Southeast women's shelter turns 35

AWARE continues mission of dealing with domestic violence holistically
Saralyn Tabachnick, executive director of AWARE, left, and shelter manager Mandy O'Neal Cole, talk about the importance of having a safe place for women and children. The shelter has been open for 35 years in Juneau.

Saralyn Tabachnick was given three things when she took over as the executive director of the AWARE shelter.


“One was a plunger. One was a Far Side cartoon with the devil at two doors and one door says, ‘damned if you do’ and the other says, ‘damned if you don’t.’ The third thing was a Magic 8 Ball,” Tabachnick recounted.

Her Magic 8 Ball couldn’t have predicted the changes she’d see over the next 26 years.


Listening to both sides

It’s been 35 years since the organization, Aiding Women In Abuse and Rape Emergencies, started helping women from Juneau to Pelican to Yakutat and everywhere in between. The shelter doesn’t take in male victims of abuse, but does offer referrals to other programs. How organizations like AWARE deal with domestic and sexual violence situations has evolved a lot, Tabachnick said. The turning point for how she thought about perpetrators came during a court case against a man who was convicted for sexual abuse against a minor. She was relatively new to AWARE and was working with children at the time.

“The judge said to him, ‘You’re not a bad person, but what you did is not okay and for safety you need to be in prison,’” Tabachnick said. “It really shifted things for me. This wasn’t a bad person and this is about safety and I so appreciated how the judge respectfully spoke to him as a human being. That made a shift for me.”

About 10 years ago, a batterers prevention program that AWARE had been partnered with lost its funding. The Juneau Choice and Accountability program offers a 26-week program and a 52-week program for male perpetrators of domestic violence. The programs require a lot of commitment from both the participant and AWARE. Tabachnick said funding competition between victim services or batterer intervention programs seemed to prevent one from integrating with the other.

“The answer was always victims first,” Tabachnick said. “But if every woman came to AWARE it wouldn’t stop the violence. What would stop the violence is if abusive men stop their behavior.”

It took some time for AWARE to decide to bring the program under its umbrella, but it’s a decision Tabachnick said was a good one.

Since coming to AWARE about 8 years ago, Mandy O’Neal Cole has interacted with victims as well as the perpetrators of domestic violence in her capacity as the shelter’s direct services manager. She said that working with perpetrators of domestic violence helps her better understand what a victim is dealing with and how to help both people.

“It really does help to meet someone and connect with them,” O’Neal Cole said. “Most people want to be good partners and good fathers and have healthy families.”

In addition to providing services to victims, O’Neal Cole said part of her job is to help the perpetrator be the person they want to be.

“At the core, we’re all people, and all people are complicated and all people benefit from examining their behavior,” O’Neal Cole said. “We benefit from having someone say, ‘Hey, that didn’t work. Not for you, not for her and maybe we can think of another way.’ Really, those benefits that people get from using violence are so short-term and fleeting and end up not being advantages in the end. Many of the guys see that pretty quickly.”


Expanding partnerships

When O’Neal Cole began working with victims about 13 years ago, she said it wasn’t as common for a shelter program to collaborate with other service providers.

“There was a sense that we worked so hard to protect victims’ confidentiality that we weren’t so sure we wanted to share that with others,” O’Neal Cole said. “Over time we’ve really learned that not only can you provide confidentiality and use other providers, but that you have to. A month-long stay at the shelter isn’t going to get you the childcare that you need, public assistance benefits and job skills. We can’t do it all. We have to trust and make those relationships solid with our partners to make sure women get all the help that they need.”

Legal advocacy services have become a major part of what AWARE offers to victims. O’Neal Cole said legal advocates are responsible for helping victims through the process of filing for protection orders or custody. The advocate can also help a victim navigate the court system.

“You might think that your job is over once you call the police, but it certainly is not,” O’Neal Cole said. “There are a lot of things that need to happen for a prosecution to happen.”

Part of expanding services at AWARE has meant including men as staff members who not only work with male perpetrators, but also with the female victims.

“This would not have happened maybe ten years ago. We have men who work directly with victims in the shelter,” O’Neal Cole said. “That is one change that I couldn’t have seen ten years ago.”

“When we talked about what men’s role in movement was, the answer was men’s role was to work with men,” Tabachnick added.

“Now we’ve really come to see our shelter is often full of little boys,” O’Neal Cole continues. “Little children who benefit so much from seeing a healthy man talking to their mothers with respect, carrying babies around, playing games after school. It’s really beautiful, actually. I don’t think I could describe it as anything else.”


The next ten years

The 32-bed AWARE emergency shelter is nearly full right now. While the facility is supposed to be available to victims for 30 days until they’re able to secure safe independent housing, most women and their children often stay longer, Tabachnick said. She said the shelter has seen a significant increase in the last two years in the number of shelter nights provided.

“In part I think people are talking more about domestic violence, sexual assault and gender violence. Which I think is making a big difference,” Tabachnick said. “It’s a good thing to be able to talk about it and take the shame away and take the self-blame away.”

O’Neal Cole said offering victims transitional housing, as opposed vouchers for housing, would be most helpful to victims in need of more support after leaving the emergency shelter. Aside from the housing shortage in Juneau, she said some victims come across stumbling blocks like being unable to find consistent childcare or reliable transportation. Those barriers, she said, can make it difficult for a victim to maintain independent housing.

“Those of us with resources can call a cab if our car breaks down or if the bus is late. I can tell my boss that I’m going to be late,” O’Neal Cole said. “There are lots of folks in town who don’t have that ability, so they lose their jobs because of childcare and transportation issues.”

Despite the tangible need for more resources, O’Neal Cole and Tabachnick want to see the future of AWARE in a more ideal way.

“I just want Juneau to be safer,” Tabachnick said.

“Ideally we’d like to do this less, right?” O’Neal Cole added. “Our prevention efforts and the community’s efforts would gain a foothold and we’d have less women and children who need emergency shelter. I don’t think any child should have to sleep a night in a bed that’s not their own.”

• Contact reporter Jennifer Canfield at 523-2279 or at Follow her on Twitter at


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