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40 years on the front lines of crisis

Tri-Valley Haven devoted to residents affected by domestic violence, sexual abuse, homelessness

The staff of Tri-Valley Haven in front of the nonprofit's community building, located at 3663 Pacific Ave., Livermore. (Photo by Erika Alvero)

Kaycie, a Livermore resident who works in Pleasanton, needed a support group last year. She wanted to connect with others who had been through trauma like she had -- she who was still healing from having been molested as a child.

After perusing the internet, she found the Tri-Valley Haven, a nonprofit supporting survivors of domestic violence, sexual abuse and homelessness. The agency was right near her home, but she was hesitant about contacting them at first.

"It seemed like they were more geared toward just domestic violence victims," said Kaycie, whose last name is withheld for privacy reasons. "I was kind of apprehensive of even reaching out to them; I don't really fit the bill."

But after attending a few group counseling sessions, she realized that she connected strongly to many other women in the group. And that they shared similar post-trauma experiences: from feelings of shame and guilt, to family denial or worse, victim-blaming.

More than anything, Kaycie came to realize that it's crucial to know, as a survivor, you are not alone. And that trauma cannot be buried away.

"Waking up and hoping it would go away, it never actually does," she said. "And Tri-Valley Haven is amazing. I wish they had more services, for sure. But I think what they have right now is a beautiful thing. Because there's nothing else like it around this town."

Tri-Valley Haven is based in Livermore and serves the nearby Tri-Valley communities. The agency offers a multitude of services, including a 24-hour crisis line, individual and group counseling sessions, two shelters, a food pantry serving 1,700 families experiencing poverty, a thrift store, and programs at nearby jails and at local middle and high schools.

It's now celebrating 40 years in operation; four decades of growth and change, said Christine Dillman, director of sexual assault and counseling services. The nonprofit marked the anniversary with a celebration gala in June at the Dublin Ranch Golf Course, raising thousands of dollars for Tri-Valley Haven programs.

The founders, Dillman said, could not have envisioned the Haven's current size.

"We're just so grateful we're able to serve the community," Dillman said. "We do deal with life and death. People are fleeing, often for their lives. So it's vital that we are here."

The organization was founded in 1977 by a determined group of women, including former Livermore Mayor Cathie Brown. They began in a woman's garage, Dillman said, and used whatever resources were at their disposal.

"They started a crisis line," Dillman said. "They took women into their homes, which we certainly don't advocate today, for safety concerns. But you know, they did it."

And the need is great. According to a 2010-12 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one out of three women and one out of six men in the U.S. have experienced some form of contact sexual violence during their lifetime, and one out of four women and one out of seven men have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner.

It often takes victims and survivors years before they're able to come forward and seek help. Like Kaycie.

As a child, she was molested by her cousin, who was five years older than her, when no one else was around.

"Being a Mexican-Filipino, basically family's everything," Kaycie said. "So I was around my family a lot growing up -- particularly on my mom's side, my Filipino side. The culture is you never really talk about this type of stuff. When it was happening, I didn't realize it until I was 9 years old, because I really didn't know what sex was."

At that point, she told her parents, "And it was a big mess." She said her father first blamed her for not speaking up sooner, and then her parents brought the two of them together, so that her cousin could apologize. She still had to see him.

"It was a lot of psychological damage, with my parents being in denial about what happened to me," Kaycie said. "And they tried to put it out of their minds. And then they tried to make it not as big of a deal. And that was actually more damaging to me than the molestation."

"Until my 20s or so, I would have these panic attacks and flashbacks," she added. "And that's when I knew, I'm not normal, there's something really wrong with me."

With the help of a psychologist, self-help books and an acquired passion for running, Kaycie says she is doing much better today. She was able to confront her parents in family therapy about the pain they put her through, and, through Tri-Valley Haven, she recently presented to a group of nurses at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa about the experience of trauma from a survivor's perspective.

Kaycie shares her story to help de-stigmatize the conversation around sexual abuse and assault, and to support other members of her family who had very similar experiences.

"I've had other cousins come to me saying they were molested by another cousin," she said. "It's actually more common in my family than they understand or even know about. And it's scary because it seems like a re-occurring problem, that it's so 'hush hush,' no one ever stops it.

"So what I've tried to do in my own family, is expose -- I didn't really want to make the victims known in my family. But I had to make it known that it is still happening with other people, and that it needs to stop."

Many people who come to Tri-Valley Haven are in similarly tangled and difficult situations, involving family, emotions and financial considerations.

"Sometimes, people think that if somebody comes to a shelter, doesn't do well or goes back to an abuser, that they must like it, they're never going to leave," said Vicki Thompson, domestic violence programs manager.

