Saturday, February 21, 2015

Delivering PJs

"Is solace anywhere more comforting than that in the arms of a sister." — Alice Walker

THE THREE weeks since the Helen's Pajama party have been hectic — and exhausting. It was an accomplishment getting them all tagged, sorted, packed and ready for the 13 regional domestic violence shelters, but the next step was actually getting them to the women and children who need them.

After mixed success piggybacking pajama delivery with people traveling to shelter cities for business or family, I remembered a method of distribution I've used in the past: Iowa legislators! During the January through May session, legislators drive back and forth from the Capitol in Des Moines to their homes every weekend, leaving Thursday night and returning Monday.

Viola! Wheels to the cities where domestic violence shelters are located, if they'd be willing. (I admit it: I thought it was a stroke of genius when I hit upon it some years back.) 

But then another thought occurred that added another layer of complexity to distribution.

Let me backtrack just a little. Remember Tiffany Allison? I'll remind you of her story:

In 2009 Tiffany was the victim of an especially brutal assault by a man she was dating. He beat her to unconsciousness with his hands, knees, feet and a wrought iron cross until it broke, bit her over various part her body and urinated on her.

Some of Tiffany bruises and bite marks.

During his trial, Tiffany discovered that she was her abuser’s fifth victim! 

Yet when convicted of his crimes against Tiffany, her abuser was given only a 2½-year sentence and served just 10 months before being released.

Guess what happened then? 

There was a sixth victim — who's face was permanently disfigured.

Although sentenced to 15 years for this, his sixth offense offense, he will most likely be released after serving only 1½ to three years.

As a result of her real-life experiences, Tiffany wrote the Violent Habitual Offender Bill (Senate File 23) to protect herself and the rest of us by making sure that serially violent individuals get longer sentences and serve more of the sentences they're given.

As you might suspect, I'm in favor of this bill because it will give the most violent offenders less access to future victims by keeping these exceptionally dangerous individuals in prison longer.

Which brings me around to how my life got more complicated.

It occurred to me that if I succeeded in getting legislative 'names' to ferry hundreds of pajamas to shelters across the state, it presented the perfect opportunity to generate media in the recipient towns for the purpose of raising awareness about a) the prevalence of domestic abuse b) the need for pajamas (and other items too numerous to mention) — and c) this bill.

Tiffany is a poised, compelling and knowledgeable speaker on the subject of domestic violence, and despite the fact that she's a full-time student at Simpson and works three jobs — she was willing to drive all over heck and gone to help deliver pajamas and raise wareness.

I began feverishly contacting legislators, writing and sending press releases and calling TV stations and newspapers.

Representative Dave Dawson was good enough to agree to take 148 pairs pajamas Friday, February 13 to the Council on Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence in Sioux City, and all three local affiliates KCAU (ABC), KTIV (NBC) and KMEG (CBS) and IPR covered the pajama drop. In addition KCAU did an hour studio interview and KTIV did a half hour studio interview with Tiffany.

The following weekend Senate Majority Leader, Mike Gronstal agreed to taxi 85 pairs to the Catholic Charities Phoenix House in Council Bluffs on Valentine's Day and Tiffany drove all the way there to speak on the issues. I thought Valentine's Day was a fitting for the deliveries as a reminder that love shouldn't hurt.

Meanwhile, I drove to Davenport the same day to deliver 115 pairs to Safe Path Survivors Resources

For those of you who aren't familiar with Iowa, Council Bluffs and Davenport are on completely opposite sides of the state; Council Bluffs is on the Missouri River which divides Iowa from Nebraska, and Davenport is on the Mississippi River which separates Iowa from Illinois.

One Omaha station covered the Senator before the drop, another station interviewed Tiffany, and the Omaha World Herald ran the below short blurb.

Omaha World Herald
Sunday, February 15, 2015  

Good Deeds

Following are fundraisers, donations and other charitable events happening in the Midlands. Email your information about good deeds to or call 402-444-1040.

PJ delivery: New pajamas — 85 pairs — collected by Helen’s Pajama Party were delivered Saturday to the women and children staying at the Catholic Charities Phoenix House domestic violence shelter in Council Bluffs. The delivery was made by Iowa State Sen. Mike Gronstal and Tiffany Allison, once a victim of domestic abuse. Helen’s Pajama Party is a nonprofit organization that started in Des Moines and collects new pajamas to give to people staying at domestic violence shelters.

In Davenport KWQC-TV 6 covered the drop and the Sean Leary interviewed me and wrote the below article for the Quad City Times.

