Following the murder of Bayonne resident Mely Vanessa Tafoya Mendoza at the hands of her husband and the suicide of Bayonne firefighter Otto Weber, both in March of this year, domestic violence and mental health have been issues the community has been seeking to tackle.
Sarah’s Daughters Domestic Violence Awareness Foundation, run by Rev. Dr. Bertha Reels, provides essential services and pertinent information.
Reels told the Bayonne Community News she founded Sarah’s Daughters in 2010, after seeing a need for resources locally. She was raised in Bayonne, and while she doesn’t live there anymore, Reels is nevertheless very active in domestic violence advocacy in the area.
By survivors, for survivors
“I am a domestic violence survivor,” Reels said. “I was in an abusive relationship at 16 years old, but I didn’t know because there wasn’t any information. I didn’t understand what was going on.”
Reels said that she gained a better perspective years later after being informed on the subject and realized that she was a survivor of domestic violence.
“I was in the process of writing a book about various women and their trials and tribulations, different things they had gone through,” Reels said. “When I got to a part about a woman who was in a domestic violence relationship, the book appeared to take on a life of its own. It ended up being about domestic violence, so I just felt it in my spirit.”
According to Reels, it was during that time when she was writing her first book that she realized there was a need for domestic violence resources and advocacy in the area.
“There weren’t any places you could go if you were a victim of domestic violence,” Reels said. “So this was, I believe, a message from God. Because when I started talking about starting an organization to different people, they were on board.”
Advocacy in Bayonne and Jersey City
From the start, Sarah’s Daughters has been connected to and provided its services and resources in, not just Jersey City, but also Bayonne. Reels said the foundation’s premiere event was in Bayonne.
“We held our first event at The Chandelier over ten years ago, and women were open and willing to talk about domestic violence and having survived it,” Reels said. “I had never witnessed a platform where people were open and not afraid to talk about their experiences that they went through with domestic violence.”
Reels said that Sarah’s Daughters got its start as an outlet to bring awareness to domestic violence and facilitate conversation about it.
“We started out as an organization whose main goal was to bring awareness to the community because no one was talking about domestic violence,” Reels said. “It was still under the rug and covered because no one was talking about it. I just felt that it needed to be brought to the forefront. People needed to know domestic violence is going on. That was our main focus, to provide the information so people would know. We’re hearing about people losing their lives, but nobody talking about domestic violence. We’re hearing about young teenagers or young women losing their lives, but nobody talking about domestic violence. We wanted to get information out there and to bring the message to the forefront so we can have a conversation.”
From awareness to action
Since then, the organization has grown to provide services outside of raising awareness. This includes one-on-one counseling and a mentorship program for survivors of domestic violence to help get their lives back on track, Reels said.
“We mentor them,” Reels said. “We help them through the process.”
Other services provided include group therapy sessions, working with survivors in municipal court, mental health counseling, and other things like assistance with housing. The mental health program utilized by Sarah’s Daughters is Bridgeway Crisis Center at 152 Central Avenue in Jersey City, which takes walk-in clients.
“We go into the courts and we sit through the court hearings for domestic violence cases,” Reels said. “We sit through those cases and the judge will ask if anyone wants to have a one-on-one session with Sarah’s Daughters. We’ll take them to a private room and we ask them if they would like information or if they want us to provide certain services for them.”
While foundation doesn’t have a safe house, they can provide the proper referrals to housing resources, such as the Bayonne Housing Authority and the Jersey City Housing Authority. And it will help survivors who left everything behind start again from scratch.
“We will provide them with furniture,” Reels said. “We have provided beds for children that were sleeping on the floor. We take them to the store and buy them furniture. If they need clothing, we will take them to the store, allow them to pick out whatever they want within reason.”
Lending a helping hand, year round
Reels said that Sarah’s Daughters provides Christmas gifts to children, also working with local police officers for the Shop with a Cop program in Jersey City. The foundation holds a number of such events around the holidays, including Thanksgiving food distributions.
“This is for children that may not be able to have a holiday,” Reels said. “We work with various organizations and law enforcement to help in whatever way we could possibly to help these families become stable again.”
Additionally, the organization offers a ride to those looking to leave a bad situation. Basically, Reels and the foundation will provide any help they can to those who need it.
“If we can connect with someone who has housing, we will steer them towards housing,” Reels said. “If someone has to get out in a hurry, we will provide transportation. We also have a licensed therapist who offers her services pro bono. We have connections with a domestic violence attorney if they need it.”
The hotline for Sarah’s Daughters is 201-688-6794. And Reels said anyone can also call her personal cell phone at 732-318-4116.
“I want people to feel comfortable, so I give them my cell number,” Reels said. “A lot of times they’ll feel more comfortable dialing that cell phone number. I’ll pick up 24/7. It doesn’t matter.”
Bayonne tackles domestic violence
Reels, who has been active in the community for some time, was pleased to see many people in Bayonne come together recently and rally behind the cause. She and the foundation are also part of the city’s new Domestic Violence and Mental Health Task Force, and Reels said she is excited to spread awareness and provide resources to those who need it.
It was unfortunate it took the loss of the life of Tafoya Mendoza in order for the community to rally around domestic violence. But spreading further awareness can work to prevent another tragedy. And Sarah’s Daughters among other organizations provide services for the families of victims.
“If someone loses their life, we’re there for the families,” Reels said, even if it’s only “to just console or be there to show support.”
This is especially important because domestic violence can affect anyone, and when it does occur it ultimately affects everyone in the community. Reels said those impacted the most, aside from survivors and victims themselves, are children that grow up around domestic violence.
“It affects everyone,” Reels said. “It affects the children. That trauma that they experience, they may not get hit by the batterer, but to be in the presence of that is traumatizing.”
Ready when survivors are
Sometimes, Reels said that children will come forward on behalf of their parent. However, when she reaches out, they refuse to talk. Reels said starting the healing process means the survivor has to want to seek help.
“They have to be ready,” Reels said. “You can’t force anyone to be ready to leave that type of situation.”
According to Reels, many times there are specifics to each situation that lead to the survivor staying in the relationship.
“There’s all types of situations that go on that will make you stay,” Reels said. “It can be a financial thing if the batterer is the sole provider. Then the survivor is fearful of leaving because they have no money.”
On top of that, the alternatives aren’t always the best when it comes to housing. Reels continued: “They don’t want to go to the shelters. These shelters are horrible.”
Assisting in any way possible
Sarah’s Daughters works to provide whatever they can to survivors and those affected by domestic violence.
Reels said the organization frequently works with law enforcement and the court system, specifically the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office and the Anti-Violence Coalition of Hudson County. Reels is also a chaplain for the Jersey City Police Deparmtent, and Sarah’s Daughters frequently works with a refers survivors to WomenRising.
The foundation holds a yearly fundraiser each October at The Chandelier in Bayonne to honor community members and garner support to continue their endeavors, known as the Domestic Violence Awareness Gala. Recently, Reels spoke at gathering for those affected by domestic violence by Wallace Temple AME Zion Church, as well as vigil remembering Tafoya Mendoza and others lost.
In the meantime, Sarah’s Daughters is hosting a Hats and Pearls Garden Party “encouraging victims and families blossom.” The event will take place on June 11 from 12 to 4 p.m. at The Factory at 451 Communipaw Avenue in Jersey City. Fore more information, contact Reels at 732-318-4116.
Lunch will be served, along with door prizes, fellowship, encouragment and other fun. Tickets can be purchased online at eventbrite.com/e/hats-pearls-tickets-293560777187.
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.