Domestic abuse is not something that just happens in large cities.
“When we moved to Monticello six years ago, I thought, ‘Really? No. We chose to move here because this is a low-crime, easy laid back country setting. (Domestic abuse) seems like a strange thing to put all of your energy into in an area like this,” Rachel LeJeune said.
As LeJeune went through advocate training with Willow Tree Missions, a Christian organization dedicated to eliminating Domestic Violence in Piatt County, she witnessed how domestic violence is in small towns, too.
“The State’s Attorney was on her phone off and on during training getting emergency updates on a murder suicide that was taking place just outside of a residence in Monticello,” she said.
“It is a perfect example of domestic violence in our town,” she continued. “It didn’t occur to me that it was a domestic violence situation; it was just a murder/suicide.”
“The woman had been physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and financially abused by her husband for years, and when she finally decided to seek help, he killed her and killed himself. It was an abusive situation, she just wasn’t someone who had shown up with black eyes or broken wrists.”
For 10 years now, Willow Tree Missions has sought to help women and men in Piatt County get out of abusive environments by providing them with an exit plan, legal support, advocacy and resources so they can lead a healthy lifestyle.
When the organization started, it was a resale shop in Cisco that collected donations and sold clothing and household items for $.50.
Soon, that resale shop outgrew its Cisco location and relocated to Monticello. With the support of community members, the resale shop was able to support a domestic violence program. Now, Willow Tree Missions also runs a domestic abuse shelter.
LeJeune said another component of the mission is helping teenagers understand domestic abuse and what a healthy relationship looks like from the beginning.
“You fight against teen dating abuse by having teens come in and serve at an anti-abuse establishment,” she said. “They learn about domestic abuse, healthy relationships, we give them pledge care and we identify safe adults they can talk to if they are in an unsafe situation.”
For some teenagers who have grown up in an abusive household, they don’t know that’s not a normal environment, LeJeune said.
Throughout the United States, 1 in 4 women, 1 in 5 men and 1 in 3 teenagers are victims of abuse. But only 1 percent of the abuse is reported.
And Willow Tree Missions has found that those statistics apply to Piatt County, too.
“Some of the differences might be the good ol’ boy network gets in the way,” LeJeune said.
“If you identify an abuser and you ask anyone except his victim they will say, ‘He’s the nicest guy you will meet.’ “There’s a reason for that,” she said. “They isolate their victims, they make their victims feel crazy, they make their victims look and feel alone because that’s how they keep power and control over them.”
“That’s how they keep them in their grip. That how they keep them attached to them and dependent on them; by making everyone else in the world think that they’re the greatest person in the world and their victim looks crazy.”
According to LeJeune, the mental and emotional abuse is so much harder than the physical because people believe the victim if they are wearing bruises, but when the victim does not have physical marks, people question and doubt the victim.
Domestic abuse victims often don’t know where to begin if they are considering or are ready to leave their partner. Because a victim is so dependent upon their abuser, they are often without resources to support themselves or their children.
Another issue for victims is that their support system, their family or friends, has abandoned them because they have tried to leave so many times, only to return to the abusive situation.
Advocates at Willow Tree Missions become the support team the victims need to begin the process of leaving.
Within a legal system that requires paperwork to be in order, the advocates ensure the paperwork is in order and can help the victim get an immediate protection order.
“(The victims) are asked to be perfect in their moment of crisis,” LeJeune said. “When you’re in crisis the absolute worst thing that you can be asked to do is sit down and fill out a stack of paperwork and not make any mistakes.”
Willow Tree Missions helps victims with gas to get to their job, groceries, and clothing, among other financial help the victim may need. They also help with diapers, formula, housing assistance and WIC so the victim can take care of their children.
“When you’re in crisis, all you know is what is in front of you right now,” LeJeune said.
“Advocates can zoom out and have eyes on the bigger picture so the victim can be in the moment and not have to be thinking and stressing about everything else in their life.”
LeJeune said that sometimes domestic abuse victims are not ready to leave their situation. But Willow Tree Missions will help that victim come up with an exit plan.
The organization will help the victim become familiar with their home so they know how to get out of the house quickly or are not trapped, will help them identify any weapons in the house and gather the documents they will need should they choose to leave.
“When they are in a place where they are fearing for their lives, they don’t think about that,” LeJeune said. “If we can get connected ahead of time, it equips them to be successful.”
“One of our favorite things to do is load up a victim who just got out on their own and has a new place,” she said.
“We’re all in tears all the time. That’s like a party for us. Giving them a fresh start and a clean break.”
When LeJeune did not expect when she became shop manager of the resale space is how selling items would bring people together.
“People’s lives have been changed through community service,” she said.
When a t-shirt is donated to Willow Tree Missions, it becomes more than a t-shirt. It becomes a volunteer opportunity for someone who sorts the shirts; it becomes an employment opportunity for the person working the cash register; it becomes a shirt a domestic abuse victim may wear, and it becomes an income avenue for the organization.
Volunteers log 1000 to 1200 hours of service every month.
“There’s a lot of evil in the world; there are a lot of dark and ugly things in the world, LeJeune said. “You can feel hopeless or you can fight against it. And we believe you fight against it with good.”
LeJeune became the Director of Operations at Willow Tree Missions this summer. She said the organization will continue to grow in their services related to domestic violence by focusing on prevention, education, aiding and assisting and long-term recovery.
Although the resale shop supports the services of Willow Tree Missions right now, LeJeune said the group is exploring different sources of income to continue to serve Piatt County.
“The people genuinely want to help others,” she said. Sometimes, they don’t have time or don’t know how.”
In February, Willow Tree Missions hosted a Trivia Night to raise money. On October 22, Monarch Brewing Company will host another trivia night to benefit Willow Tree Missions and Faith in Action.
Donations are also accepted through the website at http://willowtreemissions.org/donate/.
“Every time someone gives just a little: whether it’s a staff member, a donor, a volunteer or even a victim, I believe God takes that and multiplies that times a thousand.”