Making a pair of PJs the first step to a new life
February 14, 2015
By Sean Leary

The warm, cozy comfort of tucking one's self into a new pair of pajamas is a small, but familiar pleasure. But to many women and children, it’s more than a minor wardrobe ritual. It’s a significant step into a new life.

“Most of the people who are fleeing domestic abuse situations are doing so in the middle of the night, women and children who are escaping a dangerous situation. And 90 percent of the time they only have the clothes on their backs when they walk into a shelter for help. We’re here to change that,” said Kelly Sargent, the founder and director of the Des Moines-based Helen’s Pajama Party.

As part of the movement to change that paradigm, Sargent was in Davenport on Saturday to donate 90 new sets of pajamas to the Family Resources domestic violence shelter. However, even that number is a mere drop in the bucket, she said.

“These are for 75 women and 15 children, but over 400 women a year come here for help, so this will only cover a short time,” she said. “We’re always looking to make a bigger difference.

“What most people don’t realize is that it’s not just that these women and children need pajamas, or need new clothes. It’s also that they need something tangible and nice to start new lives,” she said. “All of the pajamas come with a note about that. This is about showing them that they’re valuable, they’re worth something, they’re worth getting something new and nice.

“When the women and children come to the shelter, they get to pick out their own pair of pajamas, and that’s also significant because abuse situations are all about control and power, all about them not having any control over their lives. And even this, just the simple act of them choosing a pair of pajamas for themselves, gives them some small measure of control,” she said. “The pajamas have all sorts of patterns on them and designs, from clouds to puppies to flowers, and we’ll ask that they pick one that speaks to them, that makes them feel good and makes them feel like they’re making a step forward into a new life.”

The reason Sargent picked Valentine’s Day for the delivery was to build awareness that “love should not hurt,” she said. A self-proclaimed “pajama fanatic,” she began the program in 2009 after making a donation to a local shelter and, in talking to the staff there, realizing the depth of the problem. Since then, her program, which is dependent on donations, has expanded to cover the entire state of Iowa.

“I feel very humbled by this, but to be honest, I wish I could finally go out of business because that would mean this wasn’t a problem anymore,” Sargent said.

However, while it is, area shelters are pleased with the assistance.

“We’re always very grateful to anyone who helps out, and for someone to do something this amazing as Kelly has is fantastic,” said Nicole Cisne Durbin, the director of Family Resources in Davenport. “It also shows these women that they’re not alone, that there are people that care about them and that want to help them.”

For more information on the programs, call Safe Path Survivor Resources at (866) 921-3354.

In the meantime, Karl Schilling, President of the Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance and a tireless advocate on behalf of crime victims, wrote the below guest editorial column for the Cedar Rapids Gazette that ran February 18. 

My sincere thanks to everyone who has contributed pajamas, time, brainpower, person-power and money to aid and encourage victims of domestic violence and raise awareness of it's intolerable existence. Keep at it if you can.

Violent Habitual Offender Bill will prevent future victims
By Karl Schilling, guest columnist
Befruary 18, 2015

In this legislative session, our representatives have an opportunity to pass a bill that will be an expression of one of the first principles of government, public safety.

The Violent Habitual Offender Bill, Senate File 23, sponsored by democratic Sen. Matt McCoy, is largely the work of a young woman named Tiffany Allison who was beaten and later discovered she was the offender’s fifth victim.

Allison’s attacker was given a two and a half year sentence, of which he served 10 months in prison and two years on parole. He reoffended, this time permanently disfiguring a woman’s face by biting her.

Because he broke into the victim’s car, he was sentenced to 10 years for burglary and five for willful injury; sentences to be served consecutively. Under current policy he will most likely serve one and one half to three years in prison. Given that it is his sixth official offense and he has been progressively more violent, the prospects of his being safely returned to society in such a short time are grim.

The Violent Habitual Offender Bill would require violent habitual offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentence followed by a period of parole so their integration into society can be monitored and they can receive counseling to help them succeed.

It is expensive to keep offenders in prison, but it is even more expensive to retry and readmit people who reoffend. But the greatest expense is not monetary, it is the violence to Iowa’s citizens and the creation of more victims of crime.

While there are approximately 8,000 people incarcerated in Iowa, there are only about 370 habitual offenders. Of those, only 80-90 would be affected by this act — they are the most dangerous and violent people in the system.

Legislators have an opportunity to do that for which government primarily exists: the protection of society. Passing this bill would result in a safer Iowa, an offender with a better chance at rehabilitation and hope for the victims of their crimes.

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