trying to build the war chest through the state was mystifying.

 

“It was very hard to take, because we knew this is such a good idea that has worked all over the country, mostly in capital cities because that’s where the services are located.”

 

Fortunately, the project had its proponents. The city of Little Rock leased the group four acres of land at a rate of $1 a year for 99 years, the Windgate Foundation offered a matching grant, and Bank OZK made a generous donation to seed the effort.

 

However, raising the bulk of the money to build the building and pay for two years of operating expenses was going to take a new approach. Ultimately, McGraw dug into the grants world, and at this writing, the group is waiting to hear back on applications that could finally greenlight the work.

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The 2024 Woman of the Year Gala will take place Feb. 3 at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock.

While she said having to find and implement a plan B was instructive, the sting of being turned down for such a project by the state’s lawmakers still smarts.

 

“They just couldn’t see the bigger picture,” McGraw said. “They were looking at us as Women & Children First, the shelter. If this shelter is going to get money, why aren’t we giving all the shelters money? They weren’t looking at the fact that shelters all over the state send people to us all the time because we’re in Little Rock.

 

“At the end of the day, what they don’t realize is that our goal is that we have one of these up in northwest Arkansas and one in Jonesboro, not just us. My hope is that we’ll be the model and they’ll come and be like, we have to have one of these here.”

 

Back at the current shelter, the halls of Women & Children First creak and echo with the movement of traffic and beneath the weight of time. The old structure, which has been a port in a very fierce storm for decades, may soon be seeing its final days with the group, and given its condition, few will likely shed tears over that. That said, the spirit it engendered to help the hurt, protect the vulnerable and reestablish dignity and hope for all who passed through its doors is palpable. Browne cannot wait to see how that spirit, which took root in this ancient space, takes flight in the next.

 

“People reading this article have got to understand that domestic violence and its aftermath are things that are lived by people in our state every day,” Browne said. “We help people move past that, people from right here in Little Rock, from across Arkansas and outside of Arkansas. Now it’s time for the new chapter, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to build that.

 

“The land is just waiting for us. We’ve got our contractor in place, our architect is in place. They’re just waiting for the word Go.’ This is about passion. We’re making history.”

 

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