Domestic Abuse Intervention Services opened the doors of its new Fordem Street facility in August 2014, and the enormous kitchen and dining spaces are the first things residents see upon walking through the doors. The open-concept area boasts large counters, a table and four stoves, refrigerators and sinks. There's an attached great room where kids and other residents can hang out as food is being made, or there's a more private area if residents would like to eat alone or have smaller get togethers.
Though I wasn't able to go into the kitchen, DAIS executive director Shannon Barry and three staff members—shelter coordinator Sara Flugum, assistant shelter coordinator Sara de Felice and director of development and communications Emily Barnes—took time to meet with me and talk about the importance of the kitchen space and cooking in the lives of the residents and the advocates (what the staff members call themselves).
"Everything about the space was thought through," Barry says. "We wanted the space to be mission-aligned. We wanted to create an ideal environment for people who have experienced trauma. We wanted to reduce isolation and create a sense of community. We asked, ‘What does that look like?'"
For years, the DAIS building occupied two houses on Monroe Street. "They were total dumps. It wasn't conducive to cooking or relaxing," says Barry. Now, the DAIS building has an enormous gourmet kitchen featuring gleaming appliances donated by Sub-Zero, while the high ceilings allow plenty of light and airflow throughout the dining area and great room. Not surprisingly, the kitchen quickly became the hub of activity.
The space offers not only a respite for residents, but also a place for the advocates to connect with residents. "It's wonderful. There is an island that separates the kitchen and great room. Kids can be in the area playing while their moms are in kitchen," says Barnes. "It really harkens back to roots of the domestic violence movement. Forty years ago, when people started creating safe houses for women who were escaping battering relationships, they were basically going into the homes of other women. A lot of advocacy work happened around kitchen tables."
Barry continues, "A lot of the best advocacy work that our staff accomplishes happens when they are connecting with women over cooking a meal, or doing dishes together, as we are working together standing side by side." That is when residents feel most comfortable talking about their trauma, she says.
The work at DAIS revolves around building positive and trusting relationships. "That is difficult when we are knee-to-knee with a desk between us," Flugum says. "But in the kitchen, we cook and eat together. The space feels homey and supportive. We build community over food." The advocate becomes just another person, and that evolves into an organic relationship.
The benefit of the kitchen expands beyond just supporting advocate and resident relationships; it also provides an important place where the abused women can be nurtured, something that they often haven't experienced in their lives. "For so many of these women, they have not had the opportunity to be cared for and nurtured themselves," Barry says. "To be able to come into a space and have advocates stand along side them and nurture them is powerful."
Not every woman wants to cook a meal; volunteers and staff help to provide the nourishment in that case. Sometimes the residents cook for each other, too. De Felice notes, "It's cool to watch families, moms and kids. If you are cooking for two kids, usually it becomes collaborative, making food for all of the kids. Another mom takes care of food the next night."
The ingredients for the meals are sourced from all over. DAIS utilizes community resources such as Second Harvest and UW Provision for ingredients, and accepts donations of food and grocery store gift cards. Outside of the kitchen are some garden beds that offer fresh produce for residents to use. "We know food can provide great comfort. We try to accommodate the best we can. Within reason, of course. I mean, we don't have filet mignon," Barry says. The other advocates laugh, and quickly add, "We welcome a donation of a side of beef or filet mignon."
Residents can stay in the facility—which accommodates various family sizes and teenage boys, too—for up to forty-five days, but there is no lifetime limit. Barry says, "There is potential for women to go back to abusive relationships. In fact, it takes an average of seven attempts to leave a relationship."
The healing power of food is underscored by the positive support that transpires in the kitchen. Over a meal or a load of dishes, the women start to take care of each other. "Sometimes one will be communicating struggles; others step up to ask how they can help," explains Barry. "It really does speak to the goal that we had. So many domestic violence victims have been systematically isolated by their batterers, and they don't have systems of support. We wanted to give people private spaces, but really wanted to encourage community, which is why we designed the kitchen and dining area in that way. The staff and other women here become their support network."
Barry continues, "These women have been told they are worthless. They
hear from other women who have experienced similar things, and realize they are not crazy, and they are not alone. The kitchen space is an unofficial support-group space. The women start supporting each other and drawing strength from one another. In turn, the women begin to realize their own strength and value from the support that is being received by the other women."
Nothing expresses love like a hot, home-cooked meal, and in the case of abuse victims, the significance of that nurturing and nourishing experience is even greater. Flugum recalls the story of a resident who had been "pounding the pavement all day looking for work, trying to find housing and had had an exhausting day. She said she was talking to God, and needed a sign that she was doing something right. She got back to the shelter, and there was this beautiful hot meal the other residents had made. [The woman] said, ‘That was my sign that I was doing something right.'"
"The kitchen is truly the heart and soul of the building," Barry says.