By Jill I. Solimini, Enquirer contributor
One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.
Centers such as the Abuse and Rape Crisis Shelter of Warren County (ARCS) provide a safe haven for these victims, and the centers count on the support of volunteers like Lynne and Bill Wilkinson.
ARCS provides sheltered families with a safe place to live while they make important decisions about their futures. Each resident works to set directions and goals that meet their individual needs and circumstances. ARCS helps them find a new place to live, but it does not furnish the home.
That’s where Lynne and Bill come in.
The Wilkinsons’ story is simple. When Lynne and Bill moved to Mason 10 years ago, they tried to donate their used couches to the shelter but were told about a resident who had recently moved out and would be able to use them. They offered to use their truck to deliver the couches directly to her apartment. This experience opened their eyes to an enormous need that they now fill through the organization they created, The Gracious Giving Network.
“These women are starting from scratch,” Bill says. “Often times they have had to leave in a hurry and must leave everything behind.”
“At first, we really didn’t understand their situation,” Lynne says. “When we brought the couches to the apartment that day, the woman was so thankful that she and her son would not have to sleep on the floor anymore. My first thought was, ‘We can do better than this.’ ”
Lynne and Bill typed up a flier asking for donations and passed it out in their neighborhood. They were overwhelmed with the response and were thrilled to receive enough furnishings for two full apartments. With the help of some neighbors, they were able to fully furnish that first family’s apartment.
“Not only were we helping this woman,’’ Lynne recalls, “we were recycling items that people did not want anymore.”
Time and time again, Lynne has heard people say they want to donate things, but they don’t know where to give them, or they want to know where their things are going.
And over time, many of these people have become part of the network of donors that Lynne and Bill turn to when a woman is ready to move out on her own. Through word of mouth, the list has grown to include more than 250 donor families.
Ten years ago, an old set of couches set off a chance encounter that led the Wilkinsons down this path. Today, it is simply a part of their life.
When a woman gets close to leaving the shelter, she is asked to make a wish list of the items she will need. The shelter sends the list to Lynne, and she emails the wish list to her donor list and waits for responses. As donations come in, she creates a pick-up route and map. When the woman’s move-in date is finalized, Bill and other volunteers pick up the furniture and household items and bring them directly to the woman’s new home.
And it has become a family effort as the Wilkinsons’ three daughters each take on roles. Madelyn, a sophomore, Kathryn, a sixth-grader, and Caroline a fourth-grader, often help set up the apartments and especially enjoy working on the kids’ rooms.
“I’m big into organizing,” Kathryn says. “I love getting the rooms set up for the kids.”
“I like to see the little kids when we move them in. I just love to see them smile,” says Caroline.
For Madelyn’s silver award project for Girl Scouts, she organized a book drive, raised funds and built a book shelf for the kids in the shelter. The children can choose books from the donations and take them when they leave the shelter.
Kathryn and Caroline, also both Girl Scouts, have spread the word when selling cookies and were each able to solicit 70 boxes that they donated to the families in the shelter. Kathryn’s troop also put together toiletry baskets while Caroline’s troop assembled shoe boxes full of trinkets for children leaving the shelter.
Madelyn says, “What we do has a good impact and it gives me perspective. It makes you feel good inside. We cut out the middle man and get the items these people need right to them.”
“We never set out to do this – it just evolved,” says Bill who, because he was raised by a single mom, has a special perspective.
“When I was growing up we had people who helped us. I always talk to the kids … and tell them that someday they will be in a position to pay this back and to be sure that they do. Without a dad around, I relied on role models, and I try to be one for these kids, even if for a brief time.”
“The one thing these women all share is courage,” he adds. “Sometimes it can be easier to stay at home and deal with the abuse rather than think about going out on your own. The first three months is the most vulnerable time for them. It is during this time that we are focused on giving them a furnished home to help them transition to a life of independence and dignity.”
“I used to worry when we were moving a family in, that I hadn’t been able to get all the things they needed,” says Lynne. “It’s amazing, but more than once we have had last minute calls with donations that we desperately needed.”
Bill and Lynne recently rented a small storage space so that they could accept some donations early instead of picking everything up on move-in day. Their dream is to have enough space to stage the furniture to fill one or two apartments ahead of time.
He admits that he is the dreamer and that Lynne keeps him grounded.
“I think about becoming incorporated as a 501(c)(3) and adding more services, but at this point it is about continuing the work we are already doing and raising our family. In the meantime, we are planning our last 10-15 years of work so that we are able to continue this charity work full time in retirement.”
Raising a family with three active children is no easy task. In addition to being a Girl Scout, Madelyn plays the clarinet in the Mason High School Marching band and logs almost 400 hours of practice a year. In her free time she enjoys drawing and is a talented jewelry designer.
Kathryn takes acro, jazz, ballet and lyrical at Cunningham Dance and enjoys playing the guitar. She is an avid lover of animals and the outdoors and enjoys spending time with her family. Caroline takes tap, ballet, acro and jazz at Cunningham Dance and also tumbles at Gymnation. She enjoys playing outside – especially on her trampoline. The family is completed by a dog, a chinchilla and five fish.
Like all families raising children, the Wikinsons are busy – but not too busy, Lynne says.
“It is important to remember each person can really make a difference. If you are passionate about something, you will find the time you need.”
The Gracious Giving Network is able to help women in crises transition from a life abuse to a life of self-sufficiency and dignity. For a full list of needed items, contact Bill and Lynne Wilkinson at firstname.lastname@example.org. In addition to gently used furniture and household items, they also accept cleaning and household supplies, tool kits, medicine kits and toiletries. Volunteers willing to help move furniture are always needed. Also, any leads on companies willing to donate warehouse space in the Greater Mason area would be greatly appreciated.