Community Builders SAAFE House

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Twana Sullins: co-executive director,
Cynthia Martinez: board president &
Alexis Anderson: co-executive director 

Kimberly Dyan was just 19 when it happened. One Saturday night in October of 1995, the Sam Houston State University student went out to a party. It seemed like a good idea and, at first, she was having fun like all the other students there. By the time the evening ended, however, she had been sexually assaulted. 

Like many sexual assault survivors, Kimberly knew her rapist. Her feelings of remorse and self-doubt were typical of rape victims. Was there something she could have done to have prevented the assault? Was there something she did wrong? To make matters worse, there were other students who witnessed her rape. Why didn’t they do anything to stop it? Being young and not knowing any better, she blamed herself. 

By Monday, all of Kimberly’s feelings had begun to overwhelm her. She skipped her daytime classes and that evening, when she was supposed to be in a sorority meeting, she sat alone in her dorm room wondering how to deal with what had happened to her. 

She picked up the phone book, looked up SAAFE House, and called the 24-hour hotline. It was the first step in Kimberly’s journey from being a victim of sexual assault to becoming an advocate for other people facing similar circumstances. Today, she sits on the SAAFE House board of directors and is a frequent speaker at college campuses on the subject of sexual assault. 

“SAAFE House was very encouraging. I was able to tell them everything that happened that Saturday night and how I was feeling. They advised me to go to the police and press charges. They were very supportive and were there to listen to me when I felt I had no one else I could talk to,” Kimberly said. 

Kimberly ultimately decided to drop the charges against her assailant for fear of victim-blaming in court and negative attention on campus and in the media, a common decision among sexual assault victims prior to the recent “me too” movement. The support she received from SAAFE House, however, stayed with her. The following semester, she became reengaged with her sorority, and they began volunteering at SAAFE House. She has been involved with the organization ever since. 

SAAFE House was originally organized as the Walker County Family Violence Council. It began its work in assisting victims of family violence in 1984 through the Good Shepherd Mission in Huntsville. In 1985, the WCFVC was awarded a state grant and hired its first executive director. Using local hotels and the mission for emergency shelter, the organization began providing other services such as legal advocacy, police assistance, child care, emergency, and medical care, and counseling. It also helped victims obtain secure, independent lifestyles and offered referrals to appropriate social service agencies. 

In 1986, WCFVC acquired office space and a shelter facility; in 1988, it added a sexual assault program. In order to reflect the expanded services, the organization’s name was changed to Sexual Assault and Abuse Free Environment (SAAFE) House in 1989. 

Since its inception over 35 years ago, SAAFE House has grown into a multi-county non-profit organization that serves victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault across Walker, Polk, Trinity, and San Jacinto counties. It operates a 24-hour hotline, two shelters in Walker and Polk counties, and outreach offices in each of the counties it serves for clients to receive non-residential services. 

SAAFE House also has two resale boutiques, Elite Repeat in Huntsville and a newly opened This & That Resale Boutique in Livingston, which provides income for the non-profit to supplement its donations and grant support. Some SAAFE House clients – individuals and families served by the organization – are able to shop for free at the resale stores for items they need to help rebuild their lives. 

While SAAFE House employs a number of personnel to manage its facilities and programs, the organization has always been highly dependent upon volunteers. SAAFE House has grown from an executive director and 10 volunteers in the beginning to more than 60 volunteers today. 

The Sam Houston State chapter of Alpha Chi Omega sorority provides many volunteers, as its national philanthropy focus is helping survivors of domestic violence. Other volunteers include students and staff members at the university, local business people, and community members from across Huntsville and the surrounding areas, all the way down to Houston. 

Some SAAFE House staff members and volunteers just feel led to get behind the SAAFE House mission, while others – including the majority of the board members – have stories to tell of how their personal lives have been affected by domestic violence and sexual assault. 

One board member was raped as a teenager and then physically abused in a dating relationship when she was in her early 20s. The counseling she received as a young woman through a similar program in a larger city enabled her to work through the trauma and recover from those experiences, prompting her desire to help others through SAAFE House. Another board member began a similar non-profit after his daughter was raped and murdered by a stalker. When he moved to Huntsville, he brought his expertise to SAAFE House. 

SAAFE House Board of Directors President Cyntia Martinez also had personal reasons of her own for volunteering. “Growing up, I saw and heard of family members and friends going through domestic violence, without any repercussions to the abusers. It was very hush-hush, though. No one wanted to talk about it,” Cyntia explained. 

“When I was a child, I kind of accepted it as the norm, but that type of mentality started shifting when I started seeing it first-hand with my friends,” she said. “All I wanted to do was do give it attention, call the cops, call the family and to try and get the person out of the bad situation.” 

When a close friend of Cyntia began being abused, she talked to her about it not being okay, but her friend wouldn’t leave her abuser. “It was very crazy to me because she was such an empowering type of girl, she did great in school, had a great support system at home, a solid religious background, and yet she was allowing her boyfriend to hit her,” she continued. “That’s when it dawned on me that it wasn’t just as simple as just leaving the partner because as hard as I tried (to change things for her), she went back.” 

Eventually her friend left the abusive relationship, but Cyntia still wanted to do something to help others, so when she learned of the opportunity to join the board of SAAFE House, she jumped right in. “I wanted to stop the stigma and the silence around abuse, to show people there is a support system out there and resources to help people who are in domestic violence situations.” 

SAAFE House Co-Executive Director Alexis Anderson joined the organization in 2014 after graduating from Sam Houston State’s criminal justice department with a degree in victim studies. She began as a residential advocate and subsequently a crisis intervention advocate before being named client services director in 2018. Alexis shared one of the personal stories that has touched her heart since joining SAAFE House. 

“We had a client come into our shelter with her four children in 2017. The situation that brought them into shelter was bodily injury to herself and her oldest child. This client came in scared and unsure 

of what the future would hold and how she would be able to take care of her kids on her own,” she explained. “We walked with her through the criminal justice process, the civil process for custody and divorce, and helped her secure housing. She had no support besides SAAFE House that truly understood what she and her kids had been through, and who did not blame her for it.” 

“To this day, that client and her children still receive outreach services, but are in such a better place,” Alexis said. “She is currently in college, aspiring to become a nurse, and her kids are doing well in school. Knowing what a difference we’ve made in their lives means the world to me.” 

SAAFE House has kept both its shelters and outreach centers open and providing services throughout the past few months, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Shelters are considered an essential service (for good reason). Studies have shown that both domestic violence rates and sexual assault rates rise significantly during times of crisis and financial strain. 

“As the COVID-19 crisis has grown here in the United States, SAAFE House has seen a steady increase in the number of clients seeking services,” Cyntia said. 

SAAFE House is continuing to recruit new volunteers and has openings on the board of directors for those who are interested in serving. They also need donations of funds to support their operations, as well as supplies such as toilet paper, paper towels, shampoo and conditioner, soap and body wash, sanitary supplies, diapers, baby wipes and cleaning products. 

For more information on SAAFE House, to donate or to apply as a volunteer, visit www.saafehouse.org. Any members of the community needing help with a sexual assault or domestic violence situation can call the SAAFE House hotline at 936-291-3369 or 936-327-2513. 

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