By Alan Sorensen
One time, I had a guy call on the hotline and say, Do you have my wife? and I said, Why, do you beat her? and he said, No, and hung up.
Thats the kind of chutzpah that served Judy Gomke well when she helped set up the first domestic abuse program along the Hi-Line in 1979.
At that time, the only shelter for battered women and their children located between Minneapolis and Seattle, Gomke said, was in Great Falls.
In 1979, there were four of us on the Hi-Line who each kicked in five bucks so we could get non-profit status with the state, said Gomke, who, along with her husband, Mel, owns and operates Mels Foods in Havre. That made us non-profit so no one could sue us.
At that time, Gomke lived in Kremlin. The other Hi-Line women who each ponied up $5 and donated their time to establishing Hi-Line Help for Abused Spouses were Yvonne Hunnewell of Chester, Esther Meldrum of Joplin and Sharon Pollington of Kremlin.
With the help and guidance of personnel at the that safe house in Great Falls, the Hi-Line women set up temporary safe houses. Victims of domestic abuse would be housed from between 24 to 36 hours in the private homes until a decision about their further protection could be reached.
Everything came out of our own pockets, and we had a lot of church support, Gomke said. If wed known in the beginning how much it cost (in time and money), wed have been too scared to start.
Gomke credits deputies with the Liberty and Hill county sheriffs departments with facilitating the help for the victims.
We called it cloak-and-dagger, Gomke said. Theyd bring us to her in a coulee so we wouldnt be known. Mine was the only name that was recognized (back then), because we needed to protect our clients.
Gomke has sad as well as funny stories about the early days of domestic abuse intervention. One of the clients we had, we had her three times, I think, ended up as an unsolved murder.
After the HRDC Domestic Abuse Program got going, the Hi-Line Help for Abused Spouses went its own way. While HRDC operates within the counties comprising District IV HRDC, Hi-Line Help covers an area comprised of communities from Chester to Browning and down to Conrad.
Gomke is no longer active in a domestic abuse program, but she continues to make donations regularly and carries the message of hope wherever she can. On Tuesday, she put a domestic-abuse-awareness message on her portable outdoor sign near the Fifth Avenue and 16th Street corner at the store.
I always tell people, if you have personal care things, kids and womens clothing, household things, they always need those, Gomke said.
After 20 years, Gomke still carries the same hope she carried in the beginning. I really hope in my lifetime, people stop asking why did she stay? and start asking why does he hit?
The depth of caring hasnt changed over the years, but the volume of care provided annually to victims of family violence has increased.
During the last fiscal year, The Haven in Havre provided shelter to 85 women and 103 children at one time or another.
The Domestic Violence program also had 123 men enrolled at one time or another and the Crisis Hotline at 265-2222 received 466 calls during the year.
Volunteers proved to be among the programs greatest assets, donating 10,297 hours. Most of those hours were spent manning the crisis line and about 20 hours a week were devoted to work at the shelter.
Gomkes chutzpah has proven contagious.