NICHOL BUSH HAS known Cheryl Branch for nearly two decades.
After enduring abuse from her husband, Bush was fearful for her and her daughter’s safety and was in need of a temporary protective order. Scared and ready to make a change, Bush contacted SAFE Shelter and was put in touch with Branch, the executive director.
“She is absolutely amazing,” Bush raves about her friend. “My life changed so much after that point of abuse. She tells me, ‘I know your story, what you went through, and when I look at your life and what you’ve experienced since then...’”
Branch is the executive director of SAFE Shelter, a shelter that’s committed to providing support and care for domestic violence victims of all ages. Since their founding in 1979, Branch says proudly, no one in their care has been killed by their abuser.
That may seem like an odd statistic to share, but it’s a remarkable fact, as well as a true testament to the services that SAFE Shelter successfully provides.
Last year alone, the shelter helped over 1,300 victims, provided 74,00 meals, and provided 17,400 nights in a bed.
This year, though, the pandemic has changed SAFE Shelter’s operations in two big ways: domestic violence calls in Chatham County have gone up by 20%, and the nonprofit is unable to hold its yearly fundraising gala.
The gala is a crucial part of SAFE Shelter’s fundraising efforts. As finance director Bard Way explains, none of their grants completely fund their programs, and many have matching requirements.
“The grants cover about 70-80% of our budget, so we have another 20% that we just count on donations to cover,” says Way.
In addition, SAFE Shelter also faces a 15% reduction of funding due to state budget cuts.
However, due to the pandemic, hosting a gala is largely off the table. A virtual gala is in the works for the future, which is a needed step for this nonprofit.
“It’s hard to ask for money for a light bill,” says Way, “but the reality is, this is for light bills and hot dogs and bread—the stuff that keeps the doors open.”
Part of what makes SAFE Shelter such a haven is their commitment to victim advocacy and support.
“When we get full, we never actually get full. We have to find shelter for someone,” explains Rob Gavin, president of SAFE Shelter’s Board of Directors and SPD Major. “We have people in hotels, and we have to pay for that. We try to accommodate every reasonable thing.”
SAFE Shelter offers three completely free programs to assist in their mission.
The primary operation is the shelter component, which has been around since the start. With 48 beds, the shelter is the largest domestic violence shelter outside of metro Atlanta.
The outreach program began when Branch was hired in 1996 and serves to help people who don’t need shelter but instead need assistance with temporary protective orders and other court matters.
“The criminal justice system can be an intimidating place,” says Branch of the program where she met Bush. “The outreach advocates walk the client through every step, whether they’re meeting the advocates and victim witnesses or talking to an assistant district attorney about prosecuting the case.”
The third, and perhaps most crucial, program is the follow-up/aftercare program. A victim who signs up for this program receives shelter services for up to two years and is helped to transition back into the community.
“Domestic violence is not something that just happens overnight, and you do not just get over the trauma overnight,” says Branch. “Domestic violence is a process. We make sure that the clients know that if they do leave to go back to their abuser, our door is still open for them.”
Branch notes that domestic violence is often generational, which is why aftercare is so crucial to helping ease a victim through the process.
Gavin notes that there was a decrease in domestic violence incidents at the beginning of quarantine, which he reasons may be because the victim felt trapped with their offender.
Now, the cases have climbed back up, accounting for a 20% rise.
“A key part of getting those down is breaking people of those cycles, and that’s what SAFE Shelter is there for,” says Gavin.
SAFE Shelter was there for Bush, who can credit her experience with there as a life-changing moment.
“Once I finally got out of that situation, I wanted to start life over,” she says. “People ask, ‘Why would you stay?’ So many different things crossed my mind. I had three small children, I hadn’t finished school yet, and I was listening to him—I’m fat, I’m stupid, I’m ugly, I’m dumb. Nobody will ever want you. I believed him.”
But Bush made it through and even has been able to speak with her abuser, a rare occurrence. Now she’s able to share her story and help other victims.
Bush is just one of many success stories of SAFE Shelter.
“I don’t know how many women have told me that a few weeks after they get here, they slept through the whole night and felt so much peace,” says Branch.
“And that’s a huge thing: to be able to put your children to bed and you’re not fearful.”