She came from a loving and supportive family, but Tunisia Offray was like a lot of teenagers at 16 — shy, some low self-esteem, longing to fit in at high school.
So when Offray became enamored with a popular, charismatic young man, she didn’t recognize when the sweet relationship changed into one of control and manipulation, a form of teenage dating violence that took her nearly four years to escape and left trauma in its wake.
Now, through the nonprofit Shepherd’s Door, Tunisia and her mother, organization founder and Executive Director Linda Offray, are seeking to educate and empower young people about domestic violence, healthy relationships and ways to recognize signs of harmful power play and control in intimate relationships. They’re spreading awareness and dispelling stigmas: Domestic violence is estimated to affect one in three women and one in four men throughout a lifetime — people of all races, ages and socioeconomic classes. If the Offrays can teach young people the earliest signs of unhealthy relationships, they can stop the problem before it ever begins, they said.
Through Shepherd’s Door, a community resource and education center for victims of domestic violence, the Offrays have crafted an effective, one-hour presentation for middle and high school-age students, reaching thousands through the Pasadena Unified School District. The interactive presentation includes an initial quiz, a two-minute video (“The kids have to see and hear what domestic violence is, so they can recognize it,” Linda Offray said), discussion and role play. The results have been astounding to those in the program: Students want to talk, to share, to ask questions.
“People have this perception that domestic violence is something you see in the home and then replicate later on. Well, I didn’t ever see it in the home, not ever, that wasn’t my upbringing. That’s why I couldn’t recognize it when it was happening to me,” said Tunisia Offray, the nonprofit’s president. “If I had been able to listen in on a class like this when I was in high school, it would have changed the whole course of my life.”
During one such group workshop for middle schoolers, Linda Offray recalled, one of the boys gingerly raised his hand to ask, “I used to see my dad beat my mom. Does that mean I’m gonna be like that?”
The girls often have asked such questions as “What if I don’t want my boyfriend talking to another girl?” Other students have asked if Shepherd’s Door could help their mom or a relative, even bringing them to the nonprofit.
Currently, Shepherd’s Door offers workshops to seven PUSD schools, and it wants to reach more, even making the domestic violence training a regular part of the health class curriculum. But gaining access hasn’t been easy, the Offrays note. Some school officials don’t want to broach the topic; it’s messy, it’s private, it’s emotional, the nonprofit’s officials have been told.
“The children want so badly to learn this, to know this information, so why aren’t all the schools jumping on this bandwagon to educate them? Domestic violence isn’t a family issue. It’s a society issue,” Tunisia Offray said. “Not that I regret anything, because my journey has made me who I am, but at the end of the day, if we can each one teach one, if we can educate and empower anyone on what the signs of domestic violence are, it can change what someone’s experience is further down the line.”
Linda Offray founded Shepherd’s Door in 2000 after watching her own daughter fall into a toxic relationship, unable to find resources to help her escape. She was already familiar with domestic abuse, having worked for the city as a case manager for the Black Infant Health program. Part of the job, she recalled, involved doing home visits, and sometimes she could hear the violence from outside the door.
“I could hear what was going on, but I’d turn around and go back down the stairs. … I had some clients who didn’t know that I knew,” Offray said. “That’s when I really realized the many, many needs of the people in the community, and that domestic violence was very prevalent. We found out so many women were being affected by this.”
When it hit so close to home, Offray had had enough. “I started the organization out of pure anger and frustration at the lack of resources. There weren’t enough resources for me to even help my own daughter.”
HOUSING CRISES WORSEN DOMESTIC ABUSE PROBLEM
The Offrays don’t know why exactly, but Shepherd’s Door has seen a sharp rise in calls for help from victims of domestic violence this past year. Housing costs are so high, it’s not easy for a couple to separate financially. Perhaps it’s also that the nonprofit’s reputation has grown — although it’s based in Pasadena (at an undisclosed location that is given on a need-to-know basis only), the organization is receiving calls for help from all over L.A. County, including the 211 family emergency system. During the 2008-09 recession, “we lost about six domestic violence programs across L.A. County, and really, we couldn’t afford to lose any because we never had enough,” said Linda Offray, adding, “They never came back.”
Tunisia Offray agreed, adding: “It’s an oversaturated system that hasn’t restructured itself to address the growing need for housing in domestic violence cases.”
Though the nonprofit is not a stand-alone shelter, it has done its best to bridge the gap between the victims in need and emergency housing services. But the problem in finding shelter has been exacerbated by rising housing costs and homelessness. With shelters already overwhelmed by the homeless in need, those that accept large families without dividing the children are becoming impossible to find.
