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'The freedom to dream’

Community Works offers women alternatives and options to victimization, poverty and homelessness
Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneBarbara Johnson, executive director at Community Works

Editor's note: Community Builder is a periodic Q&A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today's conversation is with Barbara Johnson, executive director of Community Works.

Q: Community Works supports victims of sexual abuse, sex trafficking and domestic violence. How do you help individuals in these situations?

Barbara: The Community Works Helpline is the gateway to our services, where we provide emotional support and safety planning. Individuals are then connected to staff who can help find temporary shelter, housing and community resources. Most victims come to us through the helpline or walk-ins. We have many community partners, such as law enforcement agencies and Department of Human Services that we work with to help survivors. The key is listening, hearing their story and the trauma they're experiencing. They are probably living in a world where they're never believed. We let them use their voice. Many come with shame, guilt, fear and belief that they are causing the problem.

Q: What can you do to prevent domestic violence and assault?

Barbara: Prevention has many aspects. We work with youth where domestic violence or sexual assault have been reported. Through peer groups we teach them communication skills, encourage them talk about what they're experiencing, and discuss their fears. We teach community members and volunteers what domestic violence and sexual assault look like.

It’s hard to understand why somebody would not leave an abusive situation. The reasons are complex. Many victims have no money, they've been forced to move around the United States, and they've been told that it's their fault. They have a lot of barriers. We might be the first people a victim has talked to about their situation.

The first thing we can do is believe. Next is to let them know they're never alone. Third is to show that we are here for them and will be with them along their journey. Prevention has many layers. It requires legislation, it requires partnerships, it requires educating the public. If we hear something like, "Well, they should get out," it’s our cue to say, "Let me tell you how difficult that is." The best way to prevent is to educate.

Q: Your website noted that you helped 13,000 people last year. That's a shockingly high number.

Barbara: That number includes our helpline. We have a 24/7 crisis line where we typically get 9,000 to 11,000 calls a year. All the calls are not domestic violence and may come from out of our area. Direct service, where we are in-person with adults and children, is closer to 3,000 a year.

Q: Have you seen an increase in abuse the past few years because of the COVID situation?

Barbara: Yes, there's a rise in abuse. And we’ve seen a dramatic rise in the magnitude of physical abuse. We see strangulation. We see women who've lost their babies because of abuse. We've seen more head injuries and broken bones. In the pandemic, neighbors or friends don't want others to stay with them. Fewer people can get to us because of being sheltered at home or being out of work. We had to increase our emergency sheltering by using hotel rooms. We had never used hotels before. In the first four months of the pandemic, we increased the number of people we housed more than one and a half times the number we helped the previous 12 months. The increase in abuse is multilayered and systemic due to the pandemic and the fires.

Q: What keeps you up at night?

Barbara: We need to expand our housing. Community Works is in the middle of a capital campaign to build a 12-bedroom unit for our clients moving out of Dunn House shelter where they can live six to 24 months and have ongoing support services. We have raised over 70% of our goal and we're breaking grounds in three months. We intend to have 10 or 15 of these units within the next decade. The first step to getting out of an abusive situation is safe affordable housing. We're talking about a housing-first model, getting them into a home with ongoing support services. Over the next 24 months we can help them with jobs, education, building credit and teaching them to budget and save. We have been providing housing — first in our homeless youth programs that have been operating for 23 years. These clients’ success rate is 80%, meaning that 80% leave that program to higher education or to get a job to support themselves.

Anyone fleeing an abusive situation is immediately homeless. We want to break the cycle of victimization, poverty and homelessness by offering alternatives and options. Some clients have shared, "If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be alive today. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't have my house." Transitional housing is an important steppingstone and bridge to permanent housing. It gives someone the freedom to dream and to imagine a completely different life. Our staff come from a place of empathy, understanding and encouragement. When they see our staff modeling healthy behavior over and over, then they can say, "Wait a minute, I deserve better." Holding that vision keeps me up at night.

Q: How did you become executive director of Community Works?

