The house has everything an occupant could possibly need and more. Large, old windows on both stories provide plenty of natural light, and the brick exterior helps keep the indoors cool year-round. The kitchen boasts a commercial-sized refrigerator and stove, and there’s plenty of cabinet space for snacks. The bathroom is large and roomy — communal, if you will.
But the house also has a state-of-the art security system that includes screening entrants upon arrival, the inability to open windows due to a silent alarm, and an undisclosed address.
The house belongs to Family Services of Forsyth County and is the oldest — and first — battered women’s shelter in North Carolina.
“The average stay is 53 days and it costs us approximately $470,000 to run the shelter each year,” says Michelle Speas, chief development and public relations officer for Family Services. “A few years ago, due to funding cuts, we stopped operating at 100 percent capacity; we went down to 60 percent. But then people weren’t being served. So the board of directors recognized that you can’t put a price on this service. They made a bold decision to dip into our endowment and operate the shelter at a deficit, and ever since we went back up to full capacity, it’s been full.”
Women shuffle quietly around the house — no men are allowed here and pets are assigned to foster homes — either avoiding eye contact or bursting at the seams to strike up a conversation in an attempt to divert from the obvious. Some of the women are covered in dark bruises that dot biceps or fill eye sockets. A lot of the wounds, though, aren’t visible.
The ages of the tenants vary, and during my tour of the facility, there were no children present, although the house is equipped for them. In fact, there’s an entire playroom dedicated to children of all ages that features hand-me-down toys, films on VHS, and a fenced-in outdoor playground.
Despite the well-equipped accommodations, there’s no denying it: the circumstances surrounding a stay here are far from ideal.
In 2018, Family Services helped provide safe shelter to 45 women and 78 children at no cost to them. If a male survivor needs assistance, Family Services will assist by putting them up in other accommodations. But while less than 200 individuals sought a stay at the shelter last year, nearly 1,200 survivors were seen by the organization for crisis intervention, safety planning, and group support. This can appear in the form of transportation and school assistance, the donation of clothing and furnishings for a new home, and facilitation of legal documents.
“We have ongoing partnerships, [and] it’s like an underground railroad,” Speas says. “It’s such a grassroots [effort] between local businesses.”
For each tenant that comes and goes, this is the place to recoup and start fresh.
A new beginning
There were warning signs.
He’d come home angry, frustrated that dinner wasn’t good enough; he’d throw it in the trash, untouched and still steaming. Other days, he was disturbed that she would even dare strike up a conversation with a male neighbor or friend at a party. He’d berate her, and humiliate her when given the chance.
It wasn’t until her husband furnished an unregistered firearm that Angela Jenkins knew it was time to get out.
“I was never massively physically abused, but the mental torture and verbal abuse were mind-numbing,” says Jenkins, CEO of Solarté Collections. “I knew I was in grave danger, [but] I just couldn’t figure out how to get out. I didn’t know about safe houses.”
Jenkins, a successful middle-class white woman, was in a situation that many domestic violence survivors face: No one to talk to since her family and friends all knew and loved her abuser, and nowhere to turn because she didn’t know her options. She gets emotional sharing her story with me.
“[Safe houses] are the way out because no matter how trapped you feel, no matter how much you hurt, and no matter how little money you have, they will always take you into a confidential space that protects you,” Jenkins says.
Her abuse and former marriage don’t define her.
In 2004, after serving as the national brand ambassador for Solarté Collections, a French skin-care collection, Jenkins became the sole owner. The skin care line is found in spas, hotels, boutiques, and online, and the business has a location in Florida in addition to its Winston-Salem spot.
Through her own experience and as part of her journey of healing, she was compelled to begin supporting battered women’s shelters through the proceeds of her business. A percentage of all sales are donated to safe houses around the nation.
“It’s our goal to help; if you’re looking in the mirror and see a face in pain, a wounded soul, and are wondering how much longer you can bear your life, there will be safe resources to help you to a better future,” she says.
A new name
The definition of domestic violence is broad and much more encompassing than being battered by a spouse. It includes stalking; verbal, economic, and emotional abuse; sexual assault; pedophilia; and any type of intimidation.
Beverly Robinson is quick to point this out, as she’s often met with confusion when she says she’s a victim of domestic violence but has been happily married for 38 years. As a child, from age 4 to 17, Robinson was regularly molested by her stepfather, a secret she carried during the entire duration of her abuse.
“I always tell people, ‘It takes courage to be courageous,’” says Robinson, a middle-class black woman who grew up on Patterson Avenue in Winston-Salem. “It’s so debilitating when you keep these secrets inside. It hurts to keep those secrets inside.”
Her story is a complicated one, detailed in her memoir, “My Name is Alvonia: The Autobiography of Beverly L. Robinson.” In it, she outlines the rollercoaster of emotions she’s experienced throughout her life, and how sharing her story resulted in her being victim-shamed and ostracized by her own mother and sister, the latter of whom was also molested.
“I choose not to wade in those waters again because I know how toxic it was, and [how toxic it] could be,” Robinson says. “I choose to stay in a safe space and continue to talk about this, nationally and internationally.”
Family Services reveals that nearly 6,000 incidents of domestic violence were reported to the Winston-Salem Police Department last year. Unfortunately, children are included in this statistic. Robinson knows this all too well; she never went to the authorities, and it matters little considering her stepdad is now deceased.
Still, she considers herself on top, and today travels the country sharing her story as an advocate in hopes it will make a difference.
“Success is the biggest indicator of what you can do, and being the opposite of what people expect of you,” Robinson says. “There’s no better vengeance than being successful.”
‘Tip of the iceberg’
Domestic violence plays no favorites, and it transcends age, race, sex, economic standing, and educational background. In order to help spread this message, several local organizations and advocates have rallied behind a month-long series of events in honor of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Events include a Day of Unity on Oct. 4 that commemorates survivors and victims of domestic violence homicide, a screening of “The Empathy Gap” at Wake Forest University on Oct. 8, and a RISE event at Trouvaille that features appetizers by Mozelle’s and door prizes.
“I hope readers will understand what is happening to our community and our world at large, and what has happened to me is just the tip of the iceberg,” Robinson says. “Everybody can do something about it. There have been too many persons who have taken domestic violence to their graves. Time’s up, and it’s time to help each other.”