A Place for Women in Distress

By Cliff Hakim

Licencsed through Wikipedia. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/livenature/ - https://www.flickr.com/photos/livenature/256934977/sizes/o/

Often it seems the world has gone deaf to the needs of others.  Why have we retreated from our neighbors, putting up psychological and physical walls? How many opportunities are we missing to nurture real connection?  The best way to answer this, I decided, was to go out and search for individuals who had learned how to walk in other people’s shoes.  I interviewed them, drew their favorite shoes, and gathered their stories in a book, Walk in My Shoes: The Path to Empathy and Compassion.  Here’s one I’d like to share with you. 

Annette Rafferty is the founder of Abby’s House in Worcester, Massachusetts, an hour west of Boston.  In 40 years, this organization has helped over 10,000 homeless, battered, and low-income women—many of them with children—giving them a welcoming place to live and a chance to rebuild their lives.   As I walked into the newly renovated building at 52 High Street, I was impressed by its comfortable home-like atmosphere.  But Annette herself took my breath away. A slight woman with intense eyes, a dignified manner, and a firm handshake, she is blessed with incredible drive and a razor-sharp memory. In great detail, she described the folks she had worked with since opening the first Abby’s House in a vacant apartment on Crown Street in the 1970s. Her first guest, she recalled, was a woman named Lisa who had been raped and needed a place to stay with her two children.  

Starting this organization wasn’t easy. Ann gathered research on abused women and then scoured the city on foot, going to back-alley streets and poor neighborhoods. To raise funds, she set up meetings at City Hall and in corporate boardrooms.  As I learned of her accomplishments I recalled Maya Angelou’s words, “My wish for you is that you continue. Continue to be who you are. To astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness.” 

These are Annette’s shoes and here is her story in her own words:

Annettte's shoes, drawing by Cliff Hakim

I  have walked with women to the courthouse. I have walked with women to the courthouse. I have walked with them into the hospital. I have walked with prostitutes on the street. I have walked into the homes of women of great distinction to gather support. I have walked to inspire people to help others. talking about our mission to schools, colleges, businesses and foundations. I even walked into Harley-Davidson and they gave us money!

When I asked one of the residents at our women’s shelter, “What’s the hardest thing about living on the street?” they said, “People not looking at me.”  These women need to be acknowledged as human beings. That’s why we refer to them as our guests.

Fear of the other gets in the way of compassion. In our dining room we help people overcome that fear. How?  By insisting that everyone eat together.  Women from all cultures and backgrounds get to know each other and become friends.

In 1969, I was a nun with the sisters of St. Joseph in Worcester. After four years I began wondering how I could interact with women outside the parish. Here I was living in a Roman Catholic institution where women did all the work. I was interested in women’s rights.  I was in touch with the Urban Ministry and they wanted to know if there was a need for a women’s shelter. I thought there was and decided to advocate for one. After two masters degrees in French literature and in education, and 12 years of teaching, I needed to get a street education.  So  I met with women who were in great difficulty and asked about their needs.  I went to different neighborhoods, visited rape crisis centers and emergency rooms, and stood outside the old Aurora Hotel asking prostitutes, “Why are you doing this?“ Their answer: ”I’d rather work inside the hotel and take my chances of living on the streets.”

I brought my report back to an all-male committee and when they said my findings weren’t legitimate,  I responded, “Where do you find statistics when there are none?  You have to go out and interview people.” Then they argued, “But you’re a teacher and have no qualifications to run a women’s shelter.”   In 1975, the urban ministry voted not to support the project.

I wanted to keep women safe and off the street and I also wanted to bring women together to help each other.  So I gathered some people and convinced them that we needed to start a shelter on our own.  We focused on three things: finding a location, getting publicity, and raising money. Within five months we had most of what we needed in place.  I now had enough money for the rent but no one would lease us an apartment.

After many months searching, we learned about a vacancy in a building on Crown Street.  I met the landlord, Harry,  and told him we wanted to offer hospitality to any woman who had to choose between living on the street or in the shelter. Harry showed us that apartment then insisted that we look at another upstairs. It was bigger, and to our surprise he rented us both for $325 dollars a month.  We named our shelter after Abby Kelly Foster, Worcester’s most famous women’s rights advocate and abolitionist.

 Today we provide short and long-term community living to abused women and children.  At Abby’s house we offer compassion with a challenge, asking these women to rebuild their lives. Many have suffered for a long time in silence. Now they’re in a community that supports them and asks them to take steps towards financial and emotional independence.  One woman from Kansas City had been raped continually and she came here with nothing, but she was a poet. Eventually, she received a grant to produce a book.

Because our guests need continuity, we raise our own funds and don’t depend on state or federal grants. The government can always withdraw their support and where will that leave them? I have a profound love for all the women here. They are just like the rest of us though they’ve had bad breaks.  Still we can make progress.   The other day, volunteers from Hanover Insurance came and served a turkey lunch. They interacted with our guests and got to know them.  Women helping women—that mission transcends everything. 

Cliff Hakim is a best selling author and artist living in the Boston area.  This article has been adapted from his latest book, Walk in My Shoes: The Path to Empathy and Compassion. 

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