Safe Haven Women’s Shelter in Mount Carmel received a shot in the arm from a local effort to combat domestic violence in the community.
Jessi’s Poker Run, a yearly event intended to raise money to fight against domestic abuse, raised $2,000 despite COVID-19 greatly restricting their activity this year. The entirety of that raised sum was donated to Safe Haven, who will use it to keep supplies in stock for use by women in need of the shelter.
Brandy Keele and Rita Dougan, co-organizers for the poker run, are now in year eight of putting on the event.
“We’ve been doing Jessi’s Ride since 2013,” said Keele. “Rita and I are both domestic violence victims.
“Jessi was, of course, murdered at the Mexican restaurant in Princeton.”
Dougan’s daughter, Jessica Tice was 34 years old was killed by an ex-boyfriend and the father of her son at Los Aztecas Mexican restaurant in Princeton in 2013, during a celebration of her son’s eighth grade graduation.
Keele also felt the impact of the loss in a direct way as well.
“It hit close to home,” she said. “Jessi is the aunt to my two oldest children.”
It was the loss of Tice that caused Keele to approach Dougan about doing something to fight back against domestic violence.
“We need more awareness,” she said. “We need stricter laws.
“I couldn’t sit back and do nothing.”
And for six years, that meant organizing a motorcycle ride and poker run to raise money dedicated to helping women who have been victims fo domestic violence. However, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic greatly limited fundraising options for Dougan and Keele.
“We did an online auction this year, instead of our ride and the poker run and all that,” Keele explained. “It turned out really great. We had a lot of donations and people made stuff for us.
“It turned out a whole lot better than we thought.”
The $2,000 raised this year actually topped the average showing of the poker run itself, according to Dougan.
“It’s actually a little bit better,” Dougan admitted.
As such, the two women stated that they would likely incorporate an online auction in with their usual activities during next year’s poker run.
“We learned a lot,” said Dougan. “We have so many things donated to us to auction off. We always auction them off at the dinner after the run.
“I think now we probably ought to do an online auction before and save some for the dinner, too.”
The organizers also elected to ask less of business owners in the community this year, due to the negative impact the pandemic has had on the local economy. However, others in the county stepped in to make up for what would have been lost revenue generated by the event.
“We’re part of a great community,” Keele said. “We didn’t want to go around and ask businesses or anybody for donations this year because everybody’s been hit so hard.
“So we had a lot of the community step up, make craft stuff for us and donate stuff that they had sitting around.”
Keele cited one instance in which a Wabash County resident donated excess high-end purses she wasn’t using anymore.
“One girl, she had some Coach purses that were just sitting in her closet,” she recalled. “She said, ‘Here.’
“The community really stepped up and helped us a lot.”
While in some ways, being limited to an online auction made things a bit easier for the organizers, any stress saved by the slightly lighter workload was met with the rising tension that comes with not knowing how a new approach is going to pan out.
“We were so used to the routine,” said Keele. “We kind of have our steps that we go in, so this was a lot different.”
But the success of the event in spite of the challenges posed by a pandemic will not move the poker run away from its usual fundraising efforts in the future.
“So we’re hoping this year we can get back to the ride, the auction, the dinner and everything,” said Dougan.
Ideally, combining the online auction with their usual run of events will allow Keele and Dougan to bring in more money to put toward assisting victims of domestic abuse.
“Our purpose is to help anybody,” said Keele. “We helped a young woman that was in a domestic abuse relationship. She is getting divorced. It all happened right before Christmas; she didn’t have any money to buy Christmas presents or pay bills.
“So we were able to help her, out of our account, kind of get past Christmas. That’s what we’re here for.”
And by anybody, the Keele and Dougan mean anybody, regardless of gender. Dougan expressed support for a new male homeless shelter that was recently started in Princeton.
“Princeton has started a men’s homeless shelter,” she noted. “They will take Illinois, too.
“So it’s kind of nice that we can exchange and not leave anybody out in the cold.”
Both Dougan and Keele had nothing but praise for the work Safe Haven has done for the area.
“I think they are doing wonderful,” said Keele. “I think it is a wonderful facility, and I hope we can keep it going for as long as we can.”
Not only does Safe Haven provide those in need of shelter with a place to stay, but it also assists them in reorganizing their lives following the abuse they’ve endured.
“It’s helped out a lot of women,” she noted. “They educate the women when they’re here, they get jobs.
“They teach them, and they learn how to get back out there and get back on their feet.”
And the first step to getting back on their feet begins with confidence.
“The main thing is, they just build their confidence up,” Dougan explained. “Most of the time, domestic violence victims are just beat down. They think they’re worthless.
“They get built back up and get more confidence in themselves.”
Without that confidence, many women find themselves unable to leave abusive relationships.
“They really have to know that they can do it,” said Keele. “A lot of people stay in their situation because they don’t think they can do it. I know that’s one reason why I stayed.
“The hardest step is the first step; getting away from the situation.”
At Safe Haven, women receive the tools they need to stand on their own two feet after leaving such situations.
“They need a hand up, not a hand out,” said Dougan. “At Safe Haven, that’s just what they do.”