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(From left) Laura Straw, chair of the Northwoods Coalition for Family Safety board, and Andrea Yardley Kingbird, interim director of the coalition’s shelter, hang new curtains in an upstairs bedroom of the refurbished building in Bemidji. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Northwoods Coalition’s shelter building and programs improved

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BEMIDJI — After a five-month hiatus, Northwoods Coalition for Family Safety plans to become fully operational once again; reborn as a more knowledgeable and nurturing place.

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The coalition has helped victims of domestic violence for 35 years — offering shelter, counsel and a listening ear. Although its shelter is located somewhere in Bemidji, the specific address is confidential in order to protect those who need it.

During the break, the shelter portion of the coalition’s services was partially suspended, instead offering vouchers or referrals to those looking for an alternate place to stay. But when the shelter reopens sometime in November, people who take refuge in the building will find new floors, redone bathrooms, new beds and a new security system. Apart from just the physical changes, they’ll find a change in atmosphere, too.

Andrea Yardley Kingbird has been the shelter’s interim executive director since July. Changes at the Northwoods Coalition’s shelter reflect a broader trend in domestic violence response toward less rigidity at shelters and more caring for individuals, she said.

“(In) shelters throughout the state, and throughout the country, there’s… this movement towards ‘voluntary services,’” Kingbird said. “How can we make it more welcoming to the women and children that we’re serving here in the shelter?”

A greater emphasis on “voluntary services,” Kingbird explained, means stronger acknowledgement of the fact the women and families who stay at shelters do so of their own free will.

 “Once you start to move away from all these very specific rules, it really creates a better environment,” she said.

One small example of the new empowerment for residents is the added safety and freedom because of new security locks on bedroom doors. Before, people staying at the shelter had to contact a staff person if they wanted their room locked or unlocked, because only staff had keys, Kingbird said. With the new keypad locks, the residents have more control over when their rooms are secure — all they need is the combination.

“That’s really exciting… just giving people independence while they’re here,” she said.

Kingbird said it was personally important to her that residents feel welcome when they come to the shelter house.

“It’s not, of course, ideal to be in a shelter,” she said. “I want it to be comfortable and comforting.”

In addition to a remodeled building and a gentler atmosphere, staff also now is better equipped to help those in need, Kingbird said. Employees spent part of the five-month break undergoing training in “institutional advocacy,” or helping domestic violence victims make their way through the courts and other institutions they may have to deal with, Kingbird said.

Laura Straw, chair of the coalition’s board, said a specific reopening date has yet to be determined, but the goal is sometime before Thanksgiving.  She could sense the staff was already excited to reopen, though.

“The new energy in this place is incredible,” Straw said.

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