DOMESTIC ABUSE KNOWS NO GENDER
In February, Shepherd’s Door relocated a male victim of domestic violence, a father of six children ages 5 and younger, including a set of triplets. The Shepherd’s Door team went to rescue him and the children, at night, in the rain. That would turn out to be the easy part. Even after following the appropriate channels of emergency domestic abuse services, he couldn’t find anyone to help him. They didn’t believe he was a victim.
Tunisia Offray was there to help advocate for him.
“They told him that no way was he a victim, how could he be? Well, I had to physically go down there and explain it,” Tunisia recounted.
Later, when the nonprofit realized there simply was not going to be any open space at any shelter or emergency housing for the man and the children, they turned to county Supervisor Kathryn Barger and her team, and with her help were able to facilitate emergency motel housing vouchers for the family. Shepherd’s Door, among its collaborations, has counted on Barger and her support for programs against domestic violence.
For her part, Barger praised the advances Shepherd’s Door is achieving, noting in an email: “Linda and Tunisia are an amazing mother-daughter duo who work tirelessly to support survivors of domestic violence. It’s been an honor for my office to partner with them in the effort to uplift families from crises and propel them toward healing, restoration and success.”
THE COMMUNITY CAN HELP
Among its many successful partnerships with other Pasadena nonprofits, Shepherd’s Door has also recruited community volunteers at large. One of them is retiree Brenda Sharp, who, with a background in marketing and senior housing and also as a landlord, became an advocate for the homeless in crises after trying to help someone she had met. The transition to helping victims of domestic violence became even more immediate, she noted.
Sharp has a good sense of the landlords who might help, who might accept third-party or temporary subsidy checks, to cover deposits or rent, earning the title “housing navigator.” The differences between domestic violence victims in need of rapid re-housing and people experiencing homelessness are very different, she said, but under the current system, they are treated almost equally.
“You have to recognize the differences. The situations present themselves and a victim of domestic violence has to leave, quickly, with their children; they take what they can carry and leave a well-established home. So instantly, they’re homeless,” Sharp explained, adding that housing can be found by knowing a landlord, a property owner, or just people willing to help. “We are trying to appeal to the community and faith-based organizations to join this effort — there is so much more need than there is availability — we need community support, donations, furnishing items, advocates.”
EXPANDING SERVICES TO MEET THE NEED
In recognizing the impact of domestic violence, Shepherd’s Door has expanded its services as a domestic violence resource and educational center. The Offrays point to statistics, like those from the California Women’s Health Survey, that show that about 40% of women in California experience physical intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. Women ages 18-24 were 11% more likely to be victims in the past year than women in other age groups, and among women experiencing violence, 75% had children younger than 18.
The need for supportive services, including counseling, transportation, child care and financial literacy, is just a piece of the puzzle. Shepherd’s Door has also begun a healing arts workshop for victims of trauma, community presentations on domestic violence, as well as help for the batterer, including a court-ordered, 52-week batterer’s intervention program approved by the county Probation Department, as well as anger management classes.
“So many people just don’t understand domestic violence, they don’t understand why a woman would stay or why she’d go back. Well, first of all, domestic violence is about power and control. If someone else has control of my mind and my life, how am I going to make decisions?” Linda Offray said. Over the years, she’s visited victims in hospitals, in mental wards, in jail, urging them to leave. She’s attended funerals of victims she couldn’t save along the way, including that of a niece who was stabbed by her husband 19 times in the first year of marriage.
It’s hard and it’s tiring, but Offray is committed to the work at Shepherd’s Door, especially after noting its progress: Of all the victims it has helped in the past year, about 90% have not returned to their situation of abuse.
“All that pain, all those tears — I can hardly bear it anymore. But when women come through this door and they say, ‘I don’t know how I got in this situation, I don’t even know where to start,’ I tell them, ‘Oh, just start. I’ve heard it all.’”
Tunisia Offray, meanwhile, has become a fierce proponent of legislation that can help and support victims of domestic violence, as well as the early education that can help prevent it from happening in the first place. That might be the easiest one to address.
“I feel like so many of these problems could be avoided with the proper education and training; I want to fight for the educational component to be implemented in our schools. We are being more proactive in educating. If people are getting educated, then there will be more effort to make the change,” Offray noted as her mother nodded.
Added Linda Offray: “Knowledge is power and education is the key. When you know better, you do better. That’s why we need to reach as many students as we can.”