Mels’ Story: Finding Safety & A Rich New Life
Leaving a toxic 15-year relationship behind, Mels found safety and support at Barrier Free Living’s Freedom House domestic violence shelter. Now settled in a home of her own, she curates a successful blog #thehalpernproject whose mission is community empowerment. Big fans of Mels, we caught up with her to talk about her journey.
BFL: How did you find Barrier Free Living’s Freedom House domestic violence shelter and what brought you there?
Mels: When I left my abuser and a 15-year toxic relationship behind, I literally left with just the clothes on my back and went to an all women’s homeless shelter in the Bronx. That was probably the scariest 10 days of my life.
After I had a knife pulled on me a block from the shelter, which also happened to be the day before an order of protection hearing, I was really afraid my abuser knew where I was. So after a night in tears I found out the shelter had a NOVA unit there. And Barrier Free Living was on a resource list they gave me, after the did my intake.
The homeless shelter had a computer center inside. So I registered a brand new email my abuser didn’t know about and reached out to all the organizations on the list, Barrier Free Living was one of them.
Within the hour, not only was Barrier Free Living the first organization to respond, they were the ONLY one to respond, which honestly was a blessing in disguise. Abuse-related head trauma permanently destroyed 80% of my hearing, so apart from needing to be heard, I needed to hear everyone so I could get the help I needed to heal…get strong…and start over.
The fact that Freedom House’s staff helped survivors like me navigate around challenges like mine…without the fear or shame of being judged by them, lifted a huge barrier and it was the ideal situation for me.
BFL: How was your first week and month at Freedom House? How did the program help you? Did anything surprise you about the experience?
Mels: My first week at Freedom House was surreal. Not bad, but surreal in the sense that I had no idea something like this existed.
I was too afraid to leave at all for the first seven days. And didn’t have to. The day I arrived my social worker took me to my apartment where everything I needed was already there…brand new bedding, towels, kitchen utensils and a shopping cart full of food.
There was a lot of uncertainty for me at the time, but one thing I was positive about, I couldn’t have felt more “safe.”
In fact, I don’t think I ever felt as safe as I did in that moment…and what I mean by “safe” is emotionally and physically. One of the things that I remember the most, during my first seven days, was the first domestic violence support group I went to when I was there. I never went to one before then.
I remember the residents making the entire group about me. They let me cry and cry. They couldn’t even understand what I was saying, I was crying so hard. Then one of the survivors came over to hold my hand and did not let go as I continued to just cry some more. Before the group ended, she gave me her eight month old son to hold and that’s when I stopped crying that night.
My first month at Freedom House was about making a conscious effort to create better lifestyle habits that would help me heal & get stronger. I really didn’t even know what selfcare was or what it involved, before I lived at the shelter.
So before figuring out critical things like housing, the staff emphasized that the first part of my stay should really be about being gentle and nurturing myself. So for me, that meant going to domestic violence support groups, occupational therapy groups and anger management groups…and because my abuse situation was so isolating like most survivor’s experience, I also pushed myself to participate in special community activities that were always happening like sing-along coffee houses & self defense classes.
Plus, I had weekly sessions with my social worker, who made me see things in a way that literally changed my life forever and how I saw myself.
The things in my head that Freedom House helped me with, that stood out the most…weren’t so much things like helping me with housing (though they definitely did that)…but more the kind of stuff you can’t make physical…that made the real lasting impact, like: 1) Teaching me how to be an incredible self-advocate…and how to be a strong advocate for others, until they can be strong for themselves; 2) Making me understand the importance of having a support community that has your back on this journey, regardless of where you are on it…just because healing isn’t linear and can be so messy; And 3) helping me see that strength comes in numbers…meaning survivors can make more things happen in their lives just by coming together, sharing experiences and sharing resources…than they can possibly accomplish on their own. Instead of learning just from your own mistakes, you’re learning from each other’s.
BFL: Did anything surprise you about the experience?
Mels: What Freedom House surprised me with were ways it’s committed to sparking your personal growth.
The social work team fights for you, and you can only become a fighter when you’re surrounded by fighters who believe in you. Also the shelter provided a supportive communal healing environment, but at the same time offered the privacy of your own apartment when you just wanted to be by yourself.
You’re just treated like a human who’s been through a lot…who is deserving of something better. I didn’t really know there was a difference between a domestic violence shelter and a homeless one. I think that’s something that resources like Family Justice Center should emphasize. And that…is keeping survivors from accessing them.
BFL: What has happened since you left? How is your life going & what’s next?
Mels: The biggest thing is that I have an apartment, and my name and only my name is on the lease.
It’s the hugest thing when you first leave a defeating and abusive situation, to be able to say you were able to make that happen for yourself when a your life could’ve easy been over.
TheHalpernProject, my Instagram blog has become something that I thought would just be cathartic past time & healing vice when I first launched it while still at Freedom House in 2018…to the driver of everything I do, which basically boils down to self, survivor & community empowerment.
It’s basically my virtual home. I’m vulnerable there. And I keep getting stronger there. And it motivates me to give back and get inspired in places you would never think to.
Some of the more interesting programs/organizations I’ve gotten involved in since leaving Freedom House include: BronxWork’s Poverty Simulation, Fountain House, Voices Of Women (part of The Brooklyn Battered Women’s Project) and Montefiore’s Bronx Health Collective Advisory Council (a board of practitioners & patient advocates who brainstorm healthcare reform for a homeless/economical challenged community).
Also one day during pandemic, contemporary artist Caterina Borghi, surprised me with an entire exhibition she created about me and me journey (image below)…that has ignited a couple of book projects I have in the works with other artists, who have inspired my healing.
All these exciting projects are just an extension of what Freedom House has taught me…that you can empower communities that already have strength in them, to do so much better. They may not realize they have that power, so you have the responsibility to help them see it’s there.
Mels Halpern (Pronouns: She, Her, Hers) February, 2021
Learn more about Freedom House and Barrier Free Living on our website, which includes a live Chat feature.