When the warnings were sounded in the early days of the pandemic to shelter in place, a chill went down Jaquetta Jenkins’ spine.
At five years old, Jenkins’ mother removed her and her younger sister from their home in Mount Vernon to escape domestic violence. The pandemic proved to be the impetus for her to help others who had been in a similar situation as her family, knowing that there were going to be residents who would have to choose between the health danger of COVID-19 or the physical threats from a violent home situation.
“I couldn’t imagine sheltering in place back then when we grew up, and so I wanted to do something to help domestic violence survivors and their children, but I really didn’t know what that looked like,” said Jenkins.
By last February she had officially launched the nonprofit organization First Steps to Heal, which provides immediate assistance to low-income Westchester residents with minor children who must leave their homes to escape violence.
With the help of the Westchester County Office of Economic Development’s accelerator program Launch1000, which lends support to county residents looking to create new businesses or nonprofits, Jenkins created First Steps to Heal. Thus far, she has partnered with four hotels in the county to provide a safe haven for a parent with children. Extended stays could last from one to six months, which takes victims out of a dangerous situation and gives them time to find a stable situation somewhere else.
“I asked them what they needed most when they needed to leave a violent situation,” explained Jenkins, who formerly worked for the Mount Vernon School District and currently lives in Elmsford. “They told me emergency shelter, more emergency shelters were needed. But not just in a shelter facility. There are a lot of survivors staying in their situation because they didn’t want to go into a shelter, they couldn’t imagine bringing themselves and their children into a shelter facility.”
Jenkins has also formed partnerships with other organizations, such as My Sister’s Place, which provides legal assistance, case management and shelter to abuse victims. The partnership organizations refer people in desperate need of help to First Steps to Heal.
Domestic violence only got worse when the pandemic hit in March 2020. Incidents surged 8.1 percent across the United States after the pandemic-related lockdowns were imposed, according to the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice.
The problem in Westchester is acute, as there are more than 12,000 reported domestic violence incidents each year in the county. Westchester ranks second in domestic violence child homicides in the state, only behind New York City, Jenkins said.
It also cuts across all socioeconomic lines, she noted, with 11 of the last 15 domestic violence-related homicides in the county occurring in the five most affluent towns.
Since its launch nine months ago, the organization has helped four families directly and has initial funding to assist 40 survivors and 120 children.
In addition to procuring grants and donations, Jenkins is also striving to increase the roster of participating hotels. Some of the hotels also provide food for the survivors.
She also wants to eventually help families permanently relocate into affordable housing so they can move on with their lives and don’t have to return to a violent situation. But the shortage of affordable units makes that challenging.
“I’m very confident that in the coming years, we’ll be able to provide that piece, that affordable permanent housing piece to our clients, because when you think about it, when our survivors are ready to transition out of the hotel and their own affordable units, they have to wait anywhere from three to five years,” Jenkins said.
She also hopes to expand First Steps to Heal into Putnam and Rockland counties but wants to make sure that the organization is on strong footing before venturing outside Westchester.
Currently, the organization is based in Mount Vernon, located in office space donated by Macquesten Development.
To progress from an idea to creation within a year, First Steps to Heal has been an incredibly fulfilling experience to help families in the same situation she found herself in as a child, Jenkins said.
“I told myself I don’t know how successful we are going to be with ultimately saving people, but I know if I can save one person, then I can do it a million times,” Jenkins said. “So those four families, they validated, this is possible, this can be done with my work, with the partnerships with both the hotels and the other organizations.”
Martin has more than 30 years experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, including a frequent focus on zoning and planning issues. He has been editor-in-chief of The Examiner since its inception in 2007. Read more from Martin’s editor-author bio here. Read Martin’s archived work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/martin-wilbur2007/