By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor

Lisa described the abuse in her 15-year marriage as a slow drip that crept up on her.

“It was very much a controlled situation that kind of slowly builds upon itself,” said the Gilbert resident, whose last name is not being used to protect her identity.

“At the end, probably the last three to four years it was the most intense where I wasn’t able to really go anywhere. There were times he took my purse, keys, phone and computer and everything so I could not go to work that day.”

There was also the time when he locked her out of the house in the middle of the night during an argument, the time he threw a computer across the room and broke the television and the time he chased her down the driveway and flung soda at her car windshield when she tried to go to a hip-hop concert with girls from work because he was angry she didn’t make him dinner.

Still, the now 40-year-old mom of three young children stayed.

The breaking point for Lisa came when her husband physically attacked her one day.

“He shoved me into the wall and pinned me after chasing me around the house,” she said. “People ask, ‘why did you stay so long?’ You just don’t know what your line is until you know it happens. It was a horrible day but gratifying it happened because it pushed me to do what I needed to do.”

Helping Lisa as she left her marriage was Winged Hope Family Advocacy Foundation, a Gilbert nonprofit that focuses on preventing and healing family violence.

Winged Hope received the Service Coordination Award in 2018 from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office in recognition of its work after it was nominated by Gilbert Prosecutor’s Office Victim Services Unit.

“We decided to nominate Winged Hope because of their ability to address victims’ unique needs,” said Dina Guilera, victim advocate for the office. “When we refer victims to Winged Hope, we know that they will be treated with dignity, respect and compassion.”

Helping thousands Since its inception in 2013, Winged Hope has reached over 42,000 people across Arizona, including the number of direct victims as well as individuals reached with trainings and educational resources, according to Rebecca Hasulak, Winged Hope Board secretary.

The group began offering direct victim services in June 2016 and since then helped 1,590 domestic violence victims and their families.

The nonprofit serves the community in three ways: providing direct victim services, renovating and starting new family advocacy centers and presenting training statewide.

The group and its board are volunteers with no paid staff and rely on donations.

The group’s Hope Run, a 1-mile run/walk and 5K, coming up on April 6 at Freestone Park in Gilbert raises some money, but its main function is to bring awareness of programs available to the community. Law enforcement and other nonprofits that collaborate on attend the event.

Winged Hope currently has 20 volunteers, says founder and CEO Jessica Nicely, a child abuse and domestic violence survivor who was a Miss Arizona USA contestant in 1979.

Domestic violence reporting has steadily increased in Arizona over the last five years – a trend Nicely credits the growing awareness of the problem.

“I started sharing my story 22 years ago when not many survivors were telling their story,” Nicely said. “I want people to make it normal that we talk about past trauma as part of the story and not have shame in it. Victims of violence always carry shame and I want people to understand they don’t have to hold onto it.”

Winged Hope’s free training statewide has encouraged survivors to step forward.

“When we do a training, 100 percent of the time we have a line of people ready to disclose their own trauma and abuse because they see someone talking about their past and history and it gives them strength and permission to tell their own story,” Nicely said. “That is what I really hope will start to change not only in Arizona but across the nation.”

Holistic approach What sets Winged Hope apart from other nonprofits is its focus on the whole family.

“We serve children who have witnessed domestic violence,” Nicely said. “Currently in the state of Arizona, a child who witnesses domestic violence is not considered a victim and doesn’t get victim services through the state.”

Exposure to such violence is the single greatest predictor of juvenile delinquency and adult criminality, she said.

Children are one of the largest groups Winged Hope provides out-sourced therapy for.

“We heal the whole family,” said Nicely, a Gilbert resident. “We have a family where the second marriage involved domestic violence. We are providing therapy for the non-offending father of the first marriage and the grandparents in that situation so they could know what they need to look out for, how to heal the children because of the domestic violence they’ve witnessed.”

“We look at what household these children go back to and get them the proper care and healing and the understanding of the impact of domestic violence on children.”

Winged Hope also provides therapy to adult sexual-abuse survivors, no matter how long ago that abuse occurred.

“The abuse may have happened 20 to 30 years ago, but they are ready for therapy now,” Nicely said. “We recognize that adult survivors who don’t heal are not always the best and effective parents they can be. They don’t have the eyes to see violence that comes into their home and predators count on that.

“We want people to understand no matter how long ago the abuse happened, there is always a chance for healing.”

