"We have heard many times that this Thanksgiving meal in our shelter with other women and their children is the first time they've ever not had to deal with the tension, or the worry of getting beat up after the meal's over."
— Pat Bell, House of Ruth
While many spend the weekend after Thanksgiving decompressing from arguments with siblings and spouses, some women have to pack their bags and take their children to an undisclosed location for the holiday weekend. They make dinner with other families who have fallen victim to domestic violence.
For almost 40 years, the House of Ruth has been a domestic violence agency that provides emergency shelter for people in San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties. The agency's director of development, Pat Bell, says the House of Ruth also offers case management, counseling and prevention education in schools.
The organization takes its name from the Biblical figure Ruth, whom Bell describes as "a woman who helped other women." When we interviewed Bell, we met her at the Outreach Center, because the address of the shelter has to be concealed.
"When a woman decides to leave an abusive relationship, it's important that she maintains her safety. The abuser will do quite a bit to search for the woman... so we don't disclose where our shelter is located," says Bell.
We asked if the House of Ruth sees an influx of new clients on Thanksgiving.
"We usually don't see a spike of clients coming in on Thanksgiving Day," replies Bell. "All of the relatives are there, friends might be there around the dinner table. An abuser's gonna be on their best behavior."
Within a few days though, after visitors are gone, violent episodes return, and that's when the shelter's numbers increase.
Of course, some families are already in the shelter by the time the holiday comes around, so the House of Ruth holds a communal Thanksgiving dinner.
"There was a family that came in... We'll just say that the mom's name was Susan, and she came in with her three kids. They were sad that they weren't gonna have Thanksgiving with their family." The kids told the shelter's children's counselors that Susan loved baking. The House of Ruth bought ingredients to surprise her with. "And she got up that Thanksgiving Day, and she went to the other women who were preparing the turkey and all the other things that go with the meal, and the kids were really excited when they got to walk into the meal and say 'Oh my gosh! There's mom's pumpkin pie!'"
Some past clients eventually come back to volunteer at the shelter's Thanksgiving meal.
"It's usually not the year after," says Bell. "More distance needs to take place, because the whole process of fleeing an abusive relationship, starting over, getting yourself reestablished; those wounds are still there emotionally, and coming back a year later is usually too soon, because they're gonna see other women that are going through it, and it's still raw for them."
Three years later however, women will emerge from their private lives to help out at the holiday.
As to why Bell is passionate about the House of Ruth and its Thanksgiving tradition, Bell says, "I believe that everyone should have a happy house. I know that many relationships experience arguments and disagreements, but when it crosses the line into abuse; whether it's physical abuse, or emotional abuse, downgrading a person, I don't think that people should have to suffer through that. So I work here because if we can just save one life, then we're doing our job."
If you want to help, the House of Ruth has posted a holiday wish list for their clients.