Nearly 40 people gathered and walked together down Frontage Road from Leif Hansen Memorial Park to the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center on Wednesday for the 11th Annual Alaskans Choose Respect Awareness Event, put on by The LeeShore Center.
The LeeShore Center provides services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, and has operated on the central Kenai Peninsula since 1985. Executive Director Cheri Smith said that this year’s walk was the return of the event after three years canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Alaskans Choose Respect event began 14 years ago, and is held statewide, she said.
“It was a prevention effort,” she said. “Throughout Alaska, different communities had walks such as this so that for one day out of the year, we all come together in our communities and talk about prevention — how important choosing respect is rather than violence.”
Smith attributed the turnout to the center’s strong relationships with community partners. Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Peter Micciche joined the walk, and Smith said that there were representatives from the District Attorney’s office, local law enforcement, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and others.
After the walk, Smith gave an update to attendees about the center’s attendance and activities. The central message from the center concerned a return to pre-pandemic numbers at the center and a renewed focus on community outreach and prevention education.
Smith shared information from victimization surveys performed every five years by the Council on Domestic Violence and Assault with the University of Alaska Anchorage.
In 2010, a little more than half of the women surveyed had experienced domestic violence or sexual assault — and she said the survey didn’t include women who were in emergency shelters.
In 2015, Smith said that the survey found lower numbers — indicating that statewide prevention efforts were working.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic happened, and Smith said that victims were stuck in their homes, unable to access help. That year, 58% of women surveyed said they had experienced domestic violence or sexual assault.
Before COVID-19, Smith said the center would shelter between 175 and 250 women and children each year. During the pandemic, in part because of CDC guidelines that reduced capacity, those numbers were lower — Smith said that in the last fiscal year, the center sheltered only 76 women and children.
That reduction extended to the number of calls they were getting, Smith said. Before the pandemic, the center averaged around 1,100 calls each year. The center received just over 300 in 2022.
During the pandemic, Smith said the center renovated a room with a standalone bathroom to support male victims — becoming gender inclusive for the first time. That room has already been used to support seven male victims in the last fiscal year.
In fiscal year 2023, the center has already surpassed the total number of bed nights from the year prior. Smith said that numbers are jumping back up to what they were before the pandemic.
“Numbers are now finally coming back and we’re really happy,” she said. “It means that victims feel safe enough now to either come to see us or they’re reaching out for help.”
Inpatient and Training Coordinator Ashley Blatchford gave an update on community prevention efforts being taken by the center in collaboration with community entities like the Peninsula Points on Prevention Coalition, Change 4 the Kenai and the Southcentral Alliance for Family Resilience.
“The most effective prevention that we can do is we can get parents and families those skills and abilities to build resilient kids who know how to handle it when things get tough,” she said. “We want the Kenai Peninsula to be the best Kenai Peninsula it can be — the safest, happiest place where our kids are going to grow up.”
Blatchford said the center has been collaborating with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s Sources of Strength and attending every Wednesday Market to get out in the community and connect with parents and kids.
Smith said that the major focus on prevention is relatively new for the center and other agencies.
“We deal with immediate crises, that’s what we are,” she said. But, just having a shelter in the community isn’t going to stop abuse from happening — it takes community effort. The center has expanded its prevention programming in recent years, and hired a prevention coordinator during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smith said that the center is there for those in need, and encouraged anyone who needs to speak with an advocate to call 907-283-7257.
For more information about The LeeShore Center, visit facebook.com/TheLeeShoreCenter or leeshoreak.org.
Reach reporter Jake Dye at email@example.com.