The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office vacated their building on Second Street just over a year ago, but the property’s been all but quiet since then. There’s a new residential facility moving in and this one is looking forward to serving the community in a positive manner. Bridget Hendrix, Executive Director of the White River Battered Women’s Shelter, calls the acquisition of the former jail facility nothing less than a God-send.
According to Hendrix, who was hired as executive director two years ago, the shelter was looking for a facility that would accommodate the needs of the clientele and provide a safe environment when the former Sheriff’s Office became an option. “I noticed that the shelter was in dire need of decluttering and repair,” she said of the facility on Walnut Street, not to mention the fact that the two-story building did not accommodate the elderly, disabled, or those who were physically unable to climb the stairs to the rooms. “I also felt that it would probably behoove us to include men and children in our domestic violence program. I thought we were being very prejudice by not having men and animals there.” Hendrix said the shelter frequently received calls from potential clients who needed to leave their situation, but they had animals so they were rejected.
The search was on, but not just for a building. “I started talking to the board. ‘We need to move. We need a shelter vehicle. We need more staff.’” The operation was being manned by four women at the former location who were answering the hotline phone, taking donations, giving information and referrals and trying to do case management, both crisis and routine. “They were trying to open the door for anyone who needed help, needed someone to talk to or just take donations,” she said. “They were trying to transport clients in their personal vehicles to all these appointments if we didn’t have services for them. I don’t know how they did it, but I immediately knew I needed more staff.”
Hendrix began looking for resources that she was aware of and discussed ideas with a friend who used to serve as an advocate in the Newport area. She was put in contact with Teresa Aasen and an incomparable bond was formed. “We met in March and she was employed in April,” Hendrix laughed. Aasen, who has a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and a Master’s Degree in Counseling, serves as the director of the homeless and transition shelter, offering programs for mental health and counseling services to those who are trying to get back on their feet. “We are equals in this,” Hendrix explained. “Psychology and counseling are her forte. Mine’s domestic violence. It’s the perfect relationship.”
Shortly after taking over the facility, Hendrix began planning to resource the community and educate the public, with law enforcement first. “I knew that they were the boots on the ground and the first to respond when the call comes in and they didn’t have the resources.” A class was organized and held in May by the Arkansas Coalition of Domestic Violence and the Office of the Courts. Representatives from the Newport Police Department, Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, State Police, Independence County Sheriff’s Office, Pine Bluff and Little Rock departments were present. It was during that training that Sheriff David Lucas came to Hendrix and told her something had to be done about the homelessness. When he was informed she was looking for a facility, he said “take my jail.” “Immediately I knew the jail was the perfect place,” she said. “Perfect location, in walking distance of the library, post office, DMV, the courthouse, court, legal aid, and the police department is in our front yard.” The jail had every safety feature needed for a safe house too, including 40 cameras, barbed wire over the perimeter fence, a keypad for entry and exit. According to Hendrix, work began on the procedure to obtain the building, facilitated by Prosecuting Attorney Henry Boyce and his administrative assistant, Susan Cooley, and the board members and within two months they were assured the jail was theirs.
Within the 11,500 square feet of the facility, the staff has planned for one side to house transitional residents who are working to get on their feet following their care as domestic violence victims, and homeless residents who will work to find jobs and secure a place of residence. The other side of the facility will house those who have sought shelter and safety from a domestic violence situation. There are two kitchens, one for each side, day rooms for watching television and playing with the children, each room will have a private bathroom facility, there is a supply closet stocked with food for the families to use, toiletries and laundry detergent. The laundry room will be set up as a mini laundrymat for their use.
 All the rooms are still under renovation from the jail transition. Hendrix explained every room has to have a light switch and electric plug, around 60 doors have to be replaced, paint and stain for the floors has to be done, showers and bathrooms have to be installed, space for animals prepared, an active shooter plan, tornado plan put into place and separation for LGBTQ residents if needed for their safety. The building still lacks a $13,000 air conditioner that has to be replaced, a $120,000 sprinkler system to be installed along with the other tasks to be finished. “We’ve thought of it all and we have a plan, we just have to get it done.”
Just walking into the front lobby and the administrative area where dispatch used to sit and the officers had their place, a noticeable transition is underway. The former dispatch area is divided in the middle and houses the hotline for domestic violence or the homeless. The room behind it is designed as a breakroom for the staff. The restroom to the right has been turned into a shower for the staff and the one on the left into a restroom facility. The former criminal investigation office is now a children’s center. The Sheriff’s former office is an interview room, complete with a recording system, and Aasen’s office is in the chief deputy’s former office. On the left side of the building, Hendrix’s office is in the former interview room, a giant closet of clothes fills the patrol office. The civil service office is used for grant writing and file storage.
