One fall evening 16 years ago, Stephanie Fox fled her home and, with her kids, ran 2 miles to a friend’s house. She pushed her baby son in a stroller with wheels that were falling off. She carried only a diaper bag and had no money and no car.

Fox ran because the abuse had become too much. It had been going on for some time. That’s not unusual, she says. It takes an average of seven instances of abuse — seven beatings — before the abused take action. On this night, Fox’s abuser struck her while she held her baby. That was her tipping point.

Fox and her four children, all under age 11, entered a shelter for victims of domestic violence. The steel door slammed behind them. With its concrete walls, the place seemed cold and institutional, she said. Frightened, traumatized and in shock, she took her place in line to be seen by a staff member. Her kids screamed. Staff members had to separate her older children from the rest of the family because the shelter had no available rooms to accommodate a mom with four kids.

It was the beginning of the family’s long and traumatizing journey. Fox endured severe abuse — “I was shot, beaten, left for dead,” she said. Twice she and her children entered shelters and both times ended up leaving without resolving the issues resulting from the abuse. Several times Fox could not access a shelter and had no place to stay, so she and her kids lived in a van in a Walmart parking lot or “couch surfed” at the home of “anyone who would take us in.”

To this day, she describes the process as defeating. It’s an experience no one should have to endure, she says. Four years ago, as director of operations for the Center for Victims, an organization that advocates and provides services for those who have experienced violence, she was in a position to make certain no one does. She got to work.

On Thursday afternoon, Fox, 48, sat on a padded couch in a spacious and colorful room and looked around, obviously pleased with the result of a yearslong effort to change the shelter experience for women and families fleeing abuse. The center’s new emergency shelter on the South Side is a bright and colorful place with no steel doors or concrete walls. Guided by her past experiences, Fox managed the shelter’s design and construction. Families here will have their own bathrooms and kitchenette. Children can access iPads and complete homework assignments on desks in their rooms.

“I hope it’s a game changer in the victim world,” said Fox. “Every victim will come in here and it will change their lives, and that’s all I wanted.”

The shelter includes play areas for kids, a shelter dog and a sensory/decompression room. Families can head upstairs to learn about trauma, begin the healing process and access a number of services.

The building’s second floor houses the Healing Rivers Project — an educational space that has the feel of a display at a children’s museum. Guests read and experience presentations that explore the impact of trauma from violence, abuse and stress.

“Some people may not realize they’ve experienced trauma,” said Gail Fleckenstein, the center’s director of healing. “What people don’t realize is that it affects your mind, your body and your spirit, and can cause severe health issues.”

Next to the educational presentations is a wellness area that includes various methods for women and children to begin the “journey of healing,” including aroma and music therapy.

Darnell Drewery, a trauma, education and wellness facilitator, in the wellness portion of the Healing Rivers Project. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

“You’re building resiliency and protective factors in your life,” said Darnell Drewery, a trauma, education and wellness facilitator. “We don’t get rid of trauma and stress, but we can build tools so that you can bounce back.”

Fox said some traditional shelters end up “re-victimizing” families. They offer no privacy, no places where “you can just be you.”

“Privacy in bedrooms important,” she said. “You don’t always want to come in and socialize, especially when you’re just entering. Sometimes you just want to breathe with your children.”

In addition, past shelters offered no opportunity for women and families to heal from the trauma they’ve experienced.

“I know we’ll correct that here,” Fox said. “We have an entire team here, trained trauma specialists and therapists, available 24/7. Outreach therapists are available. We have wellness top to bottom.”

Both she and center CEO Laurie MacDonald believe the shelter sets a new standard for offering a safe and healing space for those fleeing abuse.

“In this building, they can come to a shelter, see a therapist, their kids can see a therapist,” MacDonald said. “They can meet with legal advocates. We have a driver to take them to court hearings. We try to get people back on their feet, emotionally and financially, and give them the support they need to get on with their lives.”

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at