Heather Forrest moved to West Michigan 9 years ago so her husband could pursue his career. After a few years staying at home caring for her four children and continuing her education, Forrest accepted a position at Sylvia’s Place in 2011 as an Administrative Assistant/Bookkeeper. Having worked in the for-profit sector before Forrest quickly realized that her true passion was in line with the objectives of Sylvia’s Place. After two years, the board of directors promoted Heather to Executive Director at Sylvia’s Place.
When I asked Heather why she likes her job she responded with “I never would have imagined myself in this career field, but it has since become a perfect fit. I thoroughly enjoy my job, but I surely wish I did not have to do what I do. If domestic violence did not exist, neither would my position. I lead a wonderful group of ladies in an undesirable line of work. Domestic Violence is an ugly situation. No one wants to admit the reality of its existence, however we change lives and that is powerful!” And unfortunately domestic violence prevalence in Allegan County is disheartening.
According to the most recent Michigan State Police Annual Report there were 1,010 acts of domestic violence in Allegan County in 2014, 765 of those cases involved a weapon. In total 94,070 acts were reported in the state of Michigan in 2014. Sylvia’s Place housed 105 women and children fleeing domestic violence last year alone. Additionally, our nonresidential victim legal advocacy program assisted 159 survivors. Considering these statistics are derived only from the Michigan State Police and do not include local police departments or County Sheriff Departments these numbers are rather staggering. Domestic Violence is also one of the most unreported acts of violence, therefore one can only imagine how many incidents are not on record.
1 in 4 women will experience some form of domestic abuse in their lifetime.
Sylvia’s Place is the only domestic violence safe house in Allegan County, providing safety, shelter, and supportive services to victims of domestic violence in Allegan and surrounding counties. The agency’s mission is to create and sustain a safe environment that empowers women and children through preventative education and advocacy which promotes stronger individuals, families, and communities. Living out its mission, the agency offers shelter, strength based case management, legal advocacy, counseling, housing assistance, employment resources, and referrals. Service is provided on a residential or non-residential basis, along with a 24 hour crisis line and 24/7 staffing to offer constant accessibility. Additionally, the agency makes sure it’s clients are comfortable by providing laundry facilities, hygiene products, clothing, personal needs items, and food to victims and their children.
United Way funding allocates dollars for countless hours of operation at our safe house. It assists the agency with 24/7 staff coverage, 24/7 crisis line, personal items for clients, and operating expenses. This funding is vital to the agency. “Often, this funding can be the difference between life and death in many circumstances. Our services are vital in the lives of many and without continued financial backing, our agency would not exist.” Said Forrest regarding the funding Sylvia’s Place receives from ACUW.
When I asked Heather if she had a story that represented the impact Sylvia’s Place is making she began with a statement that goes against the stigma associated with domestic violence. “Domestic violence does not discriminate…victims come from all different backgrounds, age groups, income levels, and no one is an exception…it can truly happen to anyone!”
Forrest continued with a story about Lucille, a 57 year old woman that has been married to her abusive husband for over 30 years. “She has endured physical, emotional, and financial abuse for the full 30 years of her broken marriage. She was isolated and under the complete control of her vicious husband. Over the years, she has suffered broken ribs, lost two teeth, and a broken arm…all on separate occasions. She has never understood normalcy in a relationship or experienced what a healthy relationship looks like.
Her father was an abuser, and her children were raised in a home of violent behaviors and now as adults display the same abusive tendencies. Basically everyone around her has always been ill natured and she has known nothing else. None of her 3 children were willing to accept their mother’s decision to finally leave the situation and seek a better lifestyle. They refused to help her. She had nowhere to turn. The trauma she has experienced from 30 years of abuse, personal guilt for not leaving sooner, and lacking a support system from her family and friends was a major obstacle for her to overcome.
Lucille came to us bruised and battered, inside and out. She could no longer tolerate the painful abuse, physically or mentally. She was at a breaking point. Through the services she received from Sylvia’s Place she has blossomed into a new woman. Her fear of daily living is now in the past and she is starting over with a very bright future. Her words of realization were, ‘It’s never too late in life to stand up for yourself, admit that it is time to leave, and ask for help. Without the assistance of the ladies here (Sylvia’s Place), I would have died a very miserable woman.’” When I asked Forrest if she had anything else she’d like to share, she ended with “We are thankful for the opportunity to open our doors to those experiencing domestic violence. Together we make a difference, one survivor at a time!”
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence please call Sylvia’s Place 24 hour crisis line at (269) 673-8700 or 888-411-7837.