By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
A founder of the Hi-Line's first domestic violence prevention program will join the ranks of hundreds of people around the globe being honored this month for their work to end violence against women and girls.
Judi Gomke, 59, will be presented the Vagina Warrior Award for her work helping to start Hi-Line's Help for Abused Spouses in 1979.
The Vagina Warrior Award is given out by V-Day, a nonprofit organization founded by Eve Ensler, the playwright of "The Vagina Monologues." The play, which will be coming to Havre Feb. 19-21, helps raise awareness about sexual and domestic violence, and helps fund anti-violence programs in the communities where it is put on.
Through V-Day, local volunteers and college students produce annual benefit performances of "The Vagina Monologues." Proceeds from the play fund local anti-violence groups, and a percentage goes to a program of V-Day's choosing. The organization has raised more than $20 million since its inception six years ago.
V-Day is also the name of a global campaign aimed at changing social attitudes toward violence against women. The "V" in V-Day stands for victory, valentine and vagina. During V-Day, which is set for Feb. 14, women will mobilize in communities and on college campuses around the world to educate others about the realities of violence against women and girls. The Havre performance of "The Vagina Monologues" is part of the local V-Day campaign.
Gomke will be presented with the award after the Feb. 21 show, and her name will be displayed alongside this year's other Vagina Warrior Award winners on the group's Web site.
Given out every year in communities that put on the play, the award recognizes people who have been active at a grass-roots level in working to end violence against women and girls, said Margaret Meggs, director of ReSPONSE. ReSPONSE is a Montana State University-Norther campus-based agency that provides education about relationship violence and refers victims to other local service organizations.
Meggs said she helped select Gomke for the award.
"I thought Judi would be the perfect person, not because she's the only one, but because she is representative of a whole group of people who started helping women get out of abusive situations before there was a formal program ... to do that on the Hi-line," Meggs said. "Now there are several programs along the Hi-Line and across the state to help people, but 30 years ago there weren't."
Before 1979, Gomke said, the only women's shelter between Minneapolis and Seattle was the Mercy Home in Great Falls.
With the support of her church, Gomke and three other Hi-Line women - Yvonne Hunnewell of Chester, Sharon Pollington of Kremlin and Esther Meldrum of Joplin - started the Hi-Line's Help for Abused Spouses, each putting up $5 to get the program registered as a nonprofit organization.
"A lot of people thought our husbands beat us," and that the organization was a support group, Gomke said. "But we just simply wanted to offer an alternative to violence."
None of them knew what a long road lay ahead, Gomke said.
"If we'd known how elaborate it was to become, we'd have never had the courage to start."
For about the first six months, before local churches and service organizations began to offer financial support, there was no funding beyond what the four could provide.
"Absolutely everything came out of our pockets," Gomke said.
The organization served an area that stretched from Poplar to Browning, an area where cultural and geographic factors make abuse a particularly insidious problem. Everyone knows everyone else in rural areas, and this creates social pressure against acknowledging a problem and trying to get help, Gomke said.
"For a long time people turned their heads to it," she said.
The isolation and long winters make it more difficult to leave a bad situation, and many women don't work outside the home and don't control the family's money, she added.
The newly formed organization set up safe houses, private homes in different towns where women could stay for 24 to 36 hours while they decided what to do next.
The organization also started a hot line for abused spouses to call when they needed help. The woman could decide what she wanted: The group could put her up in a motel or a safe home, drive her to the Mercy House in Great Falls, buy her a bus or train ticket, or arrange for counseling services. They also could accompany her to court.
Calls to the hot line came in cycles.
"Sometimes you wouldn't have one call a month and sometimes you had six in a week," Gomke said.
Gomke became the spokeswoman of the group, and the other women remained anonymous as a safety precaution.
"We had one spokesman because it really was dangerous," she said. "Because you're dealing with a violent situation." Volunteers never went to a scene when the partner was there, she said. Local law enforcement officers would bring the women to them or take the batterer out.
Once the word got out, local service organizations and churches began to provide financial support. They also made personal care kits with sundries like combs and shampoo for women who may have left their homes at a moment's notice.
"It's always been very well supported by the community once people knew we weren't home-wreckers," Gomke said.
Part of the organization's job was to increase awareness. They distributed fliers and brochures, spoke to local churches and service groups, and visited high schools to tell students about warning signs.
The four women weren't the only people who helped, Gomke said. Behind the scenes were scores of people who made the effort possible: volunteers, attorneys, doctors, and a local police officer who went out of his way to ensure the women could return to their homes for their things without being confronted.
Hi-Line's Help for Abused Spouses also joined other violence prevention programs from across the state in lobbying the Montana Legislature. A law was passed that allowed women to get a temporary restraining order without requiring her to file for a divorce; another made it illegal to strike anyone in Montana. A third required law enforcement officers to make an arrest in a violent situation - until then women had to press charges for an abusive husband to be arrested, Gomke said.
Once federal funding became available, full-time employees were hired and the Human Resources Development Council helped manage the program, Gomke said. Eventually the partnership between HRDC and Hi-Line's Help split, she added.
HRDC now provides many of the services that Hi-Line's Help once provided in Havre.
Hi-Line's Help for Abused Spouses still exists. It is based in Conrad.
Gomke said she is no longer involved with violence prevention programs in the area, aside from talking about them to increase awareness. In the 1980s, when Mel's Food moved to Havre, Gomke devoted her attention to the store, which she co-owns.
She remembers clearly why she got involved in the first place.
"For me the pull was children," Gomke said. "If you see it long enough, male kids think they have the right to hit female kids, and female kids think they have the right to be hit. We want to break that cycle."