 “We have a long way to go and a lot to do to get there,” Hendrix laughed, but was quick to begin thanking the public for its support and help. “First Christian Church gave us $2,000 for new flooring. New Beginnings gave us $500 for flooring. St. Paul’s, First Presbyterian, United Methodist Women of Swifton, Tuckerman and Newport, and Beedeville Church of Christ donate monthly. Wal-Mart Distribution in Searcy donates four pallets of unknown items every three or four months, the Church of Christ in Swifton brings toilet paper, Junior Auxiliary brings paper products, Jackson County Newcomer’s Club supports us, families and class reunions and churches donate food after events, US Pizza brings a pie once in a while. For fundraisers, Cash Saver has donated food and Wal-Mart gave us a gift certificate to buy paper products.” Aasen added, “Tractor Supply let us set up for a bake sale. The community donates clothing, children’s toys. Various places stock us up with shampoo, toilet paper, food, you can’t imagine what we go through in hygiene products. Charee’s gives us a discounted rate for UHaul, which we use a lot.” The list goes on and includes Cotton Pickin’ Tees for their t-shirts, Andy May has donated his proceeds from the bounce house, Mission Outreach in White County donated file cabinets and over 6,000 community service hours have been provided at no cost thanks to the court system and community corrections sending offenders to them who have hours to complete. M&P Bank has been crucial during the process and Freeman’s Office Supply is actively trying to assist them in acquiring office supplies, including a printer system.
Once operational, the directors look forward to providing a plethora of resources to residents and the community. They’ve already installed key actors into their arsenal of aid who have begun work outside of the facility to take care of necessary needs, including volunteers in the school and trained counseling personnel.
“She (Aasen) and I decided we would need an advocate in the school system when dealing with domestic violence and sexual assault. A lot of adults that come to us have children in tow and they are suppressed sexual assault as a child. They’re masking it with alcohol and drugs and sex and relationships that don’t last. If we can address those issues both in and out of the shelter and in the schools, through outreach, then we’re reaching the core of the problems and can start building a foundation to work on. If a kid has a domestic violence issue in school, they’re not learning.” Hendrix explained that the partnership with Jackson County School Systems is going to help deal with students who have been dealing with domestic violence issues. “We have advocates who are being trained through Arkansas Coalition Against Sexual Assault. They will know how to deal when the client comes in and expresses that they have been dealing with assault. We will tailor our support groups in the facility to meet their needs. Our advocates will be in the schools, teaching seminars and classes and holding classes in the community. All of this will help us reach those who need to be getting assistance and don’t know how.”
Along with domestic violence and sexual assault, the facility will also have some work with mental health advocacy, Aasen’s particular area of expertise. “Some people come in and, due to the traumatic events they’ve gone through, they have major depression. A lot of victims of abuse are diagnosed with bipolar disorder and the abuser will withhold their medications,” she explained. Due to the high risk of mental health patients, the facility has partnered with Compass Hospital in Searcy to have the residents get stabilized on their medications in the hospital and come back to the shelter for continuity and care. “Any care we do if for their empowerment and independence.”
Several volunteers and students will be assisting in facilitating these groups and trainings. Hendrix said that Harding University students are already coming in and shadowing the advocates, assisting in case management and learning the operation. She’s hired two of them on as staff since they began the process.
All of the dreams and plans the facility has comes at a cost, and according to Hendrix it’s a big cost. Grant writing has been a daunting task since the beginning, but the directors have been hard at work acquiring funds necessary to pay the bills and increase their staff by 15 people. They have been awarded grants for approximately $750,000, but have so much more that is needed. “The cost of paying the staff and doing the renovations is daunting. We are blessed to have what we do, but we need sustainability. We need the community churches and organizations to come in behind us and support us monthly so that we know the funds are there.”
Once done, the battered women’s shelter and homeless shelter will be proud to serve as many families as they are able to reach in order to meet their needs and allow them a hand up. Hendrix and Aasen expressed sincere joy at the expectations for the future, beginning with a memorial dedication ceremony that will honor the key players, past and present, in the development of the dream.
“We’ve got lots of space in this building. The community gave it to us, we’re giving it back to them.”