Story By: Douglas Perry

Fear is primal. Overcoming it, especially when it’s grounded in lived experience, can feel impossible. But it can be overcome — especially if one gets help.

That’s where Clackamas Women’s Services comes in.

“From a young age, I saw how hope can really help in people’s lives,” says the nonprofit organization’s director, Melissa Erlbaum, who views her job as a calling. “I saw how people can rise up from difficult situations.”

Clackamas Women’s Services aids adults and children who have faced domestic abuse, sexual violence, elder abuse, stalking or human trafficking.

One of the foremost challenges the organization faces is making peopleaware that help is available. Erlbaum is moved every time a survivor “sees there’s a whole community out there that cares. It’s a magic moment.”

Clackamas Women’s Services has a 24-hour crisis line and provides emergency housing. It also offers mental-health counseling, violence-prevention education, support groups, legal assistance and various other services.

The nonprofit is a beneficiary of The Oregonian/OregonLive’s 2020 Season of Sharing holiday fundraising campaign.

Sierra Mercedes Havens came to Clackamas Women’s Services six years ago as a 13-year-old when her mother was facing a difficult personal situation involving threats, she says.

Havens had undergone counseling at other places, but it hadn’t worked for her. Then she met Cat Koch, program director at Clackamas Women’s Services.

“I was hesitant at first,” Havens says. “But after that first session with Cat, I was excited to go back. I immediately connected with her. She didn’t look at me as a victim. She helped me understand that I’d had a bad chapter in my life but that it didn’t mean it should hold me back from doing great things.

“We still have a great bond,” she adds.

Clackamas Women’s Services is based in Oregon City and has an ancillary office in Sandy. Their “mobile advocates” also meet wherever a client feels most comfortable — a library, a coffee shop, a church.

Where things go from that first meeting depends entirely on the situation.

“It’s very individualized,” Erlbaum says. “There’s no one-size-fits-all. We have to get to know each individual and family and what their needs are.”

Domestic abuse can be particularly pernicious, leaving the victim isolated and questioning their own thoughts and feelings.

“There’s usually a slow erosion of someone’s self-esteem,” Erlbaum points out. The abuser “chips away at self-esteem and support networks; it happens bit by bit.” By the time someone seeks out help, “a lot often has been lost,” Erlbaum adds. “Friendships. Family. It can be a lot of working putting that back together.”

Family members and friends sometimes make victims aware of Clackamas Women’s Services, but Erlbaum says most referrals come from law enforcement.

Clackamas Women’s Services launched in 1985, becoming Clackamas County’s only shelter for women and children facing family violence. It now serves anyone who needs its assistance.

That includes children, who often get caught up in the trauma when a parent faces an abusive relationship.

Now 19, Havens volunteers as a camp counselor at Camp Hope, which is run by Clackamas Women’s Services and A Safe Place Family Justice Center. She had been a camper there herself for three years. She credits the camp with helping her find strength and healing.

“You learn you’re not alone,” she says of the camp. “You discover other people are going through the same things. I thought nobody knew what I was going through. That it was the worst thing to happen and it was happening to me.”

Plus, the camp is fun. Campers undertake art projects, hikes, whitewater rafting outings and more.

“You make lasting friends,” Havens says. “Camp Hope — the name is right on the nose. It’s a perfect name.”

Clackamas Women’s Services, which has 46 full-time employees and operates on an annual budget of about $4 million, is supported by donations from individuals, businesses and private foundations, as well as from government grants.

But the coronavirus pandemic has brought some uncertainty about its near-term financial situation. The organization was forced to cancel its annual spring fundraising event.

The pandemic also has made the nonprofit’s work more “resource-intensive,” Erlbaum says. That’s included setting up secure chat lines, conducting parenting and other classes over Zoom and providing tablets to people in temporary housing.

“There have been challenges, but I’m so proud of the team,” she says. “We’ve been able to remain operational all the way along.”

What your donation can do

$10: Provides bus passes or a gas card so a survivor can get to work and to appointments at Clackamas Women’s Services.

$25: Provides food for a survivor staying in emergency shelter.

$50: Pays the rental-application fee for a survivor seeking a permanent home.

Click here for the original story.