Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Project bringing more hope to abuse victims

SIOUX CENTER-It may be a heartwrenching story, but Shari Kastein felt she needed to share it.

Twenty-four years ago, Kastein was trapped in a violent marriage.

Each morning she awoke she would thank God to still be alive.

Eventually, Kastein mustered up the courage to leave, taking her daughter, Melissa, with her. With no place to go, the two resorted to sleeping in Kastein's car.

"I remember holding my daughter on my lap, curled up with a blanket, because there was no place to go," she said. "I carried around a bucket of coins with me, so I could go to the nearest pay phone and call my mom. I would sometimes fall asleep in my car with the pay phone in my hand and Melissa in her car seat."

Kastein and Melissa sought refuge in a condemned trailer. It might not have had any hot water or heat, but they were safe.

Or so Kastein thought.

The night before Thanksgiving in 1985, 1-year-old Melissa Aakers was abducted, severely beaten, molested and left to die in an abandoned car.

She was rescued but spent the next few days fighting for her life in a trauma center.

Neither of them would suffer from domestic violence again.

In 1997, Kastein interviwed for her job as director at the Family Crisis Centers of Northwest Iowa in Sioux Center. She was offered the position.

"When I got in the car, Melissa was waiting, and I said, 'Well, I got the job, but we're not going to go,'" Kastein said. "She said, 'But, why Mom?' and I said, 'The money, Melissa. We can't afford to stay here.' She innocently looked at me, only being in eighth grade, and said, 'But Mom, when has your work ever been about the money? I think we need to move to Sioux Center.'"

So they did.

More than 100 people - Family Crisis Centers board of director members, staff members, volunteers and community members - gathered Wednesday at New Life Reformed Church in Sioux Center for the groundbreaking ceremony and celebration of the organization's newest endeavor, Project Hope, an estimated $1.7 million project that will house shelter space, learning facilities and a long-term housing unit in the same building.

Kastein and the Family Crisis Centers Board of Directors began planning for the project about three and a half years ago.

While the building that has been serving the organization since 2001 already includes office space for counselors and administration and an emergency safe house for victims needing protection, more space was needed to serve the 350 people who seek the services annually.

The new facility, which will include more shelter space, more office space, a conference training center and a transitional housing unit for families seeking longer respite, will meet those needs and allow room for growth.

"This multilevel facility will be a safe haven for persons that sometimes leave in the middle of the night with just the clothes on their back," Kastein said. "Project Hope will be something that we all in this community and this region can be proud of."

Although the $1.7 million price tag seemed quite lofty only a little over a year ago, funding has poured in.

Last March, the facility was notified it had received a Community Development Block Grant for $600,000 - the maximum amount possible and the largest amount ever received in Sioux Center.

Project Hope also was awarded two $90,000 grants from the Iowa Financial Authority and a total of $233,000 in grants from an international foundation based in New York City.

Only $500,000 remains to be raised for the 10,000-square-foot facility.

"We're going to raise $500,000 to make this center the most unique and valuable agency in the state of Iowa, in the region and even in the nation," Kastein said. "If we go back to our Christian thinking, remember that Jesus walked on Earth as a human being for only 30-plus years, and in that time, he left with us a teaching. What we did with that is said that we are here to take care of each other. That is a memory I hold true. From the night when I was left with no place to go, I always remembered that somebody would care. Today, we are a group that cares for others. We can provide hope for those that are suffering from domestic violence and sexual assault."

Wednesday's ceremony aligned with this week being National Volunteer Week, today (Saturday, April 25) being Shelter Awareness Day and next week being National Crime Victims Rights Week.

While Iowa first lady Mari Culver was scheduled to speak at the event, she was not able to attend because she was in Newton, where President Barack Obama was appearing. Instead, Adam Gross, the Governor's Office outreach coordinator and volunteer liaison, spoke on her behalf and read a letter from Culver.

"Spring is here," Gross said. "This is a new day and a new opportunity to move forward and combat domestic violence."

Although Sioux County attorney Coleman McAllister has never suffered from domestic violence, he deals with those who have on a daily basis.

"My job as a prosecutor is a humbling job at times," he said to the crows Wednesday. "I get to meet people when they are most vulnerable. People that have been hurt oftentimes come to me, and my job is to be their voice - their voice in the court system and their voice to ensure justice. There are times when that's a very difficult job because they don't want to come see me, a lot of people really don't."

McAllister said several shelters have closed throughout the state of Iowa because there was not community support or the needed funding.

"We are lucky here in northwest Iowa," McAllister said. "We have people that support victims, and they put their money where their mouth is. I want to take the time to thank you all. Without your help, I can't do my job, and we can't do what law enforcement wants us to do - achieve safe and secure communities. That's what we're trying to do. That's what I try to do and that's what this helps us do."

Sioux Center mayor Dennis Walstra said the community supports the service that Family Crisis Centers provides to abused people in N'West Iowa.

"We appreciate your vision," he said. "This may not be the last step that the Family Crisis Centers takes. We certainly hope not."

This article appeared in the April 25, 2009 edition of The N'West Iowa REVIEW.

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