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Freeman Center's 'Rise For Safety and Justice' Walks Aim to Represent All
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
01:10PM / Saturday, September 18, 2021
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The Elizabeth Freeman Center has switched to smaller walks for its annual fundraiser in light of the pandemic and to be more representative and inclusive. There are six walks planned this month with the first on Sunday in Williamstown.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Elizabeth Freeman Center's annual fundraiser to support survivors of domestic and sexual violence has undergone a couple of changes to be more inclusive and fit the needs of the pandemic.

The former "Walk a Mile in Her Shoes" event is now "Rise Together For Safety and Justice," a series of smaller fundraising walks throughout Berkshire County to stand against gender-based violence.

The event's original symbol was a red shoe and featured men walking a mile in perceivably feminine footwear down North Street at the year's last Third Thursday event  In 2019, the event drew hundreds of supporters and raised at least $75,000 in its ninth year.

Some in the LGBTQ-plus community saw this theme as being harmful and collaborated with the center to create an event that is representative of all gender identities and sexual orientations.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic preventing large gatherings, the event was transformed into a series of six smaller walks across the county between Sept. 19 and Sept. 29.

"In some ways, it is profoundly different, and in some ways, it is profoundly the same," board of directors member Susan Birns said.

"We have always intended for it to be safety and justice for everyone, we are hoping that our new symbolism makes that even more clear."

The Freeman Center hopes to raise $110,000 to support its free and confidential services to the community. Currently, donations are at around $80,000.

The center provides counseling, shelter, and legal advocacy to victims of domestic and sexual violence through offices in the three parts of the county. It also serves youth with violence prevention programs.

Birns explained that it takes even more funds to provide these services during the COVID-19 pandemic where there is an increased need. Over the last year and a half, the center remained open and provided vital services to the community.

"We were providing three meals a day to everybody in our shelter, which didn't use to be part of the package, they couldn't congregate in the kitchen and all be cooking it once, so we were providing three meals a day, that hadn't been part of our funding, or a part of our services in the past," she said.

"So that was something that we needed extra funds for, there have been special pots of money from various funding sources, government sources, primarily to help offset some COVID costs, But the need exploded."

The pandemic increase was not linear but Birns said that calls on the EFC hotline calls increased by overall 40 percent and increased 60 percent for shelter specifically.

Not only did the calls come in at a greater volume, but the severity of violence being reported increased.

"At first, we were terrified because the calls dropped precipitously and this was not just in Berkshire County, but nationally, hotlines were getting way fewer calls, and you can just imagine some of the difficulties. One of the things that people used to do is leave the house to make a call so you could do it safely and hide it but when you were all of a sudden sheltering at home with the person who was abusing you, it became a lot harder," Birns said.

"A lot of the places that people could go to learn about resources, not everybody has a computer, or they didn't have the ability to use it privately because the abuser would come and check their search history so would go to the library, but the libraries are closed."

"You couldn't go into courthouses to get restraining orders, you would still get a restraining order but the logistics of it was much more complicated. At the same time that the need was rising, the challenges of actually getting services were getting more complex and the violence also was getting much more severe. it was getting more frequent and it was getting more dangerous."

Birns said the center is proud of the efforts it put forward during this unprecedented time. Staff worked diligently to address problems related to the pandemic that they had never had to address before.

Last year, the center did not expect to raise a large sum of money because of the financial and physical constraints of the pandemic but wound up raising double its goal, which had originally been set at around $45,000.

"The financial piece, while very important is not the only important part of this event, it's very important as a tool of community education and community building and it's incredible," she added.

"I mean, we were really concerned last year that given all of the constraints of COVID, and all of the demands and the ways individuals and businesses were hurting financially, we assumed we would never be able to raise as much money as we had been when we had been doing in person, with what we were calling sort of a virtual walk, and in fact, we had to keep raising our goal."

Although the red shoe logo is retired, the center retains its goals of funding its services, building community, raising awareness, and honoring those who have lost their lives to domestic violence.

In a six-year period, there were 11 domestic violence-related deaths in Berkshire County. In May, former Pittsfield resident and transgender activist Jahaira DeAlto, along with her friend Fatima Yasin, were murdered in Boston by Yasin's husband.

To donate, visit the fundraiser website.  The public is encouraged to share the fundraiser and events on social media with the hashtag #WhyWeRise.

The fundraiser has received major donations from Berkshire Roots, Berkshire Food Co-Op, The Berkshire Eagle, Greylock Federal Credit Union, Jane Iredale, and Onyx Specialty Papers.

'Rise Together for Safety and Justice' schedule:

Williamstown: Sunday, Sept. 19, at noon; meet at Tunnel Street Cafe

• North Adams: Monday, Sept. 20, at 5:30 p.m.; meet at City Hall

• Pittsfield: Tuesday, Sept. 21, at 5:30 p.m.; meet at Persip Park at the intersection
of North Street and Columbus Avenue.

• Great Barrington: Wednesday, Sept. 22, at 5:30 p.m.; meet at Town Hall

• Lee: Monday, Sept. 27, at 5:30 p.m.; meet at Town Hall

• Lenox: Wednesday, Sept. 29, at 5:30 p.m.; meet at Roche Reading Park next to the library

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