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A Charity With Grit: Making Victims Into Survivors

A Charity with Grit: Making Victims into Survivors

A woman rang Families to Freedom’s office; her voice was strangled with panic and tears as she explained that her husband had hit, kicked and threatened her with a gun many times before finally slashing her car’s tires to prevent her from leaving. The caller was asking for money for bus tickets for her and her two children. Ernie—a white-haired man with kind eyes, and one of the charity’s most reliable volunteers—organized transportation and for a shelter to receive her and her children. This meant that the caller could hit the road within 24 hours and escape the abuser.

“Now, you hang in there, lady. We’re going to get you the help you need. Okay? Okay. And again, my name is Ernie, so if you need anything, you just call back and ask for Ernie. Bye for now,” he said in a measured tone.

Sarah Nejdl is the founder and CEO of the Dallas-based charity Families to Freedom, which has the following mission statement: ‘to transport victims of domestic abuse to safety.’ The charity is not a shelter, but instead provides the means to get to shelter an hour or more outside of Dallas-Ft. Worth. Clients travel by car driven by local volunteers, or by bus, or by using a petrol card for their own car. They also drive shelter survivors and their children to their family’s home.

Nejdl came up with the idea of Families to Freedom in 2014 after reading that thousands of Texans are turned away from shelter due to a lack of space. Certainly, there is a big demand for shelter; there were 23,311 adults and children victims of family violence sheltered in 2014 in Texas. In 2016 alone, 12,693 requests for shelter went unmet across the state, and the lack of shelter remains the main issue in providing domestic violence prevention services in the state today.

It is dire when shelters have to deny victims because, once turned away, a victim of abuse is left with limited options. Homelessness is common among domestic abuse survivors; between 22 and 57 per cent of all homeless women in the United States report domestic violence as the immediate cause of their homelessness, and being homeless is especially catastrophic if the victim has children with them.

“I made Families to Freedom my life. After hearing about this issue of a massive lack of shelter for victims, I thought, I could either sit back and say, ‘oh well, that’s a shame.’ Or, I could do something,” Nejdl said, her eyes suddenly more wide and steely. She is a tall woman with a pale, doll-like face that seems to perpetually emit light, even when she is stressed.

Before starting Families to Freedom, Nejdl was an airplane pilot who wanted to do charity work in her spare time, so she originally came up with the idea to alleviate this domestic violence shelter crisis by flying the victims to a safe place by herself. But she realised there were some Federal Aviation Administration regulations that prevented her from flying as a charitable service unless it was done on behalf of a charity, so she decided to create her own charity by convincing neighbours, colleagues and friends to help her fund and form the organization. The establishment of Families to Freedom was successful. Most trips are now done by car, but she has flown clients on a few occasions.

Nejdl is no longer an active pilot as she now works full-time at Families to Freedom. In fact, she often works overtime as she is available by phone 24/7 to the drivers who are transporting the victims of abuse, sometimes overnight. The organization is run entirely by volunteers, including Nejdl.

During our first meeting, her phone rang loudly. She made no apology; something else bigger than our meeting lurked on the other end of the line: “Good morning, how may I help you? Yes. Yes. Yes. No. That’s correct. Tell her we can arrange that. Okay, see you soon,” she said with a smile still in her voice, even though she was speaking as if her voice was on fast-forward.

“Sarah is this organization. She cares so much,” said Debi, another reliable volunteer who works as a phone advocate and always has long, gleaming nails. She lounges back with her hands on her stomach as if she is perpetually in a nail salon in her mind, despite the frequently stressful calls she takes and the time-pressure she works under to get victims transportation.

Nejdl explains that most of her passion comes from her love of seeing victims turn into survivors and become strong enough to raise their children in stable conditions.

“I really care about women, especially mothers,” she said.

Nejdl clarified that Families to Freedom helps anyone escaping domestic violence and doesn’t discriminate based on gender, but that the vast majority of her ‘clients’, as she calls them, are women though.

A 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that more than 1 in 3 women and more than 1 in 4 men have experienced physical violence, rape and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. While men are undoubtedly abused, too, studies suggest that women are more fearful for their lives when they experience it, and for good reason: women are more likely to be injured by their partner and involve law enforcement in IPV assaults.

Furthermore, women are not only more likely to be raped in general—1 in 5 females have been raped compared to 1 in 71 males—but also, of those female victims, 51.1 per cent reported being raped by an intimate partner.

As for murders of women by IPV, consider this statement: more women were murdered by their boyfriends and husbands in the US between 2002 and 2012 than all the number of casualties from 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

Another point Nejdl emphasises is that Families to Freedom doesn’t just save one life when they help a caller, but sometimes many lives as they help children get away from the abuse, too. A study showed that children who witness family violence often suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, which manifests as bedwetting, nightmares, gastrointestinal issues, asthma, headaches and the flu.

A victim in part sees their abuser as highly dependable because they are often comforting after a violent incident, which, Rhonda Freeman, a Ph.D. neuropsychologist says builds a ‘trauma bond’. Freeman explains that the victim comes to primarily rely on the abuser to physically calm down after going through a traumatic incident (that the abuser ironically caused), and this creates dysregulated neurochemistry in the mind of the victim. This misfiring neurochemistry distorts cognition and makes it difficult for the victim to make logical decisions such as leaving the dangerous, and perhaps fatal, situation.

Nejdl seems to have researched the psychology of a victim in depth, and explained how, as a driver, you may want to connect with the victim, tell them your own personal story, or give them advice, or play music to break the ice.

“But don’t do that. Ever. You can’t predict if the next song will be about breaking up and we don’t want to trigger negative emotions. Instead, we have a set playlist if you want to play music in the car. We don’t want any romantic songs with words such as “baby, come back!” and “I will always love you.” We don’t want music that will make the victim want to turn around and go back to the abuser or second-guess their decision to leave. Instead, we have songs such as Destiny Child’s “I’m a Survivor.” You know, songs about resolve to leave him and independence.”

Survival is what this charity is about, seeing as the quality Nejdl said she appreciates most in a person is “grit”. She admires observing grit in both her volunteers and the clients who keep going despite hardship. She hopes that in 30 years’ time, Families to Freedom will be as well-known as charities such as Habitat for Humanity. They could grow at a fast rate as they are a scalable charity; they are not in one place.

“We’re a small charity right now, but, further down the road, there’s no reason that Families to Freedom couldn’t be known everywhere by everyone as the charity that transports domestic violence survivors to safety.”