STEADFAST IN THEIR SERVICE
By Alice Perry Linker
Observer Staff Writer
The call from La Grande police came very early one morning during the winter of 1982.
"They had a barefoot woman at their door at 3 a.m., and they called to ask, What do we do?'" said Laura Walls, an employee and volunteer for Shelter From the Storm.
It was Walls's first call on the hotline set up to help save women who were being beaten or otherwise abused by their husbands or boyfriends. More than 20 years later, Walls is still answering the hotline and working part time as the bookkeeper for Shelter From the Storm, the agency that helps and advocates for victims of domestic violence.
In those days, volunteers answered hotline calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week for one month. Gradually the month was reduced to a week, and today, volunteers are asked to staff the hotline on a daily basis, giving them fewer sleepless nights.
Nearly everybody working with Shelter was a volunteer in the early 1980s, Walls said. There was no permanent Shelter house for women and children who were fleeing their homes, and Shelter members often took these victims into their own homes or helped them find motel rooms for short-term stay.
Times have changed. Shelter From the Storm has a newly renovated safe house and an office building where children's programs and adult support groups take place. The building is busy with people nearly every day.
Walls is unusual in her long-time commitment to Shelter From the Storm, said Sarah Schlichting, director of the program. Most volunteers endure the stress for no more than three consecutive years.
Cries for help vary widely in intensity, but Walls remembers one especially frightening call she received about 10 years ago.
A woman living in the Elgin area had obtained a restraining order against a man. She called during the midst of Union County Fair week.
"It was hot, very hot," Walls said.
When the call came, the man was pounding on the door, and the woman and her baby were "curled up in a corner. She was afraid he'd break in the window," Walls said.
"I had her hold the phone and I used my second phone to call the police, and the dispatch told me there were no officers available," Walls said.
The volunteer kept asking the dispatch center to find an officer to send to Elgin. Finally, the dispatcher said that a car was en route, and the officers, using information provided by the women, arrested the man shortly after he left the house. Nobody was hurt, Walls said.
"I felt good about that one," she said. "I still had her on the phone and she knew the police were on the way."
As late as the mid-1990s, law enforcement personnel weren't as willing to act on a volunteer's recommendation as they are today, Walls said.
Now, Shelter has an office and in-take building across the parking lot from the police station, and the police department has assigned a detective to work directly with violence victims.
"We don't get as many daytime calls since we have an office," Walls said. "We have a steady stream of people into the office."
Another who is running against the trend is David Tift, who began his work with the advocacy program as a children's specialist.
He, too, takes his turn with the hotline.
Tift, a Shelter volunteer and employee for 10 years, began working with children in Ashland in early childhood development.
"The longer I did that the more I gravitated to high-needs children," he said.
Tift started with Shelter as a volunteer and later became a part-time advocate. During the days when public and private grants were more plentiful, Shelter developed a children's program, run by Tift. That program was reduced last year when funding decreased.
"It was most common for me to work with elementary-school and younger children who had direct exposure to family violence," he said.
A large man, Tift said he's accustomed to the "stereotype" of men working with victims of violence, and he said he's learned to comfort children with body language and voice. In addition to working with Shelter, he runs a martial arts school that teachers Take Musu Kai, a program based on Akito.
"When he's not here, he's there," said director Schlichting.
As understanding of domestic violence and its effects on all members of the family has grown, Shelter volunteers have reached out to the larger community.
Walls has taken the issue of family violence to her church.
"Two years ago, Sarah and I spoke to the ministerial association, and we told them, We're here to talk about the safety of women and children,'" Walls said. "Our pastor said that until we spoke, they did not understand."
Churches that believe marriage is for life sometimes won't accept that divorce may be the only solution to a violent marriage.
Walls has become the person in her church who talks with women who are victims.
"We don't dictate to women," Walls said about the Shelter programs. "We promote safety."