In recent years, celebrities, politicians, schools and even houses of worship have ensured that the problems and solutions surrounding domestic violence and sexual assault are brought to the forefront of conversations.
But decades before international advocacy campaigns like the #MeToo movement shined a mainstream spotlight on the topic, one local nonprofit has dedicated its time and energy toward assisting domestic violence survivors — and most importantly, giving them a voice.
In line with October’s designation as Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Pillars Community Health celebrated the 40th anniversary of its Constance Morris House domestic violence shelter with an open house Oct. 3 at Pillars Community Health’s LaGrange headquarters at 27 Calendar Ave.
“What a special occasion, 40 years of service in our community providing domestic violence and sexual assault services to really, the most vulnerable members in our community,” said Angela Curran, CEO of Pillars Community Health.
The Constance Morris House traces its roots back to the late 1970s, when local police departments and communities reported an increase in domestic violence cases, inspiring the now-defunct Des Plaines Valley Community Center to seek funding to open a shelter for abused women.
The first shelter opened in Brookfield in April 1979, and later that year received a bequest from the Constance Rothschild Morris Foundation of New York City, prompting the shelter to be renamed Constance Morris House.
Though the original home has since been demolished, the current shelter — which operates in an undisclosed location to ensure the safety of those seeking refuge there — continues to carry out the original mission through partnership with Pillars Community Health, a new organization created in January 2018 through the merger of Pillars and Community Nurse Health Center of LaGrange.
While the first shelter could only house up to five women, the current shelter can serve up to 20 men, women and children from across the near west suburbs, and has expanded its services to include a 24-hour confidential hotline, crisis intervention, counseling, legal advocacy and community education, all at no cost.
And, in its 40 years, an estimated 30,000 domestic abuse survivors have been served through the Constance Morris House.
Lynn Siegel, senior vice president of domestic and sexual violence services with Pillars Community Health, has been involved with the Constance Morris House since its early days, directing the program since 1989.
“The services Constance Morris House provides gives survivors a voice that affirms their value in the world,” she said. “Throughout my years of work with survivors, I continue to be inspired by their strength and desire for a life without violence.”
Siegel thanked attendees who served as volunteers over the years, sharing that while rewarding work, volunteering is not easy.
“It can be frustrating, stressful and difficult,” she said. “This group of staff, especially the outreach team, are really into going out there and telling everybody about the program and making us visible in all these communities.”
Curran echoed Siegel’s sentiments, saying Constance Morris House’s staff and volunteers should be acknowledged as community first responders alongside police officers and firefighters.
“You staff and volunteers are the first responders when it comes to the people who reach out to you for help, trying to escape domestic violence and trying to escape sexual violence,” she said. “I don’t think we recognize that enough. I know it’s a very emotional and stressful job.”
One volunteer who shared words about the importance of the mission of Constance Morris House included Mary Espinosa.
Espinosa, who grew up with a sexually abusive father and endured verbal and physical abuse by her first husband, spoke about the impact that moving from her home in Ohio to Illinois and seeking help and turning her life around for the better.
“I’m a big, big, big fan of therapy; it’s something you have to have,” Espinosa said.
Sister Marlene Schemmel, a Brookfield resident and former volunteer with Constance Morris House, stopped by the open house to celebrate the mission of the organization with other local residents.
“I like what [Constance Morris House] is all about,” said Schemmel, a Catholic nun with Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph, who volunteered from 2012-16, following her retirement from pastoral work at a church in Naperville.
At Constance Morris House, she helped answer phone calls, coordinate meetings with survivors and social workers, and assist parents with childcare.
What Schemmel valued most about Constance Morris House was the people.
“The most important thing was the relationships with the survivors and the staff,” she said.
For more information about Constance Morris House and Pillars Community Health, visit pillarscommunityhealth.org. To reach the 24-hour confidential domestic violence hotline, call 708-485-5254. To reach the 24-hour confidential sexual assault hotline, call 708-482-9600.