MERS Goodwill Hometown Hero: Christina Holmes

There are many facts surrounding domestic violence: one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, most violent acts happen between 6pm and 6am; without help, girls who witness domestic violence are more vulnerable to abuse as teens and adults.

One fact that goes unsaid is that women who experience domestic violence feel powerless; trapped in the cycle of abuse with nowhere to turn to get out. Thanks to Christina Holmes at MERS Goodwill, St. Louis-area victims of domestic violence have another resource to help work toward an abuse-free life.

Christina is the Program Director of ACCESS, a program of MERS Goodwill that provides employment services to victims of domestic violence. Many of these victims do not have the financial capabilities or support from family and friends to leave a violent relationship. ACCESS assists victims with job readiness training, including properly filling out job applications, developing cover letters and resumes for potential employers, conducting interview training, and facilitating proper attire and transportation to interviews.

Studies show that victims of domestic violence attempt an average of seven times to leave their situation before giving up for good; employment is the fastest and most sure way to short circuit this cycle. Since taking the helm of ACCESS in 2010, Christina as seen over 500 victims of domestic violence go through the program and she knows for a fact that her role goes beyond providing the knowhow and support to help those individuals become financially independent: “It’s not just about helping people find jobs, it’s about saving lives,” she said.

Christina’s first experience working with victims of domestic violence was as an intern with St. Martha’s Hall Domestic Violence Shelter in 2007. There, she saw first-hand the debilitating threat women experience while in a violent relationship. She recalls, “I watched battered women barely make it through the shelter doors at night and could feel that moment when they’re just so happy to breathe and relax and not worry about their abuser.”

Then, in April of 2007, Christina joined MERS Goodwill in the role of a Career Assistance Manager where she was involved in the “Welfare to Work” program. Christina provided one-on-one counseling to her clients, including single parents, in exploring and eliminating the barriers to self-sufficiency. There, Christina found her niche in empowering survivors of domestic violence. In 2010, Mark Arens, Executive Vice President of MERS Goodwill, and Lewis C. Chartock, Ph.D., President and CEO of MERS Goodwill, established a pilot program that would eventually become ACCESS and needed a qualified specialist to take on the role as the program’s director. After unsuccessfully searching for nearly nine months, Mark reconnected with Christina and knew she would be a great fit for the role.

“We were just starting to gain momentum with the new program and needed an individual who represents a great balance of compassion and a strong sense of leadership,” said Mark. “Christina has a great passion for this work, along with good head on her shoulders. She knows the management piece, the fiscal piece, how to market the program and how to connect with other providers in the area that provide an array of support for these victims.”

Under Christina’s leadership, ACCESS has expanded its partnerships with area domestic service providers from just one to nearly 15. Christina notes that victims are more likely to share their history with professionals at domestic violence agencies, which is why partnering with counseling agencies and shelters in the area has been instrumental to the program’s success.

“At the end of the day, Goodwill is not known for its domestic violence services,” Mark said. “Christina has been able to effectively communicate our program’s goals with other service providers in the area so we’re not replicating services to domestic violence victims.”

Part of Christina’s efforts include her involvement with the Missouri Coalition for Domestic Violence Board Membership Community. As the St. Louis Regional Representative, Christina meets with the Coalition staff and other service providers in the area to ensure the same concerns are shared. Thanks to the generous financial support from The Simon Foundation, Christina has been instrumental in working to secure federal government funding sources and is currently behind the Victims Employment Safety and Security Act (VESSA), legislation that would provide survivors time off work and help maintain employment if they need to miss work to attend court dates, for example.

Along with having area agencies and service providers know about ACCESS, Christina said the public should also be aware that MERS Goodwill is more than its stores.

“A lot of people don’t realize their donations go back to these training programs,” Christina said. “It’s not just about cleaning out your closet. By donating and buying items, you’re helping provide jobs both within and outside of the stores, and funding resources that are truly helping people rebuild their life.”

It is fitting that this month, which is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, St. Louis Ending Violence Against Women Network (SLEVAWN) will honor Christina as a Domestic Violence Agency Advocate during the Women’s Champion for Social Change Breakfast on October 23 at the Richmond Heights Community Center. The event recognizes “companies, organizations and individuals for their work in championing social change for survivors of intimate partner violence.”

For more information about the MERS Goodwill ACCESS program, call 314-647-7453.