Barbara: I've always been someone who loved to volunteer and give back. I'm from Texas. My husband jokes, "You don't know a stranger. You talk to anyone." Yeah, that's just my personality. We moved here about 25 years ago. One of my friends was on the board of Community Works and asked me to get involved in a fundraising event. I said, "Sure, I love to raise money." I liked the mission of Community Works, so they asked me to join the board. I was the development chair for the board when the executive director asked me, "Would you just step into the program director job for two to four months..." It started there, I ended up taking the executive director job in 2015.

Q: Do you have a background in nonprofit organizations?

Barbara: I've worked in a lot of businesses. I did not have a nonprofit background. Consequently, I come from a perspective of “don't wait for the money to come.” I've got to see where the need is, and then make it work. It’s a very different mindset. I want to dream big and get programs off the ground, then we’ll find the money. I would ask the staff, "What do you need?" They would say, "Well, if we had money….” "No, no. Take that out of your equation. We'll get the money. What do you need? What do our clients need?" And that's how it started growing. That's how we were able to get our message out and start building partnerships. We intend to make it a lot bigger. I’ll keep that business mindset. There is always the bottom line because our services are free and confidential. Our revenue is through grants, foundations and donors. The community is investing and trusting us; we need to show how we are using their gifts wisely for the good of the community.

Q: Is there someone who saw something in you that you didn't see in yourself?

Barbara: It was the Junior League of Dallas. I was raised with pearls and gloves. When I was 20-something my mother said, "You will join the Junior League," and I was thinking, "No way." But I did, and I loved it. At the Dallas Junior League, a woman in a leadership role came to me saying, "You can chair this. You could do this." Junior League of Dallas was huge. We had over 2,000 volunteers. They said, "We want to teach you to be a leader," and they didn’t mean sitting in a class. They modeled it, and that model really resonated with me. I had to learn to speak in front of audiences; those opportunities gave me confidence. Ultimately, I developed leadership skills by watching and running activities.

If someone said to me 10 years ago, "Barbara, you're going to be running a nonprofit, and you're going to raise $2.1 million during the middle of a pandemic when there's 3,000 fewer homes," I'd have called them crazy. There's no way. I felt uncomfortable asking for money, which is hard to believe now because I go out and ask for money all the time. The Junior League nurtured a passion in me to give to my community.

Q: What do your clients tell you about Community Works?

Barbara: You can't imagine the stories our staff hears. Just the other day, one of my staff who was having a tough day shared a text from one of her recent clients, "I just want to let you know I'm doing great. We've moved to another state. I have full custody of my children. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be here today in my own home with a great job. We're happy." She was grinning from ear to ear. I said, "You hang on to that message because that will carry you forward." We don't always hear back from our clients because they have moved on with their life. Think of it like a cancer survivor calling their oncologist to thank them and let them know 10 years later that they are doing well. We hope our clients are having a full and healthy life. It’s a gift to hear from them that they are doing well.

Q: What's clearer to you now? What do you know now that you didn't know before?

Barbara: This work has helped me find my purpose. As a younger person, I thought I had all the answers. But I wasn't open enough. That's what volunteering and this work have taught me. I need to feel what someone else is feeling. A young woman recently was telling me about her abusive partner, "Well, he just slapped me around. He didn't mean it. He was drunk." I am now able to be present and say, "I can hear you. I see where you're coming from," and not judge. Judgment can be a terrible thing. I've learned to be a better listener and sit with them in their pain.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

Community Works bio

Community Works is the only domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking intervention and prevention organization in Jackson County. The agency provides a 24/7 crisis HelpLine, supportive services, emergency shelter and transitional housing for adults and children who are homeless or near homeless due to abuse.

Community Works delivers services throughout the county, with staff stationed at many locations including schools, health care providers, law enforcement agencies, the courthouse and Department of Human Services. For clients needing to immediately flee, it provides emergency shelter and hotel stays. Services are free and confidential.

Community Works can be reached at 541-779-4357 (HELP) or 855-216-2111. Information can be found at www.community-works.org/ or www.facebook.com/communityworksmedford/

Its main office is at 2594 E. Barnett Road, Suite C, Medford.