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story.lead_photo.caption Theresa Aasen, who took over as executive director of the White River Women’s Shelter on July 26, 2018, said the transformed Jackson County Sheriff’s Office will provide for men and women better than the former two-story home in the community. The program serves Jackson, Lawrence, Randolph, Sharp and Woodruff counties. - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

The bars on the cells and concrete beds are gone; the former drunk tank is now a living room. Instead of a jail, it’s a place for abuse victims to find freedom.

The former Jackson County Sheriff’s Office was donated to the White River Women’s Shelter and transformed into a living space for victims of abuse.

“It doesn’t look like a jail inside anymore,” said Michelle Kieffer, president of the shelter board. “People will be amazed.”

Theresa Aasen, executive director of the shelter, said the jail was donated to the organization and renovated for women and men experiencing domestic violence, sexual assault and other crimes. The facility serves Jackson, Lawrence, Randolph, Sharp and Woodruff counties.

The shelter received more than $400,000 in grants to pay for the project.

The former shelter, which is now for sale, was in an old two-story home that had room for 16 beds, “and that was pushing it,” Aasen said.

The jail-turned-shelter has 26 beds available. Two cells were combined to create a bathroom.

“Basically, in the back, all the cells had concrete beds. Some [beds] were already removed. We rented a jackhammer. We jack-hammered the rest of those little puppies,” Aasen said, laughing. “What was formerly known as the drunk tank is now a family room.”

Two beds in the facility are available for male victims.

“We’ve had some male domestic-violence victims; they were downstairs before. Now we have a men’s area with their own living area, their own bathroom and shower,” she said.

Several of the rooms are dedicated in honor or memory of individuals, Aasen said.

The Lt. Patrick Weatherford Room is in memory of the Newport police officer shot in the line of duty in 2017.

Aasen said another room is dedicated to a victim of domestic violence, a Jackson County mother who was pregnant when she was stabbed to death by her abuser in front of her 10-year-old child.

“We helped the grandmother with victim-reparation assistance to help pay funeral costs,” Aasen said.

Aasen, who will celebrate her one-year anniversary July 27 as executive director of the organization, said the shelter project was in motion before she came on board in May 2018 as interim director.

The idea originated with Jackson County Sheriff David Lucas, who is also a member of the shelter’s board of directors. He said the $7 million, 110-bed jail opened in October 2017.

When the jail was under construction, “there was some question as to what was going to happen to the old jail when we moved out. We were tossing some ideas around, … and all of a sudden, it came to me that the shelter was needing a place,” he said. “I thought it would make a good shelter; it’s got kitchens, and cell blocks could be converted.”

Lucas said he walked a couple of blocks to the former shelter on Walnut Street and talked to the employees.

“I said, ‘We’re going to be moving into a new jail. … Have y’all ever considered trying to convert the old jail into a shelter?’”

Jackson County Judge Jeff Phillips said the property was acquired from the Jackson County Economic Development Bond Board, “and they didn’t want the old jail.”

Rather than tear it down, the county worked with the bond board to offer it to the women’s shelter.

“It was a lot of people working together trying to make everything better,” Phillips said. “That’s not a political statement; that’s the truth. You see a need and have something you can use, use it, if it’s going to help people.”

Kieffer said a “huge asset” for the shelter was Carrie McIntosh, community development coordinator for the White River Planning and Development District in Batesville.

McIntosh said the shelter received three grants, a $222,780 Community Development Block Grant through the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and two United States Department of Agriculture grants that totaled $200,000. Part of the grant money was used to hire Miller-Newell Engineers of Newport, Aasen said.

McIntosh also used the word “amazing” to describe the transformation of the former jail.

“To see it before — the first time I walked in there, the jail cells were literally graffitied with the most horrible stuff imagined. It stayed on the walls till the very end until they painted them.

“When I first walked in there, I was like, ‘There’s no way; there’s no way they can do this,’” McIntosh said. “When I walked into the ribbon-cutting, I literally got tears in my eyes. I said, ‘I can’t believe this is the same building.’”

Because a sprinkler system had to be installed, Aasen said bids were taken, and Bell Construction of Little Rock was hired as the lower bidder. The company contracted the plumbing work, sprinkler-system installation and other projects.

Other than that, Aasen said, “it’s really just been a lot of volunteers” who worked on the project. She said members of two Newport organizations, John 3:16 and Cornerstone, volunteered their time to paint.

“Natalie Moon, vice president of our board, was here day and night patching holes,” she said, adding that Kieffer was integral to the project, too.

Kieffer said the hard work paid off.

“It’s been an experience, but it’s worth every single ounce of effort the board has put into it,” Kieffer said. “We all have the same mission in mind, to help the people in our community and surrounding communities. For us to be able to meet those needs is amazing.”

An open house was held in June to let the community tour the renovated facility.

Although locations of a women’s shelter are typically confidential, Aasen said this is a special situation.

“We are a small-town community, and everybody knew we were renovating the old Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. The board decided to have a ribbon-cutting and an open house. They really wanted people to see what we’ve accomplished,” she said. “We had a lot of community support. We wanted them to let them see what their hard work had done for us.”

Plus, Aasen and Kieffer said it couldn’t be a more secure facility.

“Since we’re in a former jail, we have the security measures in place. I even left the razor wire on the back fence,” Aasen said. “All the security measures make me feel better for my residents and my staff. The doors are always locked, and there are security cameras outside. We’re real close to the Newport Police Department. They’re always wonderful helping us.”

Kieffer echoed Aasen’s comments.

“The shelter sits right across from the Newport Police Department; their front door looks at our front door. Nobody’s going to be able to get in [the shelter]. We’ve taken every precaution,” she said.

Aasen said sometimes a victim doesn’t want to stay in the community where the abuse has happened, and the staff coordinates with other shelters, in those cases.

Residents receive several services while they are in the shelter.

“We help them develop a budget plan, find a job, find housing,” Aasen said. “We try to meet the clients wherever they are. Whatever the clients want to do is what we help them with. Sometimes they come in and are just trying to figure it out. They’ve never been allowed to work; they don’t have those skill sets.”

Residents often want to earn their GED, she said.

The length of stay is based on “whatever their goals are,” she said. “We’ve had people here over six months.”

Counseling is a big part of their stay, too, she said.

“Most women blame themselves: ‘If I just do this, this and this, or do this better, I can make this marriage work.’ A lot of women do that. Abusers are really good at stripping people of their self-esteem and self-worth and never take any responsibility for it.

“That’s what we’re here to do, is help these women or men figure it out. Here the person that is supposed to love you and takes those vows with you is the person hounding you and beating you up and making you feel like you’re just worthless. Love doesn’t just shut off right away.”

If the abuse victims have children, it’s often harder to leave because of financial considerations, Aasen said. “How am I going to clothe them? How am I going to feed them?”

Aasen said she sees many success stories.

“I’m thinking of an individual, a mother, who had been in a really bad relationship for quite some time, and she came into our shelter. She was trying to do it on her own and, eventually just ran out of resources. She was getting services through outreach — food packages, things like that. [Domestic violence] just got too hard,” Aasen said. “She came into the shelter and was able to find employment, find housing and is living on her own, taking care of her kids and is free of the cycle of violence. She’s not having to deal with that anymore.”

The shelter is not full now, Aasen said.

“We never turn anyone away without offering them resources and helping place them somewhere else,” she said.

In case of an emergency, she said, the shelter would let someone stay on a couch until arrangements could be made with another shelter.

Aasen said the reality is that abuse victims sometimes go back home before they leave their abuser for good.

“We safety-plan with them,” she said. “We’re here.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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