WISE holds open house in Big Rapids

BIG RAPIDS — It was an eye opener, this open house at the WISE shelter home in Big Rapids recently. And it tends to be a heart opener as well. For guests who visited during the open house, but even more so for many of the women and children who somehow find their way to the special home.

Usually, it takes a crisis to continue what one termed as her journey “through hell” to finally get to the WISE Shelter. She said she will never regret being there. It was a safe place for both her and her children, and it gave her mind time to make new decisions and learn to develop better choices for her own life and their’s.

The shelter provides living space, and learning space. It is not a lockdown. Yes, the doors are locked. From the inside. Just as are many hearts, concealing hurts that don’t have time to heal because just when things seem to be getting “better,” the bad shows up again.

For many women, it’s not about someone else on the “outside.” It’s the space they live in within themselves. For some, being battered, be it physically, mentally, or emotionally feels “normal,” and they keep returning to the same situation, time and again.

That is, until they can be in a safe place, where they can learn from others in similar situations, and hear others tell what it took to say, “I can take no more. I do deserve better.” And learn how to change their lives in the process.

Guests were greeted by a conference room where women who come to the shelter go through an intake process that runs maybe an hour and a half. They have an opportunity to share the tears and the fears that may have brought them there. If needed, that process can continue even longer.

For many who come to the Wise Shelter, their lives are in chaos. In crisis.

They aren’t there for “treatment,” but rather to learn new ways to be treated. To learn life skills. To stay for a couple of months, perhaps, with children along if need be. The hope is that by the end of that time, the women will leave armed with new skills and the capability of leading a new life.

There are washers and dryers available, and considerable storage space. The bedrooms are small, shared, and sometimes a bit noisy. But, regardless, the women and their children are not alone. And they can learn from one another. And do.

The kitchen is a public area and the women can purchase food or bring along their own to meet their particular tastes. A daily chore list is posted. Residents sign up to cook certain meals, sometimes their own.

Women are allowed to come and go, but there is an 11 p.m. curfew. Bulletin boards offer them employment opportunities, activities in the community they might enjoy or fun for the children. As one tour leader said, “They aren’t incarcerated. It’s a house. For a time, it’s their home.” And it’s an opportunity to change their lives.

There is a big enclosed backyard, with a deck. Smoking is allowed there, but 30 feet from the doors, and away from children. “It’s good place for the kids to play, and moms to take a little mini vacation or a short break.”

There’s also a garden. It’s meant to plant and to grow and to enjoy the harvest. A lesson in life itself and how the seasons, and people, change. And the garden provides food for many.

The state allows only 90-day maximum stays in such a domestic violence shelter, so within the first day or two, the women are working on building relationships, thinking about housing, employment, new skills.

The children have access to a large room with supplies for arts and crafts, movies to watch, music to hear, and fun to be had, with someone close by to keep everyone safe. Often there are 10 or more youngsters at the shelter, and right now “we have lots of little ones all under the age of five.”

There is one bedroom on the main floor which is used primarily for a disabled person who cannot navigate the steps, or for a mom with a male child over the age of 13. Downstairs, there are two sets of bunk beds and a baby crib in one room, on the main floor offices and a conference room, and three bedrooms upstairs. The Osceola Room has two sets of bunks, the Mecosta Room has three sets of bunks, a toddler bed and baby bed, along with a bassinette, and the Newaygo Room has three regular beds and a crib. Each of the larger rooms are named for a county served by WISE.

Closets are limited, as are bathrooms, but in exchange for shelter and for safety, a second chance at life, a bit of inconvenience is acceptable. There are extras of important things. Pack and Plays and portable cribs.

There is always a great need for donations of hygiene products. Each person gets a bedroll when they arrive, and the shelter relies solely on donations.

Each child receives a stuffed toy when they arrive, and it goes home with them, along with a homemade quilt to keep. These are always accepted. They go through about 50 of each every six months. New clothes and those gently used are appreciated.

Staff is always on-site, and the office at the shelter is shared by a legal advocate, a children’s advocate, client’s advocate, and Mecosta-Osceola County outreach staff.

The vital components of the shelter include protection and confidentiality for the clients, who also have access to a sexual advocate and therapist, a family advocate, and the advocates can accompany clients to court.