Shelter offers education about domestic violence


Author Etaf Rum signs a copy of her book, 'A Woman is No Man,' during the Empty Chair fundraising event for My Sister's House.


Staff Writer

Sunday, October 20, 2019

At the Empty Chair event held earlier this month as a fundraiser for My Sister’s House, one of the 44 chairs that stood empty honored the memory of a Nash County resident who reportedly lost her life to domestic violence earlier this year.

Diana Alejandra Keel, 38, was found brutally slain in March. Her husband, Lynn Keel, has been indicted for her murder by a Nash County grand jury, though he has not yet been convicted of the crime.

My Sister’s House, a community agency that has served victims of domestic violence in the Twin Counties since 1981, recognized October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month with its annual Empty Chair event on Oct. 3.

The event was hosted by Nash Community College in its Brown Auditorium. The guest speaker at the event was Etaf Rum, a local woman who recently catapulted to success as a New York Times best-selling author. Rum’s book, “A Woman is No Man,” chronicles the lives of three generations of Palestinian women living in Brooklyn.

“The staff of My Sister’s House read this book over the summer as a staff development activity,” said Emily Lemus, executive director of My Sister’s House. “Each staff person resonated with characters within the pages of Rum’s writing. With such a long history in the community, My Sister’s House staff has seen firsthand the effects of generational domestic violence on our community.”

While the issue of generational domestic violence is just one aspect of Rum’s book, Lemus said it often is a reality in the Twin Counties and elsewhere in the world.

“Domestic violence usually affects the kids,” Lemus said. “Parents often tell me that their kids don’t know about the fights going on in the home, but the kids do know. This affects what love looks like in the home. Does it look like actually saying ‘I love you’ and hugging? Or is that you put food on the table, cuss at your kid and walk away?”

These kids learn from what they see, Lemus said.

“They learn what love looks like in the home and what they should accept,” she said. “When they see violence in the home, they learn that it is acceptable to hit and to be hit. We need to be able to openly discuss these issues to prevent what is happening now and in the future.”

There were 44 empty chairs at this year’s Empty Chair dinner, which served as a reminder of the effect of domestic violence and as a fundraiser for My Sister’s House. The chairs represented 40 adults and four children who have lost their lives in North Carolina from Jan. 1 to Oct. 3 of this year, Lemus said.

Lemus said the issue is not as rare as people think. My Sister’s House serves roughly 1,200 people — men, women and children — each year in the Twin Counties. Lemus said the community needs to acknowledge and discuss the issue to allow those who need services to feel supported as they attempt to leave a violent situation.

“We need to talk about domestic violence because it affects all demographics, and it is not going away,” Lemus said in an interview this week. “No matter what setting you are in, there are likely people in that room who have experienced this or are experiencing it now. And until we can talk about it openly and easily, it is going to continue.”

This year’s Empty Chair event, which sold out early, also included an opportunity for attendees to sign up to sponsor a night for an individual at the shelter. Large calendars were printed for October, November and December under the heading “Stopping Domestic Violence One Night at a Time.” The approximate cost of the first night for someone in the shelter is $25, Lemus said.

“By sponsoring a night, community members have a direct connection with the needs for clients,” she said. “Often donors feel like they are unable to give an amount that makes a difference, but this shows the impact of just $25.”

Some local businesses are going purple this month in support of Domestic Violence Month. The Bath Place in downtown Rocky Mount is selling a special purple soap with proceeds benefiting My Sister’s House. The Garden Day Spa is donating a dollar for every manicure and pedicure done in October. Trax Coffee Bar located in Station’s Square has two limited edition purple drinks with proceeds benefiting the organization. And Southern Fireflies is collecting food donations for My Sister’s House’s shelter pantry.

Lemus said that people also can show support for people they know who may be suffering from domestic violence. Lemus said it is important for people to believe their relatives, friends and neighbors when they report violence and to support them with patience, compassion and understanding.

“The immediate reaction is to try to convince the person to leave the situation,” Lemus said. “People may get frustrated or give up on the person if they don’t immediately take that advice. But people need to understand that it is not always easy to leave that situation. The average woman returns to her batterer seven times, so going back is very common.”

There are many reasons that this happens, she said.

“They may feel they can’t leave because they are married, they have children together or they have a house together,” Lemus said. “Sometimes women feel they are protecting their children by staying because the man only hurts her and is providing for her children when she feels she cannot provide for them without him.”

What people can do is offer support, she said.

“Offer to go to My Sisters House with them to explore their options,” Lemus said. “Offer to go to court with them. But do so in a non-judgmental way, understanding that the person may choose to go back for a while. Be there for them the next time. The ones who are most likely to leave the situation in the long run are the ones who have someone to come in with them for help. They feel then like they have support.”

In 2018, My Sister’s House sheltered 85 women, one man and 53 children with an average length of stay of 20 days, providing 2,805 sheltered nights and 8,205 meals. During that time, staff and volunteers fielded 1,042 crisis calls. Staff members assisted with 910 safety plans, provided transportation 96 times, assisted with translation 164 times, made 301 referrals to N.C. Legal Aid, assisted with 101 warrants and provided court accompaniment 830 times, Lemus said.

In addition, the agency logged 6,178.5 volunteer hours by 89 unduplicated volunteers.

The hotline number for My Sister’s House is 252-459-3094. The organization has office locations in Nashville and Tarboro and can help offer shelter, meals and resources for individuals in crisis due to domestic violence.

For more information about My Sister’s House or ways to help, go to https://www.mshnc.org/.