A House of Refuge
After a night of beatings by her alcoholic mother, Dominique finally broke free from an abusive family. The breaking point came, she says, after her mother, given to bouts of rage, forced her to strip down, tried to suffocate her with a pillow and beat her so badly that marks from her ring were etched into her daughter’s face. Bloody and bruised, Dominique jumped out of a window to escape. “Enduring 15 to 16 years of abuse every single, every single day, my soul was shattered,” says Dominique, who is now living on her own, but still dealing with deep scars left by a childhood filled with violence and fear.
Dominique never returned home, but fortunately found a new home at Casa de Amparo, the nonprofit that has been nurturing abused, neglected, and at-risk children like her for more than 34 years. “It means house of refuge, literally,” says Casa’s Donna Greenbush. “It’s a refuge in terms of a safe place and a supportive environment, where you can go to get the support that you need to overcome the trauma that has happened to you in life. We’re providing that on so many different levels.” It is here that Dominique began to heal, and to hope for a better life.
Casa de Amparo, headed by executive director Sharon Delphenich, now offers six programs in Oceanside and at its new 11.4-acre Casa Kids Campus in San Marcos. Supporters have raised $11.3 to fund the campus, but $2.7 million is still needed to become debt-free. The campus houses the residential services program, where children live in home-like cottages while receiving therapeutic help that might include art and music therapy, coping skills, anger management, character building, and independent living skills that range, depending on the child’s age, from tying shoes to writing a resume. There’s daily physical activity and time for play, whether shooting baskets on the court, or playing tag on the backyard lawn. This spring, kids will plant their own produce in Lillian’s Garden, in memory of the late Lillian Sherman, a longtime school teacher. Her brother sold the site to Casa de Amparo, believing that Sherman, who dedicated her life to children, would have wanted to continue that legacy. A prominent feature in the garden is a stained glass door, brought from the previous shelter, an art project created by abused children who scribbled inspiring messages on the frame. “Seek happiness,” wrote one child; “Love and laugh and lift,” said another. Like the fledgling fruit trees taking root in Lillian’s Garden, the new campus even has room to grow, with vacant land that eventually can be used for expansion.
Casa de Amparo also has a child development center offering therapeutic child care and a preschool, along with parent education and family therapy, with special support for military families; a family visitation program to provide safe, supervised visits and promote healthy families; counseling services and the Young Parents Network for new parents who are 24 years old or younger. It is also the San Diego Chargers Courage House, part of the National Football League’s commitment to preventing child abuse through the Ed Block Courage House Network and Courage Award Foundation.
Dominique is especially thankful for New Directions, Casa’s transitional housing and support program for older teens who “age out” of foster care when they turn 18. Greenbush says 40 percent of those kids “will end up homeless, in jail, or on public assistance,” without help. Dominique is trying to beat the odds. She is now studying sociology at Mira Costa College, the first member of her family to attend college. She is also an intern with the school’s Extended Opportunity Programs and Services office, helping disadvantaged kids, including former foster teens like her, navigate life on their own. Her goal is to become a foster youth counselor, and, eventually, to “be the best mother I can be,” breaking the devastating cycle of child abuse and neglect. “I’m still trying to work through my past,” says Dominique, “but I can’t let it torture me anymore. I have to realize my past is not my future.” (760/754-5500, www.casadeamparo.org) ANDREA NAVERSEN