Sept. 11, 2007, is a day Akron resident Nikki Washington will never forget. It was on this exact Tuesday that she made the decision to start her life over and rebuild the rocky futures of her five children. On this day, Nikki took back her independence, held her head high and walked through the doors of Akron’s Battered Women’s Shelter.
Prior to Sept. 11, Nikki and her children were caught in a controlling cycle of abuse. Over time, the abuse transformed Nikki into a woman who was dependent and unconfident; soon, she no longer recognized herself.
“Being abused turns you into somebody you’re not,” she said. “Nobody wants to think that the person who should love them most in the world is hurting them.”
Before this relationship, Nikki had been an independent self-starter who could conquer any challenge. She knew how to take care of herself, and she was resourceful. Soon, though, her abuser started manipulating her until she no longer had any sense of self-confidence. From the outside, Nikki looked like a typical woman, but on the inside, she had become an entirely different person.
It took the encouragement of a friend, but Nikki finally gathered the courage to call the Battered Women’s hotline and talk about her situation. That first phone call led to many more conversations in the days and weeks to come. Nikki soon realized she needed help, but she was afraid to uproot her children from the security of her abuser’s home.
“I felt like I needed to stay to keep a roof over our heads,” she said. “Once you get to that dark place, it’s very hard to get out of – very hard.”
Originally from a big city in California, Nikki had a skewed concept of what it meant to stay at a shelter. In her imagination, she pictured her kids sleeping on cots and being stuck in a community-living environment. Although that is not the case at Battered Women’s Shelter, this decision still weighed heavily on her mind in the days before she left.
Ultimately, Nikki came to the realization that she needed to make the leap for the sake of her children. It would be scary, she said, but it would also open a lot of doors that were slammed shut at their former home.
“I felt like another abusive episode – physically or mentally – would kill me,” she said. “My kids didn’t ask to come into this world like that. They were the light bulb (that showed me I needed to get help).”
The night Nikki arrived at the shelter, she said she was overwhelmed by the support she received from the staff. They immediately made arrangements to have her kids picked up from school the next day and brought to the shelter.
They asked her what size clothing her family wore, what supplies they would need for school, and what arrangements needed to be made to make sure she did not come in contact with her abuser. This level of compassion was something Nikki was not expecting.
“To know someone who has no stake in my future outcome cares so much about me was awesome,” she said. “The staff’s motivation and energy inspired me.”
Nikki said she was also surprised by the quality of living that families were given at the shelter. Unlike her vision of sleeping on cots, Nikki soon realized she and her five kids would be able to share their own apartment within the building. Each apartment includes furnished bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a bathroom. It was a cozy haven that Nikki could settle in over the winter to gather her thoughts.
In this secure location, Nikki finally began to pick up the pieces of her life. For the first time in years, she was free to be her own person. This was both a wonderful and frightening thought. After all, how was she going to make a living for her family when she no longer had a career? Where was she going to find the courage to learn about finances and rediscover her confidence?
With the help of the shelter, Nikki was able to answer these challenges and many, many more. She started a career as a home health aide, began saving up for her own apartment, and became a role model for her children.
“My kids see how I’ve changed and see that people can change,” she said. “Peace begins at home … I had to teach my boys that (abuse) isn’t how you treat women. It’s not how you treat anybody.”
In the past, Nikki said she never envisioned a bright future for herself or for her children. Now, it’s a different story. Her oldest son is getting ready to graduate high school and has already been accepted into college, something Nikki didn’t have the opportunity to do at that age.
Nikki’s own dreams are now within reach, as well: She has plans to start her own business. This dream, she said, would not have been possible before getting help at the shelter.
“The shelter gave me back my independence,” Nikki said. “Now, there’s nothing I think I can’t do. That’s the best gift I could have been given.”
Nikki and her children came to the Battered Women’s Shelter with only the clothes on their backs, but eight months later, they left with much more. At the top of the list was hope.
“Coming to the shelter was majorly important to six lives – mine and my children’s,” she said. “I really don’t know where I would be today if it wasn’t for the staff and the shelter. It was the best move I ever made … I don’t feel like I’m limited anymore.”
Today, Nikki has her own apartment and has been living independently with her children for nearly a year. She said she is grateful for all the support she received from Battered Women’s Shelter and wants to do everything she can to give back and help other women in her situation.
“The hardest questions I faced were, ‘Why did you let that happen to you?’ and ‘How could that have happened?’” she said. “I want women to know that it can happen to anybody, and you don’t have to stay in an abusive relationship.”
Nikki said she knows there are women out there who are just like she was two years ago – women who appear to be normal on the outside, but are crushed and confused inside. It is these women that Nikki hopes to help by sharing her story.
Nikki’s goal of protecting women’s safety and empowering them to rebuild their lives is central to purpose of the Women’s Endowment Fund, as well. With the help of thousands of dollars in grants given each year to local organizations, the fund is able to help women like Nikki who need an open door.
In 2009 alone, the fund gave out grants totaling $54,200 to organizations that aim to help local women and their families.
Often, as in the case of Battered Women’s Shelter, the impact that these organizations have on women lasts a lifetime.
“(From the shelter), I’ve learned that I can’t change anybody but me,” Nikki said. “If I talk about (the abuse) and keep it in my present life, I won’t forget it. It’s not going to happen again.”