Plenty of people respect their mothers. Karen’s kids so revere her that they call her Wonder Woman.
“They buy me t-shirts, mugs – I’ve got every trinket that’s Wonder Woman-themed,” she laughed. “It’s the most endearing term they could ever use for me. I guess they see me as their hero because I battled the beast and I slayed the dragon and I protected them the whole way through.”
The beast and dragon was her ex-husband, whom she met as a teenager and married soon after. “My marital relationship was volatile from Day 1,” Karen recalled. “The abuse was verbal, emotional, physical, financial. He cheated constantly. The more I uncovered, the more violent and controlling he got. Two children and three houses later, we had our ‘ways,’ where you could feel that tension building and you knew something was going to happen. I felt suffocated, but I didn’t know who to tell, where to turn, what to do. I was so afraid to get the authorities involved, because he always told me, ‘I will kill you. I already know where I’ll bury you.”
Her hesitation ended the day he attacked her during an argument, just after she’d gotten out of the shower. She fled in only her towel and sped to her parents’ home nearby.
“I had never told anybody any of this was going on, because for the two of us, it was normal. I never thought whether the neighbors could hear. So when I got to my parents, I was still in my towel, shivering, screaming, ‘Let me in! Let me in!’” she said.
Her parents called the police, who retrieved Karen’s children from school and took them to a Safe House run by Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton’s Providence House Domestic Violence Services in Ocean County. Karen and her children stayed there a few weeks, until she secured a restraining order.
At Providence House, she and the children attended counseling and received specialized services. Providence House legal advocates accompanied Karen to her court dates as she petitioned for the restraining order. She participated in support groups and found comfort in learning that other women shared her struggle and grew stronger as they recovered. Providence House also ensured her family had happy holidays, providing gifts for the kids when Karen’s finances were tight.
“Providence House gave me a safe place to stay, clothing for the kids, food, everything we needed, even right down to the toys. My kids loved that they made friends there. It was like making the best of a bad situation,” she remembered. “If it was not for that support, I would still be in that relationship. Without everything they did for us, honestly from my heart, I would not be the person I am today.”
Even after they left the Safe House, Karen programmed Providence House’s 24/7 hotline into her phone.
“I always knew they were just a phone call away – and I did call,” she said. “There are a lot of gray areas, where I wouldn’t know if something violated the restraining order. I would see his car go by my house. Is that a violation? Because he’s allowed to drive in the street. So I would call the hotline. They were always so patient and kind.”
That was 17 years ago. Karen is now divorced and her kids are grown. But she feels so thankful for the life-saving services she received at Providence House that two years ago, she began organizing ongoing fundraisers and donation drives for them.
“I said from Day 1, when I stepped in that shelter, ‘If I ever get in a position where I can give back, I will,’” she said. It took a long time to do so, because her ex-husband battled her for custody until their children were grown, saddling her with legal costs that prevented Karen from fully reclaiming her life for years. Such financial abuse is a common control tactic of abusers, said Danielle Meyer, director of Providence House-Ocean.
Still, in just the past two years, Karen’s fundraisers, basket raffles, T-shirt sales and more have raised about $7,000 in cash and in-kind donations for Providence House-Ocean.
“The gratification I get from being able to give back to an organization that literally saved my life and my kids, there’s no price tag on that,” she said. “This is a very meaningful thing for me.”
All of Providence House’s confidential services are free, and the need for them is greater now than ever. Domestic violence has become a pandemic within the COVID-19 pandemic, because during community lockdowns and quarantines, victims were trapped at home with their abusers. That’s why Karen’s support is especially appreciated.
“Although COVID-19 affected most fundraisers, Karen pressed on, adapted to a virtual format and had her most successful event! Those funds couldn’t have come at a better time for Providence House. She is a superhero in our eyes as well!” said Rachel Johnston, Providence House-Ocean’s community affairs manager.
Karen is now engaged to a man she’s dated for six years. Her kids love him and see every day what a healthy relationship looks like. They see their mother’s strength, resilience, and unwavering support for them – and they add to Karen’s Wonder Woman collection.
“I’ve been fighting this fight, really, my whole life,” Karen said. “A relationship should not be prison. It should not be fear. It should not be horror. It should not be control. I’m free from all of that now. I just want happiness. And I have it.”