West Jordan • Jessie looked through a rack of business clothes on a Thursday afternoon. Just a few days after moving out of her home with her four daughters, she had to start from scratch.
Jessie had just gotten a no-contact order against her partner and left most possessions behind. After seeing a Facebook post about the Pretty Tough Ladies Resource Center and consulting with founder McKayla Julian, she got a voucher to shop for free clothes for her kids and herself.
“I appreciate it. I don’t have any clothes. I have nothing,” said Jessie, who asked to be identified only by her first name while discussing her need for aid. “…We had to leave the home because of the no-contact order.”
The center provided immediate help in a moment of need — and without the extensive questionnaires some social services require. Jessie left that day with various outfits, glittery sneakers for her children, hygiene products and information for her next steps.
Julian knows the importance of this. Some 2½ years ago, she found herself on the other side, escaping a domestic violence situation with her daughter and a couple of little bags.
“I was really scared, to be honest,” Julian recalled. “That was a time of my life where I thought it was over for me. I didn’t see a light at the end of that tunnel.”
She got help. Lots of it. Now she’s in a much happier place. Since that time, she has married and has another baby.
But living through that trauma took its toll. So when Julian got back on her feet, she decided to start a mental health support group for domestic violence survivors. A space adjacent to her West Jordan home, which she used as a photography studio, essentially became a refuge, playground and closet.
“I wanted to make a safe space for women to come to and feel like they can just really enjoy themselves,” she said, “and get away from the environment that they’re in where they’re not feeling safe.”
The first support meeting took place in April and attracted around 20 people she connected with on Facebook. It was more of a fun, supportive group chat among women, with a potluck included, than any conventional therapy. They repeated it every two weeks, identifying needs they could fill.
Julian started small, picking up a few items from her closet and posting about it on her personal social media accounts.
But that closet quickly grew. More and more donations came, and Julian received help from people in the community to serve the 60 women who usually came to the closet every week.
After a consultation, users get a voucher to shop at the closet for free. In it, there are business outfits for women, clothes for children and babies, and hygiene items. Those who access the services are allowed to shop every three months.
Though Pretty Tough Ladies started as an initiative for domestic violence survivors, Julian emphasized that the resources are for any woman or child in need.
“I don’t want people to feel like that if their story is different from mine, that we’re not going to help them,” she said. “We’re here for all women and children in need.”
The current space is similar to a store, with racks of clothing and toys. Every day, it seems, the center is advancing to the next level, including gaining nonprofit status in June. There is a lot of hard work but also a little serendipity.
“We don’t believe in having anything as a coincidence. There’s not such a thing,” Jamii Stock, who joined Julian as vice president of the center, said as she discussed how they have met with investors and even a carpenter willing to build shelves for free. “We were drawn to each other. We have similar stories, similar backgrounds, similar personalities, kids, all that. …. But people come out of the woodwork and they’re like, ‘I want to help you.’”
‘It has just brightened up my life’
One of them is Shoni Childrey, who now manages volunteering efforts for the center. Reading about Pretty Tough Ladies on Facebook reminded her of a show she had watched about a domestic abuse survivor.
“I brought in my donations and we just clicked, and I started volunteering here every week since May,” she said. “…When women are here shopping, or getting help, it’s just rewarding. Hearing their stories is really powerful. So it has just brightened up my life.”
Julian said the center’s biggest initiative focuses on mental health. The next move is to specialize support groups to address specific issues survivors might be enduring.
As the demand swells, organizers are looking to relocate the center and expand services. Future resources may include job interview preparations, resume building and emergency food provisions.
To Julian, though, what makes the most significant difference is the immediate impact that this kind of support offers — even to her.
“It’s crazy to think that my life was like that 2½ years ago, and here I am now. I never would have pictured this when I left my abuse,” she said. “So that’s another reason why I love what I do, because I get to talk to them and let them know that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.