Thursday, October 22nd, 2020

H.E.R. Shelter Story


A beacon of hope for domestic abuse survivors

by Cristi Sanchez

Olivia Smithberger, Executive Director of the H.E.R. Shelter

Olivia Smithberger, Executive Director of the H.E.R. Shelter

Olivia Smithberger, the H.E.R. Shelter’s new executive director, has a desire to give to her community that began in her childhood.  “My parents definitely nurtured that in me,” she smiles gratefully.  “My dad was in the military, and we moved every three years.  Every community we lived in, the people were always looking to get involved and see what they could do to help and contribute.  So, it was definitely ingrained in me.”

Olivia’s desire to make a difference in the lives of others became crystal clear while attending ODU. “I actually went to school to become a history teacher, and about a year in, I realized that just wasn’t my passion.  When I started thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, it came to me that I wanted to do something to help make things better and leave the world a little better than I found it.”

Human services and social work were a perfect fit, and the choice just evolved naturally for Olivia. She decided to major in the field and was introduced to the H.E.R. Shelter during her last year in school.  “I had to do an internship my last semester, and I interned at the H.E.R. Shelter. I’ve been there ever since,” she smiles.  The H.E.R. Shelter, with facilities in Chesapeake and Portsmouth, provides support and resources to victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual violence, stalking, and human trafficking.

“Anyone who is experiencing domestic violence
or just wants to talk to someone can call the hotline
and receive services without coming into the shelter.”
—Olivia Smithberger

Olivia’s passion drives her to continue getting the message out about the shelter, its mission, and its programs.  “Domestic violence is not something that’s fun to talk about or hear about, but it’s so important for people to know how many people are actually struggling as survivors of domestic violence,” Oliva states. “It’s something that’s happening in everybody’s community.”
Domestic violence can touch soccer moms, working women, young navy wives, and even young enlisted men.  These are just a few of the types of people the H.E.R. Shelter helps every day.  Domestic violence does not discriminate and can happen to people in any walk of life and any economic level.  

“Sadly, we’ve found that no one sector of the community is immune; there’s no amount of money that can keep people from experiencing domestic violence,” Olivia points out to illustrate.  “That’s why we’re here and why our work is so important in our communities.  We try to provide leadership, advocacy, resources, and, of course, shelter for survivors of domestic violence in our communities.”

There’s a common misconception among those struggling to escape domestic violence that they have to come into the shelter to obtain services.  Olivia wants to emphasize that nothing could be further from the truth.  “Anyone,” she stresses, “who is experiencing domestic violence or just wants to talk to someone can call the hotline and receive services without coming into the shelter.  If they want to know what resources are available or what the process is when they are ready to leave, they can absolutely call us!  The H.E.R. Shelter really is a community resource.”

“People are often afraid that they’ll
lose their kids or that their abusers
will get the children if they go into a shelter—
which is not true.”
—Olivia Smithberger

Those services and resources include a mental health counselor to help with the mental toll and root issues of domestic violence. There is a youth and family services program for children who have witnessed or experienced domestic violence. A court advocate is also available when survivors feel their most alone and vulnerable.  

“People are often afraid that they’ll lose their kids or that their abusers will get the children if they go into a shelter—which is not true,” Olivia explains. “Our advocate will go with survivors to file for protective orders, child support, or a divorce.  The advocate will be the person to metaphorically hold the survivor’s hand and let them know they’re not in this alone.”

Additionally, the H.E.R. Shelter has empowerment teams that work on housing and employment assistance for survivors in transition. If survivors are temporarily staying with family or friends, the H.E.R’s housing and stabilization team will help them find employment, their own housing, and available financial assistance.

All of these resources are free of charge, and shelter staff can meet with clients discreetly in safe places, or virtually, so no one will feel endangered.  The shelter itself, however, is reserved for those survivors in imminent danger of harm.  “Our call center prioritizes calls, and those in imminent danger are our highest priority,” Olivia says. “Even if we don’t have availability in the shelter, we tell those survivors to come anyway, and we’ll put them up in a hotel until space becomes available.  We would never allow the fact that we don’t have space within the shelter to be the reason that someone gets harmed or loses their life.”

With the current pandemic, the non-profit H.E.R. Shelter is in great need of financial support from the community.  The cost of the aforementioned hotel bills has risen dramatically for the shelter.  “COVID has significantly impacted the number of people we’ve had to place in hotels to allow for safety and social distancing,” Olivia discloses. “In an average year, we would spend about $6000 to $8000 in hotel rooms. Just since March, we’ve spent $68,000 on hotel rooms alone.”

“We had to cancel the May Gala, our biggest fundraiser of the year, and had to do our Smart Luncheon virtually,” she continues. “We’ve lost our largest venues for awareness and fundraising.  We need donations now more than ever. People can donate online, mail a check, or we can even come pick up a check-in person using social distancing protocols if they prefer.  We’re relying on the community to help us help the survivors.”

Through the passion of Olivia Smithberger and her dedicated staff and with the support of the community, H.E.R Shelter strives to continue its mission to be a beacon of hope for domestic survivors across Hampton Roads.

H.E.R. Shelter