A quarter of a century ago, former MSU First Lady Joanne McPherson had an idea that would not only change the lives of hundreds if not thousands of individuals and families, but possibly save their lives as well.
The idea was a first-of-its-kind, university-based facility where students, staff, faculty and their partners experiencing abusive relationships could seek shelter and get help in navigating the confusing path to figure out options.
The MSU shelter and support program became MSU Safe Place.
“It was 1994, and there was a great deal of national attention being paid to MSU for opening an on-campus domestic violence shelter,” said Holly Rosen, who has served as Safe Place’s director since its founding. “To provide perspective, we opened our shelter doors shortly after the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson. There was extensive media interest due to increased national interest in the subject.”
However, Rosen is quick to point out this homicide was not the reason the shelter came to be. She said McPherson got the ball rolling months before the murder of Brown Simpson.
“In the spring of that year, prior to all the media frenzy, Joanne McPherson organized campus and community partners to meet and try to evaluate whether a shelter might be needed and utilized on campus,” she said. “We were not expected to open until July or August, but we started getting calls for service requests from campus survivors before then, so we opened early.”
Today, Safe Place’s mission remains unchanged.
“We provide shelter for people who need to escape from their abusive home,” Rosen said. “But we’re not just a shelter. We also provide advocacy and counseling. In fact, I’d say the majority of our clients use our advocacy services.”
Providing advocacy services means helping clients get the help they need, no matter how large or small. It can include everything from helping someone get a semester bus pass to navigating the family court system to helping finance a car repair.
All of Safe Place’s services are confidential and free of charge. Services are even provided to those who may be undecided about whether to leave an abusive relationship.
“Sometimes people don’t really want services until they are at the point of leaving,” Rosen said. “But we’ll always be there to provide ongoing advocacy and support, no matter the status of the relationship.”
Safe Place care/advocacy coordinator Erica Schmittdiel said the work she does is beyond rewarding.
“An example of how rewarding it can be is when people reach out for help and see that there are people who care, won’t judge them or tell them what to do,” said Schmittdiel, who has been with Safe Place since 2001. “Clients often tell us that they feel like they are the only ones going through relationship violence or stalking, even though it’s actually quite common.”
“Working in this field is very challenging,” said Alyssa Baumann, Safe Place’s volunteer and advocacy coordinator. “When our clients face disappointments, we feel those as well. But we also get to see the victories, both big and small. It’s a great honor to be able to walk alongside survivors and offer support, even in the darkest times.”
After all these years, Safe Place remains the only shelter of its kind located on a college campus. It’s unfortunate, Rosen said, as many presidents, chancellors and others in power worry more about a university’s reputation than for the safety and well-being of those on campus.
“Many campus administrators don’t like to believe that domestic violence or stalking are issues affecting their campuses when, in fact, they do occur in all communities, including college campuses,” she said. “These crimes can happen to anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity or educational background.”
How can you help? Financial donations are gratefully accepted, as are donations of in-kind items such as personal hygiene products and used cell phones. A needs list can be found at safeplace.msu.edu.