In 1991, Stephanie Fekkes was the only private sector female attorney in Barry County, Michigan. As more and more domestic cases came across her desk, she began gravitating toward family law. Women were more comfortable talking to another woman about their problems.
“I was helping people through a very difficult time in their lives and my passion for this work grew along the way,” Fekkes said. Her cases opened the doors to private problems not normally visible from the outside. The more domestic violence cases she saw in court, the more she realized there must be an even bigger, unreported problem out there, and it was apparent these women had no local resources.
The child of Dutch and German immigrants to the US, Fekkes says that it taught her to be thankful she grew up in a country full of opportunities. From a young age, she participated in service activities in her free time. After becoming a lawyer, she was one of the founding members of the Juvenile Drug Court program and the Law Day program that teaches fourth graders about the court system. She still serves as a member of the board and legal counsel for the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Barry County.
Fekkes learned that the state-run shelter that served Hastings and Barry County at that time was located in Battle Creek. “We didn’t want to send these women to an unfamiliar urban setting and take them out of our community. We didn’t want to take them away from their healthcare providers and their children’s schools. We decided to establish a shelter in Barry County to assist the families of Barry County.”
In 1998, Fekkes formed a coalition with members of the local hospital, members of law enforcement, and the United Way. They did studies and assessments, and worked to resolve organizational issues, logistical issues, and funding issues. Green Gables Haven finally opened its doors in 2004.
Pennock Hospital rented one of their houses to GGH for $1 per year, local businesses donated materials, and local church and women’s groups donated their time and labor. GGH recently set up an endowment, with a goal of $2.5 million, to become financially solvent. Already two anonymous donors have pledged together over $1 million. “We are blessed by the generosity of this community. There is a lot of quiet wealth here,” Fekkes says.
Fekkes remains on the board and consults on some legal issues when needed, but GGH has an excellent professional staff to support the residents. The standard stay is 30-45 days, or longer if needed. No one is forced to leave if they don’t have somewhere to go. The goal is to help the residents establish a home when they leave. One community group makes quilts and donates bedding, a free store at the shelter carries items they might need, and there is a career closet to loan or give women clothing for job interviews. The community has really come together to support this endeavor. Fekkes adds, “We have a network of resources that loan goods or provide services when needed. We have never had someone go without something they needed.”
The organization’s website is not only filled with vital information for women in need, but also testimonials from former residents, and memories from staff. Quotes from former residents include: “I learned how important it is to be independent for my daughter”; “You helped me discover new options”; and “I feel stronger and have hope now. I love you all.” But the stories about the children are perhaps the most heart-wrenching. One 11-year-old boy had no school clothes because he had been living in a meth lab. When the staff told him they would provide him with clothes, he turned away so they wouldn’t see the tears in his eyes. Two girls (aged 7 and 8) met at the shelter and became close friends. They talked and played together whenever possible. When one girl was moving out, she asked the staff to help her write a letter to her friend. It simply said, “I know that I will never see you again. I love you.”
“This work fills your soul. It is so rewarding to help give women the tools they need to help themselves and see them emerge stronger on the other side,” says Fekkes.