If Crystal Cameron and her almost 2-year-old toddler, Tyra, weren’t giggling and smooching in the cozy living room at Transformation House, they’d probably “be on the streets or in a shelter somewhere that wouldn’t seem like a real home,” the young mother says.
Instead, they’re in a spacious old farmhouse near Cottage Grove with high ceilings, plenty of windows and even a bedroom of their own, sharing the home with two other moms and their children. All of the women have something in common: An escape from domestic violence, a determination not to go back there and the drive to move their lives in a new, positive direction.
Hence the name “transformation,” which is exactly what its founder, Christa Loveland, wishes she’d had available to her when she was in the throes of trying to leave a dangerously violent past with her own brood.
“The idea came to me about eight years ago when I was thinking about what would have helped me most when I was a single mother trying to leave domestic violence behind,” Loveland said. “There were some kinds of services and support available to help me start over, but there’s another step that women need so they won’t feel pressured to return to their former situation, and that’s a safe place to live with their children while they heal from their trauma and reorganize their lives.”
It’s a dream she’s pursued with nonstop passion and commitment ever since. To help her achieve her goals, she earned a bachelor’s degree and has completed all but two terms of a master’s degree in social work.
Knowing that establishing Transformation House would take years, Loveland first started WINS — Women’s Information Networking Service — to give women and children in the Cottage Grove area better access to the kind of support they need as they strike out on their own. Sometimes that means helping them get to family or friends in other communities.
Other times, it includes help finding counseling, job skills and parenting classes, and permanent housing.
Often, it means providing clothing, diapers, food, furniture and kitchen basics to set up a new household on their own.
For Cameron and her daughter, Transformation House means a safe place to live while honing job skills and getting used to the idea of making it on her own. She and the child’s father “were together for over four years, and he hit me constantly,” Cameron said. “I moved home to my mom’s,” but that wasn’t enough separation, “and he still did it.”
A friend who had spent some time at Transformation House — stays range from two or three months to a year or more, depending on need — told Cameron about the facility, “and I went to the tea shop and talked to Christa about moving there. She told me to fill out the paperwork to see if I qualified.”
Whether women will be taken in at Transformation House depends on their sense of themselves and their readiness to change their lives, Loveland said.
“Whether we accept people depends on how they answer our questions,” she said. “This is not a care facility; we want to see that people have the potential and the drive to improve themselves. People who don’t have any work skills can begin at the tea shop or the thrift store. Many go on to other jobs from there so they can support themselves when they’re ready.”
Cameron said she’s looking for “any kind of job,” and Tyra has started day care in preparation. “I’m also thinking about going back to school — I’d eventually like to be a lawyer or a (social) worker.”
One thing that separates Transformation House from many women’s shelters is that it does not exclude women with sons in their early teens, Loveland said.
“I know many women who won’t go into shelters because they can’t take their boys with them, so they end up staying in bad situations or going back to them,” she said, pulling out a letter from a woman who lived at Transformation House for a time with her 13-year-old son.
“The past year, my son and I have been separated off and on because the shelters I have been to would not let us be together for he was too old,” the woman wrote. After talking to Loveland about their situation, “She asked my son and (me) if we would like to move in.?… Since (we) have been in Transformation House, our lives have changed and we are getting closer to our goals.”
It costs a minimum of $1,200 per month to keep Transformation House operating, Loveland said. “The women pay some rent and for food when they can. They get together to do menu planning, and they divide up the chores and agree on their own house rules — that’s more empowering than if we told them what the rules are.
To help pay expenses for its programs, WINS operates two retail shops in downtown Cottage Grove, the Once Again thrift store and Tea & Things, which sells organic teas and the tea sets to serve them. The shop also caters tea parties for up to eight people, on site or carried to local homes or offices.
It look six years, but by building up revenue from the shops, fundraisers, donations from the community and generous grants from several area foundations, Loveland’s nonprofit organization succeeded in opening Transformation House two years ago, in a house it rents on the outskirts of town.
“It came about by a lot of hard work,” Loveland said. “It took a lot of pounding the pavement, presentations and grant writing — it seems to me that domestic violence and women’s issues still aren’t a really high priority in our society. We receive no state or government funds, so the support we receive from the community is really important.”