March is Women’s History Month, which encourages us to recognize the history of an extremely important women’s organization in our community. I recently met with Margarette Trushel, Executive Director of the Oasis Women’s Center in Alton. Margarette is a founding member of the Center, was one of the drivers of its incorporation in 1976, and helped facilitate the first opening of the shelter, which has been in operation since 1978.
The Oasis Women’s Center offers shelter to women (and their children) suffering from domestic violence. Domestic violence is the number one reason for police calls in Madison County, and the county averages 1,300 Orders of Protection annually, based on domestic violence incidents.
Prior to the Center’s inception in 1976, domestic violence was regarded as a private family matter. Women were most often considered causes rather than victims of violence. They were terrified to speak about it and unaware of any services to help them. The original mission for Oasis in 1976 was to raise community awareness of the high level of incidents of domestic violence, encourage recognition of domestic violence as a crime, and highlight the serious harm inflicted on women and their families. The Center started out in offices at Elm Street Presbyterian Church, focusing specifically on education for community service organizations and individuals, and fund-raising.
Oasis was originally staffed only by volunteers, many from local hospitals, which identified the high number of battered women needing medical services. The first board president was volunteer Barbara Shaw of Alton. Barbara has recently retired as the Director of Illinois Violence Prevention Authority.
The Center grew to offer “eats & sheets”—a place for women and their children to find refuge and a hot meal. Today, the Center has expanded to four service locations: the shelter in Alton; an office in Jerseyville to serve Greene, Calhoun, and Jersey counties; a legal services office in the Madison County courthouse; and contract services with the Public Health Department in Macoupin County.
The Alton shelter offers a safe haven for up to eight women and their children at any one time. The average stay is 29 days per individual or family. During this time women are aided in finding a job, a place to live, and child-care services.
When they first come to the shelter, the women are also offered counseling and support by Oasis staff in acquiring an Order of Protection from Madison County. An Order of Protection protects the victim by prohibiting visitation by the abusive party at the victim’s residence, whether at the shelter or her home. An Order of Protection is police enforced, which means that women do not first have to go to court to protect themselves from the physical presence of their abusers. Police are empowered to arrest abusers on the spot when called in under an Order of Protection. Oasis was responsible for passing this legislation in Madison County???.
Margarette served, in 1986, as the Public Policy Chair on the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The group caused the state to pass the Illinois Domestic Violence Act, a 98-page law addressing domestic violence and identifying the active role of the police and the courts to aid violence victims. This act was responsible for creating the Order of Protection, which has been critically important in providing violence victims the first steps to extract themselves from the violent situation.
Violence can be present in the home in multiple forms, including husband against wife, children beating parent, parents beating children, wife against husband. Oasis offers services to all victims of domestic violence, though the majority of battered victims are married white women.
A significant challenge for Oasis staff was in training schools, hospitals, churches, and police in recognizing potential domestic violence victims. As a result of Oasis’s intensive community-wide training programs, all hospitals in Madison County incorporate the universal screening technique in the admitting procedures for incoming patients. This screening requires the hospital to ask three questions: “Do you feel safe at home?” “Is anyone hurting you?” and “ ADD THIRD QUESTION
Also, Alton School District employs a “homeless coordinator,” who promotes the services of Oasis based on daily observation (the main reason for homelessness in Madison County is domestic violence). Oasis holds two major training sessions every year, open to all community individuals and organizations, to aid in recognizing domestic violence and understanding the services available, so that violence does not have to be a way of life.
Today, Oasis has 13 full-time employees and six part-time employees. But Margarette is emphatic that from day one, Oasis success has been the result of the hard work of generous and caring community volunteers. The Caravan Resale Shop, located at 112 East Broadway, Alton, provides an important revenue stream to the Oasis Center. Completely staffed by volunteers, the shop is open every day except Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oasis funding also is provided through individuals, the United Way, state and federal grants, an annual Friends campaign, and the fund-raising of local civic groups.
The shelter in Alton provides women a place to go when they have nowhere to turn. Margarette reports that so often she hears at the shelter, “This is the first time I’ve felt safe to sleep in years.” She reminds us that the question is not “Why do women stay” but rather “How can we help them get out safely and help them stay out?” and “What are we doing as a community to help the women and families in need?”
For more information on Oasis and/or its volunteer opportunities, call the Center at 465-1978. Volunteers are always welcome in positions on the Oasis board and/or committees, projects, and the staff of the Caravan shop. For information about the Caravan Resale Shop, call 462-6434.