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Book of Dreams: 10 tries to escape abusive relationship. One Modesto agency’s help

It wasn’t the first time Kathryn Reyes had tried to leave her abusive relationship. It wasn’t even the fifth. It would, however, be the last.

“I had left 10 times,” said Reyes, who still tears up when talking about her experience 25 years ago. Then living in Barstow, Reyes had three children, ages 5, 7 and 8.

But this time was different: Reyes encountered Haven Women’s Center of Stanislaus. The nonprofit organization has served survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse since 1977. Reyes’ sister lived in Modesto, so this is where she and her children escaped.

“Haven saved my life,” she said. “For the first time in eight years, I felt safe.”

Staffers at Haven helped Reyes get a restraining order and obtain legal and physical custody of her children. They brought the family clothing. After four months in Haven’s shelter, Reyes got into an apartment, and Haven provided help with appliances and furniture and therapy.

And Christmas.

“They bought our first year Christmas presents,” Reyes said. “And not just for the children. They brought me a gift; it was a bath set.”

She said it was really special to get a gift just for her, and she will never forget how it made her feel.

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“They gave me my power back,” she said. “They helped me teach my children not to be victims.”

The lessons were so powerful that one of those children – Jennifer Spankowski – now serves on Haven’s board.

Spankowski said Haven provided a sense of normalcy and structure for her mom and siblings, something that was unfamiliar to them.

“And meeting other kids who had been in a similar scenario was really helpful,” she said.

Haven wasn’t just about providing a safe place to stay, and that made all the difference, Spankowski said. “You think that’s the end of the story, but they do so much more to help (clients) have a healthier life.”

(Donate to A Book of Dreams)

That’s one of the main messages CEO May Rico said she would like to get across.

“People tend to think of us as just a shelter for victims of domestic violence,” she said.

While emergency shelter is among the services Haven offers, it’s only one of many. And even the shelter has changed over the years, with rooms designed to house families together and provide some privacy. Haven also works with local hotels to house clients when the shelters are full, so they don’t have to turn away anyone in crisis. And pets are welcome.

“You don’t have to leave your pet to be safe,” Rico said. In the past, that’s been a hurdle for many victims.

Haven also provides rental assistance, a school-based program for youth and support groups. And all of the services are open to people regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or immigration status.

Part of the organization’s mission, Rico explained, is to be more proactive and that’s what the youth programs are designed to do. “We know that statistically, when we are in a group of young people, a percentage of them have experienced violence.” The youth programs teach violence prevention and empowerment skills and provide general information about how to be safe.

“We’re teaching people to be agents of social change.” Rico said.

As for Reyes, the help she got through Haven set her on a course to achieve more than she would have at one time thought possible. She started working for Burger King, then eventually went into municipal government and now works for the city of Newman. She is remarried to an “awesome man,” as Spankowski described her stepdad.

“She’s just a very, very strong woman,” Spankowski said of her mom. “And Haven was a vital, life-saving component of that.”

To donate to A Book of Dreams, go to

About Haven Women’s Center:

Based in downtown Modesto, Haven operates in several locations throughout Stanislaus County, including residences, homes, and with partner agencies. Haven also has staff at California State University, Stanislaus.

Your donation can mean:

$100 provides a night in a hotel for a victim

$20 provides a food basket for an individual or family escaping an abusive situation

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