By Theresa Walker, The Orange County Register
Laura’s House in south Orange County adds more services to longtime effort in combating abuse.
The oversized welcome mat outside the entrance to the newly opened Laura’s House Domestic Violence Resource Center in Aliso Viejo captures the mission of a group that has worked on behalf of victims in abusive relationships for 25 years.
“Inspiring Hope and Empowering Change to
End Domestic Violence.”
Now the nonprofit is able to do that in a much bigger way. Laura’s House relocated in June to a building that, once fully developed, will offer four times as much space as the suite of offices occupied in Ladera Ranch the previous 11 years. Not only that, but Laura’s House owns the two-story structure and will save money with a mortgage that is about $7,000 less a month than the lease they once had.
A ribbon-cutting on Thursday, Sept. 30, brought supporters together to celebrate the new space in a light industrial park.
The savings can go toward expanding existing services and adding new ones to meet an increased need for prevention and intervention fueled by the coronavirus pandemic. And the new 19,000-square-foot site is closer to public transit – now a short walk around the corner from a bus stop, as opposed to nearly a mile away.
More than 200 supporters were invited, including donors who have contributed to the $10 million capital campaign that made it possible for the new location of Laura’s House.
While the mood at the new location is celebratory, the mission remains sobering.
An alarming rise in calls for help has continued into 2021 since the early part of the COVID-19 lockdown last year as people were trapped at home with each other and struggling with job loss and other pandemic-related stress. The week following the March 19, 2020, statewide stay-at-home order, there was an unexpected lull in hotline calls. Then, by early April 2020, Laura’s House saw a 40 percent uptick in cries for help, reflecting what the county’s other longtime domestic violence prevention services – Human Options and Women’s Transitional Living Center – were experiencing along with such services worldwide.
Laura’s House has separately tracked new calls made to its hotline from recurring calls and found a spike from 2,632 in 2019 to 3,239 in 2020. The volume has not abated: In May 2020, there were 229 new calls. This May the number was 435, and there have continued to be around 500 a month.
“We felt like we had a pandemic within a pandemic,” Margaret Bayston, chief executive officer of Laura’s House, said in an interview a few days before the ribbon-cutting.
Services at Laura’s House will include long-standing programs and some new offerings: the court-ordered Personal Empowerment Program classes, expanded counseli
ng for adults and therapy for children, legal services, bystander intervention training and other community workshops, art therapy, yoga and self-defense.
Where there were once only two rooms for private counseling there are now eight. And there are two group counseling rooms.
“This new space allows more preventive services so they won’t need the intervention,” Bayston said.
There’s room too for a distribution site to sort and transport donations of clothing, housewares and other items that Laura’s House sells at its two thrift stores – in Lake
Forest and San Juan Capistrano – to help support its programs. The stores gross about $1 million a year.
Laura’s House also hopes to partner with other community organizations to provide the kind of training that is vital to a survivor’s independence, such as job search and interview preparation and basic finance. Other social services and law enforcement-related issues can also be addressed at the new site for Laura’s House, whose board of directors includes Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes.
Plans also call for starting a new group for pre-teens and adolescents to address the heightened social isolation brought on by the pandemic. Often, they will be spotted sitting in the lobby when a parent is there for something, hunched over their cellphones with hoodies pulled up to hide their faces and avoid any eye contact.
What won’t Laura’s House offer? Programs for batterers. It is too traumatizing for those who have suffered domestic violence to mingle in the same space as perpetrators, Bayston said. Not to mention dangerous.
The new location makes Laura’s House more visible, and precautions continue to be taken against stalkers. Visitors are observed via security cameras and must be buzzed in.
Small red signs printed with the word “Alert” are tacked up on doorways to let staff know a credible threat has been made by an abuser, whose description and other identifying information is also provided. Bayston says those “Alert” signs get posted about once a month.
Bayston recognizes the bitter that comes with the sweet.
“People will come looking for the families, especially with our name all over the building,” Bayston said.
Where to get help
All hotlines operate 24/7.
Laura’s House: Call 866-498-1511 or text HEART to 949-484-8440. More information at laurashouse.org.
Human Options: Call 877-854-3594. More information at humanoptions.org.
Women’s Transitional Living Center: Call 877-531-5522. Email email@example.com. More information at wtlc.org.
National Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 800-799-7233. More information at thehotline.org.