Cheryl Branch says she grew up “blissfully ignorant in Brunswick, Ga.,” unaware of domestic violence happening in her own backyard.
It wasn’t until she served as a victim advocate at a local shelter that she realized domestic violence can and does happen to anyone, anywhere.
Branch now serves as the Executive Director of SAFE Shelter, Savannah’s center for domestic violence services.
The shelter is the only one in Savannah that is specific to victims of domestic violence and their children. In recent years it’s doubled in size, going from 24 beds to 48. Inside, there are bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and an overflowing amount of love and support.
Branch said people arrive at the shelter after making a crisis call, being referred by the police, or being referred by emergency room staff. When they arrive, they’re greeted by one of SAFE Shelter’s resident activists.
“They have the hardest job here,” Branch said.
She said that sometimes women come in with physical injuries, but there is also a lot of severe emotional and mental abuse.
“The first thing we do back there is get everybody comfortable,” she said. “Show them to their rooms, see if their kids want a snack.”
From there, women carry on with their daily lives with the assistance and support of the SAFE Shelter staff. If someone needs to go to work, the staff will help with finding childcare. If they need a job, the staff will help them search.
Branch says there is no specified length of stay at SAFE Shelter, but most people are typically there for 90 days. When they leave, they have the option to sign up for the Follow-up/After Care Program, which can last up to two years.
In this program, a SAFE Shelter coordinator works with the victim to help her be as successful as possible outside of the shelter. Victims will receive help furnishing their new home, sending their children back to school, providing for their children around the holidays, etc.
“I think the Follow-up/After Care Program is one of our most successful programs,” Branch said. “I think a lot of times [domestic violence] is generational. I’ve been here long enough to see young women come in whose mothers were here, and they were here as children. A 90-day stay isn’t going to change your life. It wouldn’t change your life or my life. But I like to think that for those that are ready, they’ve had enough, then they’re going to get in that Follow-up Program with continued support.”
The third program at SAFE Shelter is the Outreach Program, which Branch started.
“It’s for people who don’t need to come to the shelter, but they are in a domestic violence situation and they need a temporary protective order or they need a stalking order,” Branch said. “Those are pretty common.”
Branch said the Outreach Program sees all kinds of people from college students and businesswomen to full-time mothers and men.
She shared the story of a former client who had a successful career, was married to a surgeon, and found herself in a domestic violence situation.
“The abuse was the most horrific I’ve ever seen,” Branch said. “She said he told her ‘I don’t care who you tell, because look at me and look at you. Who are people going to believe? I’ll hire the lawyers, I’ll have the kids, and you’ll be on the street.’ She was so beaten down to the ground, that she believed him.”
Branch said stories like this are hard to hear, but can be a wake-up call for a lot of people who think this could never happen to them, their friends or their family.
When asked what keeps her going, Branch said, “You have to realize you can’t save the world. But you can take your corner and you have the power to make that as good as you can. We’re all in a position to do the right thing here.”
She added, “In the 43 years that we’ve been here, none of our clients have ever been killed. I think that’s because they took the steps. They called the police, they called us, they did something instead of staying.”
Branch said SAFE Shelter depends on the community in many ways, one of them being the annual SAFE Shelter Gala. The gala is the organization’s signature fundraiser and typically raises around $300,000 each year. In 2020, it was canceled due to COVID-19.
Branch said SAFE Shelter is gearing up for an in-person gala at The Landings on Nov. 20. She’s hopeful people will come out to make this year’s event bigger and better than ever.
“There are a lot of great nonprofits here,” Branch said. “Our supporters are like precious gold to me. The ones we have have been with us a long time. They are dedicated. We would close our doors if we didn’t have the support we have. We really would.”
Overall, Branch told Connect Savannah that she wants the public to know that SAFE Shelter is more than a temporary housing solution. Between their three programs, she and her staff are here to offer help to anyone who needs it.
Branch added that she encourages anyone who may have read this story and thought of a friend, to reach out to them. She said something as simple as saying, “I’m concerned about you,” can change a person’s entire life.
“You might be the first person who ever approaches them,” Branch said. “You need to be ready to say ‘I don’t know everything, but I know the place you can call.’”
SAFE Shelter can be reached 24 hours a day at 912-629-8888. A phone call does not commit you to any of SAFE Shelters programs. If you are in danger, call 911.
For more information on the SAFE Shelter Gala, visit safeshelter.org