Sojourner House, an established resource for victims of domestic violence in Rhode Island, recently returned to Woonsocket, reopening its safe-house after a year of renovations, and launching a five unit residential program.
Of the lenghty hiatus, Sojourner House’s executive director Vanessa Volz says the shelter “was an old house, built around the turn of the twentieth century, and it was in need of a lot of repairs.” As the renovations carried on, Sojourner House acquired a building in Woonsocket that was also renovated to suit the non-profit’s residential program. They are both up and serving clients. To preserve the safety and confidentiality of Sojourner House clients, the locations of the shelter and the residential units were not disclosed.
Sojourner House, named for Sojourner Truth, has served over 50,000 women, their children, and men since it was founded in 1976 by a group of Brown University students and alumni.
Federal funding for the agency ebbed and flowed, especially during its formative years in the 1970s and 1980s. Progressive funding in the 1970s allowed the organization to develop a model of objectives that continues to guide its mission today: direct services and community education. During the 1980s Sojourner House nearly disbanded, surviving for a number of years on a budget of $14,000. In 1988, the fortified Sojourner House opened its shelter in Woonsocket, expanded its staff and broadened the scope of its services, reaching more clients in Providence and northern Rhode Island, and qualified as a United Way member.
Sojourner House has developed a number of programs aimed at achieving their twin objectives of direct care and community education: from Alternative Solutions for Kids (ASK,) a prevention program to a program which links domestic violence services to HIV/AIDS prevention.
The reopening of Sojourner House’s Woonsocket shelter and the launch of the residential program were celebrated last week with a fundraising cocktail party and concert at Chan’s Restaurant. Entertainment was provided by The Goomba Comedy Company and rising Americana act The Sugar Honey Iced Tea.
In 2008, Sojourner House was granted the competitive Start Strong award by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The million-dollar grant is the nation’s largest program for the prevention of dating violence among 11-14 year-old. Volz is excited about the programs running and being developed thanks to that funding.
“The grant allows us to do work with middle- and high-school students around teaching violence prevention,” said Volz. “The idea being that if you teach kids about healthy relationships it will prevent domestic violence later on in their lives.”
Hook Up with Respect is a website with a peer forum where young people can post relationship issues and get instant feedback, and can learn what others their age are dealing with and how they are reacting to it.
“We’ve really latched onto the idea of using technology to reach kids because that’s where they are these days...Kids will post stories to Hook Up with Respect--’there’s something going on in my relationship, what do you think about it?’--and people can comment. A lot of times, when you think about teen dating violence prevention, it’s adults telling kids how to act and what’s wrong. They’ve really embraced this idea that kids should be able to figure it out on their own.”
The website also captures teens’ reactions to hypothetical dating and relationship issues.
“Through the grant, we were able to acquire some video equipment and they go down to Kennedy Plaza (in Providence) and do these short, two-minute video clips. ‘Is it cool to log-in to your boyfriend’s Facebook account; is it cool to date someone who has a kid?’”
A video game which Volz calls the cornerstone of the grant project is in development, as well. Details of the game, being designed for use in health class curricula, were not made available except that it is being designed by E-Line Media, publishers of games that prepare youth for real world applications both domestic and professional. E-Line has developed games around apprenticeships and entrepreneurship.
Another project, unrelated to the Start Strong grant, but with local ties, is a collaboration with The Hive Archive called Voices Unfold. Artists will work with Sojourner House clients from Woonsocket and Providence in 8-10 art therapy sessions culminating in a gallery exhibition in Woonsocket.
To learn more about programming, gain access to Sojourner House’s resources, or find out how to get involved as a volunteer or donor, visit www.sojournerri.org.
Editor's Note: Some of the programs provided by Sojourner House have changed. This article has been edited to reflect the most current information.