By Merry Lee Olson
CEO, YWCA Billings
Twenty years after the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was put in place to try to protect women, its value is more important than ever—and as needed in lesser populated regions of the country as it is in cities. Such is the case in Montana, where the entire state’s population only recently hit the 1-million mark.
Through its campaign, “Reaching Every Woman®,” YWCA Billings helps victims of domestic violence understand how to obtain help and enlists the community in getting the word out about the problem and available resources.
One in every three women in the 18,512 square-mile region that surrounds Billings is a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or harassment. And with VAWA-based funding and help from other grants and supporters, YWCA Billings is able to help women even in very rural reaches—including the small towns and Native American reservations near Billings, which is Montana’s largest center of population and commerce.
“We have a tool kit we provide that has information about how to recognize violence,” says Merry Lee Olson, CEO of YWCA Billings. “It takes many different forms.”
That might include physical, sexual or emotional abuse. In this age of technology, Olson said, it could mean a boyfriend texting 100 times a day, checking up on his girlfriend, which could escalate to other types of abuse.
“It’s interesting how these modern devices allow predators to be more predatory,” she says.
The information campaign uses billboards, bus benches, social media, and other kinds of advertising to disseminate messages.
The informative campaign encourages women to call or text for help. With the most rapidly growing sector of women suffering abuse being females ages 18 to 30, it only makes sense to offer them an alternative way to get help, Olson says.
“They’re not as likely to go to a website or use a brochure as they are to go to their mobile device and text for information,” she says. “They can discreetly text and an advocate at our Gateway domestic violence shelter will get back to them to see if they’re in immediate danger or if they need information.”
In another part of the outreach, advocates go to high school and college campuses, churches and community forums to get the word out. The hope is that women in abusive situations will get the information, or family or friends of those women will learn about it and pass it on.
YWCA is using social media, including Facebook and Twitter, to reach younger women.
“That’s not to say we don’t see women come into the shelter who are over 40, even over 65,” Olson says. “We had a woman in the last several months in the shelter with her grandson, seeking safety from her husband who abused them both.”
Gateway House offers 24-hour support to women in crisis. In addition to information and referrals, the shelter has 10 bedrooms that can each hold two single women or a woman and her children.
In the fiscal year that ended in June of this year, Gateway provided more than 7,800 nights of shelter to 132 women and 122 children. Women can stay up to 12 weeks at a time while advocates help them figure out how to move forward, Olson says.
That might include referrals to other community agencies for services the YWCA doesn’t provide. For example, Gateway partners with RiverStone health to help women and their children with their health needs.
But it isn’t always smooth sailing, Olson says. The biggest local hurdle is the lack of affordable rentals.
Some women end up on the streets or back with their abuser. Some are able to get help through Family Promise of Yellowstone Valley, which works with homeless families.
“We have a vision to create more transitional housing that would then allow up to two years of affordable protection,” Olson says.
Many of the women come back to Gateway House several times. Most of them leave their abusers five to seven times before they take permanent steps, Olson says.
Gateway House also offers other services, including the Employment and Training Center, which helps adults overcome barriers to finding full-time employment, and the Child Center, which provides a safe and enriching environment to children ages six weeks to six years of age.
Gateway is funded by a variety of federal, state and community funds that includes the United Way, as well as private grants from foundations and individuals.
The “Reaching Every Woman” campaign is supported by the Billings community, including St. Vincent Healthcare and other local donations.
This post is based on an article written by Susan Olp of the Billings Gazette with input from YWCA Billings’ staff. Olp has worked for The Billings Gazette since 1988 and been a full-time reporter since 1990. She has covered a variety of beats, including medical, Yellowstone County government and education. Her present assignments include religion and the Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribes, plus general assignment reporting.