This story was originally published in the April-May 2022 edition of Catholic St. Louis magazine.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a project that had long been in the works for Saint Martha’s Hall: a drop-in center offering information, referrals and support for anyone affected by domestic violence.
“While we were forced to be at reduced capacity, the need for domestic violence services was even heightened,” said Jessica Woolbright, executive director of Saint Martha’s Hall. “That’s when we really put the gas on this project.”The drop-in center opened Jan. 3 at 4733 Mattis Road, a house on the north side of Assumption Parish’s campus in south St. Louis County that was not in active use. While Saint Martha’s Hall, one of eight Catholic Charities agencies, offers an emergency shelter care program for abused women and their children, the new drop-in center offers another opportunity to reach women who may not need immediate shelter but are still seeking resources. Full-time advocates are available from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday to provide help for women who may be experiencing domestic violence as well as family and friends who want to find resources or learn more.
When visitors walk through the door, they step into a cozy living room, filled with inviting couches and comfortable armchairs. An advocate greets them and invites them to sit down to talk. There’s no paperwork, no formalities — just ears ready to listen to whatever the visitor might want to discuss.
“We just start with a conversation to identify what (a visitor’s) immediate needs are,” said Carla Maley, director of community engagement. “We can connect with a whole bunch of different community resources. And it isn’t just about giving phone numbers — we walk them through it ourselves.”
An adjoining room holds a desk with a phone, laptop and iPad if someone needs a place to apply for jobs or childcare assistance, attend virtual family court hearings or just have a safe space to make uninterrupted phone calls. The next room over is set up especially for kids, with brightly colored chairs around a low table and a wide array of art supplies, books, games and toys. If a woman needs a pick-me-up cup of coffee, there’s a stocked coffee cart; if she needs a snack, there’s a kitchen.
The accessible nature of the drop-in center is an essential part of reaching a wider range of people affected by domestic violence.
“People can easily find us. We don’t create barriers — they don’t have to call us for an appointment, there’s no waitlist,” Maley said. “It really is that drop-in approach — come sit with someone if you’re ready to talk.”
Serving family members and friends of women in domestic violence situations is an important part of the drop-in center’s ministry, too. Anyone experiencing domestic violence needs a strong support system, and advocates can help equip loved ones with resources and tools to best support that person. “So many families want to do the right thing, but they don’t know what it is,” Woolbright said.
Just the drop-in center’s very presence in the south St. Louis County community can help further the agency’s mission, Woolbright said.
“It’s our calling to not just help that individual woman who shows up at our door, whether it’s here or at the shelter, but to increase awareness (of domestic violence),” Woolbright said. “We’ve increased the awareness for the Assumption community, for the south St. Louis County community, for the state of Missouri. It has a ripple effect.”
The ACA’s 2022 theme was “Brothers and Sisters All” — which perfectly fits the way Saint Martha’s staff views anyone who walks through the center’s door.
“Everything we do is because we respect the dignity of every life in front of us,” Woolbright said.