Winged Hope’s new endeavors include forming a domestic violence support group sometime this year. Currently, Catholic Charities is the only one providing that service in the Southeast Valley, according to Nicely.

Working in collaboration with Catholic Charities, the support group will include a victim advocate and a therapist, she said.

Winged Hope also has partnered with the national nonprofit Camp Hope, which runs camps for children who have witnessed abuse or have been abused themselves.

“We’ve started the collaboration and will go through training for one year and then look at other camps around the nation and start our first in Arizona in 2020,” Nicely said.

This will be a chance for children who have experienced this kind of trauma to get together since it is hard for them to relate to others who have not gone through domestic violence, according to Nicely.

This program especially is close to Nicely’s heart, who experienced and witnessed abuse from her father, who later killed himself.

“A lot of the programs we offer touched my life,” she said. “I love the idea of Camp Hope. As a child going through this, you pretend you are like everyone and everything is OK, but it’s not. The concept of Camp Hope is they can be around other children who know exactly what they are going through.”

Nicely said she got help in high school by attending a support group for children of alcoholics.

“I told the counselor what was happening at home and I was getting healing while still living with the abuse,” she said. “That really is part of why I am able to be as healthy as I am.

“Also, the work I do is very healing,” she added. “It’s incredible the feeling and experience you get when you’re (working) with someone who is living this same kind of abuse and offering them hope.”

Staggering number of victims On average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States or more than 12 million women and men over the course of a year, according to The National Domestic Violence Hotline.

In the state, an estimated 1.3 million women are victimized by intimate partners each year with one in every four women experiencing domestic violence in her lifetime, the Arizona Department of Health Services reported, adding many such cases are never reported to the police.

And, according to the state Attorney General’s Office, the rate of intimate partner homicides in Arizona is 45 percent higher than the national average.

Lisa came in contact with Winged Hope in 2017 during the middle of her divorce. She came home one day from work to find her patio door shattered.

She knew immediately her husband was responsible. The two had separated in 2016 after Lisa had him removed from the home with a restraining order.

Lisa, who was working with Gilbert Police and Gilbert Prosecutor’s Office on her case, called about the incident.

“They said, ‘don’t worry about the window, we will figure it out, we have an organization we are working with,’” Lisa recalled.

Winged Hope stepped in and helped replace the window along with Gilbert Police’s Family Violence Unit that had a victims’ fund, Lisa said.

“In March of that year, he did the same thing and threw a baseball-size rock through the picture window in the family room,” she said. “Again Winged Hope and the department stepped up and helped me replace that window.”

Both rock-throwing incidents were caught on Lisa’s home-security cameras.

Winged Hope also provided her advice, reassurances and connected her with a family attorney because of ongoing harassment from her ex-husband, who had sought full custody of the children.

Another big help was the group’s volunteer victim advocates, one of whom accompanied Lisa to her court hearings.

“The first six months of the criminal case, I was not in the right frame to be in a courtroom for that type of prosecution after he broke my windows,” she said. “They escort you to the courtroom, sit with you and block the line of sight between your abuser and you.”

With her vision blocked, Lisa didn’t have to contend with her husband turning around and giving her a nasty look that once would have made her crumble.

“They try to guild you though different things,” Lisa said of the advocates. “It was a whole new world, I had no knowledge of family law or what my rights were with my kids on top of getting divorced.”

Although her divorce was granted in May 2017, life will never be normal for Lisa.

Besides the security cameras, she has taken lessons on how to fire a gun, and she keeps a picture of her ex-husband at her workplace in case he walks through the door.

“People know it’s not a good situation,” she said.

As of Nov. 30, there have been 75 domestic violence-related deaths in the state, according to the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence.  And for 2017, the nonprofit tracked 90 known domestic violence deaths in Arizona.

According to the coalition, Arizona consistently ranks among the states with the highest homicide rates of women murdered by men; between 2005 and 2015 there were 1,255 domestic violence-related deaths.

Lisa said there are many reasons why someone might not leave an abusive situation.

Having Winged Hope helped guide her through the scary transition period, she said.

“In the beginning for me, I felt like my situation was not that bad,” said Lisa, who was conditioned to believe her life was normal and that she deserved the abuse. “There were a lot of people in that situation and for me, other people have it worse than me. They have bruises.

“Having someone to talk you through the confusing moments, talk you through your thought process even if that thought is people have it worse than me, they teach you you don’t deserve to walk on eggshells. You’re able to go to work and not be harassed and you deserve a safe and happy life.”