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FOSTORIA - For 25 years, First Step has worked with families whose lives are marred by violence from within.
In the four-county area it serves, First Step has seen the need for emergency shelter at its facility on the southern edge of Fostoria shrink almost in half over the past decade, while the call for services - counseling, classes, and support - has nearly doubled.
Now, the shelter that opened in 1981 in a former convent in New Riegel is taking a long, hard look at how it can make the most impact in Sandusky, Seneca, Wood, and Wyandot counties in its next 25 years.
"We already provide what I would consider very comprehensive services for victims, offenders, and families affected by domestic violence, but where we're also looking to go is providing services to strengthen families and relationships in general," said Terri Mercer, executive director. "We want to be seen in the communities we serve as a resource."
Later this month, First Step plans a series of meetings to map out a plan for taking family-strengthening programming to area communities.
"The direction and vision we are going is to a strong prevention program, because it is our experience that our communities are in need of support systems and education and services for families however they're structured," Mrs. Mercer said.
Esuga Abaya, outreach services coordinator for First Step, used this analogy: When people want to get in better physical shape. they go to the YMCA or a gym. When they want to get their relationships or family life in shape, they don't have a comparable place to turn.
First Step, in that sense, wants to become a fitness center for healthy relationships.
"Our mission is to provide the most relevant, comprehensive services to our clients - to think outside the box," Mr. Abaya said.
Mrs. Mercer envisions offering to the public First Step's Passages program, to which some area courts and other agencies refer offenders. Both abusers and victims of abuse attend the intensive, eight-week classroom program that helps them change their belief systems, actions, feelings, and thinking in order to develop violence-free relationships.
The classes could be offered in an abbreviated form or tailored to groups such as engaged couples, Mrs. Mercer said. Mr. Abaya said the program could be relevant to anyone wanting to improve a relationship, whether it be a parent-child or husband-wife relationship.
Passages addresses a wide range of topics with individuals and couples, including conflict resolution, parenting, love, and forgiveness.
Ms. Mercer said the program evolved out of a need First Step heard from women early on: Many did not want to leave their abusive partner; they wanted things to change.
"Passages has been in place going on 19 years," she said. "At that point we knew we had to be more than a shelter. We had to do more than just provide that safe haven. We had to provide services our clients were asking for."
First Step began holding parenting classes, making home visits, being by a victim's side as she went through the court system.
"The services for victims has grown by leaps and bounds," Mrs. Mercer said. "It's one thing to go in and be able to get shelter. The question becomes: how am I going to be able to leave the shelter and lead an abuse-free life? I feel we've successfully accomplished that vision to be able to provide comprehensive services to our clients. Now we're at another crossroads: prevention. That is the direction our agency is going."
While First Step is looking to reach out more in the coming years, Mrs. Mercer said she believes it will remain true to its roots as a domestic violence shelter. In 1990. it built its current facility on State Rt. 18, then nearly doubled its size in 2000 with the addition of 2,700 square feet of classroom, office, and storage space.
And, even with the opening last month of the Cocoon Shelter in Bowling Green, those who work with victims of family violence agree there is room for both agencies.
"I think having two shelters in the area is a wonderful benefit for domestic violence victims in Wood County. I just think that's an absolute benefit," said Mary Ann Robinson, a domestic violence specialist with the Wood County Sheriff's Office.
Victims who seek safety at a shelter now have another option. For some, the choice is to stay close to home. For others, it may be to get farther away from an abuser.
Michelle Clossick, executive director of the Cocoon, said the new shelter did not open to compete with First Step but to answer a need the Bowling Green community identified after a series of domestic violence-related homicides in the area.
Since its doors opened less than three weeks ago, six women and seven children have already used the Cocoon Shelter, she said.
"I support women in getting safety and getting their needs met, and I am not about competing with First Step," Ms. Clossick said. "I believe that all women should live in safety, and that's what we're about."
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-353-5972.