Eagan women's shelter reflects on crucial role

  • Article by: PETER COXSPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: February 2, 2010 - 5:08 PM

Lewis House in Eagan was launched 30 years ago, as stigma around domestic abuse faded.

Last summer, a woman in her mid-20s asked Mary Ajax, who heads the Lewis House women's shelter in Eagan, to coffee.

The woman stayed at the shelter when she was 5, and wanted to tell Ajax about a significant moment.

"She said, 'I remember being at the kitchen table and being safe, just feeling like we weren't going to have to run and hide and lock ourselves in the bathroom, because that's what we'd have to do at home,' " Ajax said. "For the first time in her life, she'd felt safe."

Stories like that have dotted the 30-year life of the battered women's shelter.

In January, the Community Action Council, which runs the Lewis House, celebrated those 30 years of service.

The Lewis House opened its doors in August 1979, in a refurbished single-family home. It was named after Sen. B. Robert Lewis, who'd written bills aimed at preventing domestic violence.

"We quickly outgrew that, and there wasn't another facility that would work for us in our area," Ajax said. So they built their own.

In 1985, the council bought some property and built a new Lewis House, with safety measures: doors that open out instead of in and extra-strength windows. "Everything about it is designed for safety," Ajax said.

But inside, she said, feels homey.

Ajax had been working with the council since 1975. In her first few years, abuse was viewed as something that needed to be kept secret and behind closed doors. Ajax remembers people being skeptical of the need for her job.

"When I first started out, people looked at me and said, 'What are you talking about?'" Ajax said. " 'We don't know anyone in an abusive relationship.' Therapists would say that; county people would say that."

The year 1979 was pivotal: Legislators passed a law that allowed police to arrest domestic assault suspects as they arrest for other crimes; prior to that officers had to witness the abuse. An order-for-protection law was passed. Lewis House opened.

"Suddenly we went from no options for people to at least three options available," Ajax said. "It became much less of a secret, because so many people got involved in getting that new house built, that stigma began to go away."

Since those early days, the Lewis House has helped more than 60,000 women and added another location in Hastings. Together, the two houses can shelter more than 40 people at a time.

Lewis House shelters about 500 women a year and serves three times as many through outreach programs, said Doreen L'Allier, director of youth advocacy at the council.

"I meet women who I helped in the Lewis House 16 years ago," she said. "They want to give back or volunteer. For me, the most fulfilling part is when we are able to welcome these women back."

For local law enforcement, the shelter is an option the justice system can't provide.

"When I was a patrol officer, if I had responded to a call at a house, I'd pick up the phone and call. I'd put an advocate on the phone with the victim almost immediately," said Lakeville Police Chief Tom Vonhof. "We can tell them what to do from a law-enforcement standpoint, but the Lewis House gives them safety and resources."

It's a great thing to have, he said. "It's an unheralded service that our community has had for so many years. One of those organizations that quietly works in the background, by making things much better for people that are victimized."

The goal for the next 30 years is to start working on preventive measures, Ajax said.

"In order to end this problem, we need to raise respectful men and boys, we need to respect women and girls."

Peter Cox is a St. Paul freelance writer.

  • FIND OUT MORE

    For help, or more information, call the Eagan location (651-452-7288), or the Hastings location at 651-437-1291. Both are open 24 hours a day.

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