Only in Lawrence 2013The Journal-World asked Lawrenceians to tell us about the unsung heroes in the community, resulting in the annual Only in Lawrence feature.
Community contribution: Orchestrated the idea and volunteers for an “extreme makeover” of the bedrooms at the Willow Domestic Violence Shelter.
Quote: “Domestic violence is almost like AIDS – something people don’t want to talk about and don’t want to look at. Once the women are there and volunteering, then they see it and their hearts open up because it’s real.”
Most women fleeing an abusive relationship don’t care what the Willow Domestic Violence Shelter looks like, as long as it is safe. But Willow board member Karen Cochran thought the shelter’s deteriorating appearance did not send the right message to its residents.
So she helped orchestrate volunteers and contributions for an “extreme makeover” of every bedroom in the building.
Cochran, who has lived in Lawrence since 1984, had not interacted with the shelter until a couple of years ago when her stepdaughter and her children needed emergency housing while escaping an emotionally abusive relationship.
“Before that, we had no understanding of domestic violence – it was an eye-opening thing for us,” Cochran said. “And that’s when we found out the shelter was having economic difficulties.”
Once her stepdaughter was safe and moved away, Cochran and her husband joined Willow’s board of directors. That is when Cochran came up with her “extreme makeover” plan for the shelter to make improvements to the living spaces.
Unlike the television show of the same name, Cochran couldn’t recruit volunteers to just take over the shelter for a few weeks while they remodeled and redecorated. Women and their families still needed the safe harbor on a moment’s notice at all hours. Not to mention that the location of the shelter is confidential, to protect its residents.
So Cochran worked with Willow’s executive director, Joan Schultz, and they made a plan: Cochran and her volunteers would have just one week to make over each bedroom. And for the first time, the volunteers could find out where the shelter was – signing a confidentiality agreement first, of course.
Cochran recruited volunteers from her book club, a local bank and the philanthropic group she founded called the “Fairy Godmothers.” Some of them had interior decorating or remodeling experience; some had none.
Groups of six to 10 women (and a few men) worked on each room, starting this past March. All of the bedding and coverlets needed to be replaced, as well as the window coverings. The rest of the work — and all of the cost — was up to each group.
“Some replaced the furniture, some refinished the furniture, and lighting was an issue, so they brought in lots of lamps,” Cochran said. “In most groups, the women had a variety of skills. Some painted, while others shopped.”
The transformation — of the rooms and of the volunteers’ understanding of domestic violence —was remarkable.
“Domestic violence is almost like AIDS — something people don’t want to talk about and don’t want to look at,” Cochran said. “Once the women are there and volunteering, then they see it and their hearts open up because it’s real.”
Judy Wright, who knew about Willow from having served on the United Way board of directors, was one of the volunteers.
“It’s not lost on me that it could be any one of us in that situation. And thank goodness there is a place like Willow,” Wright said.
Wright was one of the shoppers for her group, purchasing bedding, pillows, lamps and a chest of drawers, and helping to decide on the look and color scheme. Someone in the group even had the idea to paint the inside of the dark closet a bright green color to make it more cheerful.
“It was very gratifying that we could take a space, jazz it up and make it look neat, hopefully to put a smile on someone’s face,” she said.
Kitty Gray is in a book club with Cochran and helped out on the makeovers as well.
“We just all were right there with her when she asked for help,” Gray said. “In a short amount of time, lots got done because of Karen. She was there for each room, cleaning windows and helping with painting or whatever needed to be done.”
Gray shopped for her room, as well as cleaning and staining wood. She said she felt inspired by the creativity of all of the volunteers.
“They did amazing things with just small amounts of money. It was fun to see what everybody else did,” she said.
A retired junior high school teacher, Cochran has continued to work advocating for children and teachers, so this experience builds on her self-proclaimed passion for children. She was amazed at the volunteers’ enthusiasm.
“The fact that 100 women raised their hands to help isn’t because I have a magic bullet,” she said. “It’s because people are so willing to help. This is such a great place to live.”
Gray said that Cochran is part of the reason that those who live in Lawrence get help when they need it.
“We have a huge amount of respect for Karen and all she does in a very quiet way for the women of Lawrence,” she said.