"When in fact battered women need to leave often as many as seven times before they get out and stay out. For many reasons. Not least of which the abusers very often will apologize, make promises they never promised before to get their partner to go back, and then the same old stuff starts happening again."

Thompson has been at the Haven for 31 years, longer than anyone else on staff.

She had been working in the corporate world when she began contemplating a career shift to the social services sector. To determine if she had an aptitude for the work, she started volunteering with Suicide Prevention of Alameda County, and ended up speaking with many victims of domestic violence on their crisis line.

"There is one that sticks with me to this day, who told me one night, 'I really want to die. I hope the next time, he hits me hard enough to kill me,'" Thompson said. "That really opened my eyes to how helpless and hopeless a person can feel when they're trapped in an abusive relationship."

At the same time, she was also managing the downtown Oakland office of a large temporary help service, and would see that many of the women who came in to sign up for work were trying to make enough money to make a down payment on an apartment, in order to escape a bad relationship or leave a shelter.

These two experiences helped Thompson focus what she wanted to do next, and she began working for Tri-Valley Haven in August 1986.

She's seen the center grow over the years, and the landscape around it shift dramatically. The shortage of affordable housing directly impacts their work -- the inability to pay rent or buy a home can prevent someone from leaving an abusive relationship.

As such, the Tri-Valley Haven's two shelters -- a 16-bed homeless shelter and a 30-bed domestic violence shelter -- are of utmost importance. And they both allow people to stay several months, Dillman added, giving families some stability and a chance to save money, while also offering rent, case management and counseling services.

They also permit teenage boys up to 17, unlike many other shelters. "We don't want a mother to have to make that choice," Dillman said. "Where she can leave a situation and leave her son there, or not leave at all."

Perceptions about the overall affluence of the Tri-Valley can pose challenges to their work, especially in terms of funding, Thompson said. The number of domestic violence reports received by the three police departments they work with -- Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore -- is much lower than in many neighboring cities, but still present, she said.

"There are different reasons here why people don't report," she said. "Not everyone who is abused is going to call the police or go to a shelter. For somebody -- again getting back to the housing issue -- when you have two people working full-time-plus to make the payment on that $900,000 house, if one of them goes to jail and loses their job, they're both going to be homeless. That's a barrier to people leaving the situation."

The agency itself has seen plenty of positive improvements too, though, in terms of its capacity to meet the region's needs. They now have a community building, a home base located at 3663 Pacific Ave. in Livermore, which helps increase visibility for the center.

They also have two new offices in Pleasanton, on Black Avenue.

"It has really increased the number of Pleasanton residents that we're able to serve," Dillman said. "Sometimes people can't drive all the way to Livermore for a counseling appointment. But they can come during their lunch and their partner won't know that they're coming to see us."

They've partnered with the nearby Santa Rita Jail and the Dublin Federal Correctional Institution to provide programs like intervention crisis counseling and art and writing therapy for inmates.

Every unit at Santa Rita has a phone that calls directly to Tri-Valley Haven's crisis line. And sadly, Dillman said, they have found in their work that a large majority of inmates have experienced trauma, that can be triggered by incarceration.

They work closely with law enforcement at Santa Rita and the Dublin institution, but also outside the jail -- particularly in terms of sexual trafficking, though Dillman acknowledged that looks a lot different in the Tri-Valley than it does in Oakland.

Preventative programs are also crucial, she said. Tri-Valley Haven visits seventh- and ninth-grade classes in the area, focusing on healthy relationships, anti-bullying and bystander intervention.

And finally, Thompson said, they need to ensure they take care of their own staff, who can experience vicarious trauma in their jobs, often leading to a high turnover rate in organizations like Tri-Valley Haven.

Part of this involves reminding staff that they may not always see the successes.

"We're seeing people at just one point in their life, it might be their lowest point," Thompson said. "But whatever we do, whatever they learn, whatever tools we can give them, it makes them stronger for the next time. Nobody's a lost cause."

Pace for Peace

Tri-Valley Haven's 20th annual Pace for Peace fundraising walk/run is set for this Saturday, with a 5K and 10K winding through Livermore Valley wine country on the Arroyo Mocho Trail and through Robertson Park. Runners of all ages can register online at www.trivalleyhaven.org.

"As the need grows, Tri-Valley Haven grows," Dillman said. "The Pace is a great way for the community to come to Tri-Valley Haven, it's a fun event. What we do is a really hard, difficult subject to talk about, but it's important that we are raising awareness and that we are doing things that make it accessible to the community."

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