The last time Gigi Leger’s ex-boyfriend went to prison, she took the opportunity to flee.
She packed two bags with clothes, left Western Washington and landed at a domestic violence shelter in Spokane, seeking to be closer to a grown daughter who lives in Cheney.
At the shelter, she learned about, and eventually enrolled in, a free two-year program at a women and children’s recovery center called Anna Ogden Hall, run by the Union Gospel Mission. Now, she’s four months into the program and has started dreaming again – of strengthening her relationship with her two daughters, of becoming a paralegal and of finally breaking a lifetime cycle of abusive relationships steeped in a drug and alcohol culture.
“This place has truly saved my life,” the 51-year-old said. “I feel like I’ve been given an opportunity for a do-over.”
For the first time in its 60-year history, the faith-based nonprofit organization would like to offer that same opportunity to women outside of Spokane. The Union Gospel Mission, which runs three Spokane shelters, now plans to expand to 2.8 acres recently purchased in Coeur d’Alene. The organization is planning to construct a women’s and children’s recovery center, similar to Anna Ogden Hall, at 196 E. Haycraft Ave., just north of Interstate 90 and east of U.S. Highway 95.
Union Gospel had been seeking for years to expand into Kootenai County but hadn’t found the right piece of land, said Debi Pauletto, advancement director. Then a group of North Idaho businessmen engaged in a weekly Bible study approached the organization about expanding into the county. The men were driven by a desire to embrace a community project in keeping with their values.
“Our primary interest was in helping the poor. How do we get people off the streets? How do we care for people in poverty?” said Brad Baldwin, leader of the Bible study group.
Another member, Chris Cheeley, said “four or five of us got in my truck one day” and drove representatives of Union Gospel Mission around the area, looking for an appropriate parcel. They drove through Post Falls, down Seltice Way to Coeur d’Alene and up to Prairie Avenue in Hayden. Eventually, with help of some Realtor friends, they found the land on Haycraft Avenue, sandwiched between a commercial strip to the south and residences to the north.
“It really did turn out to be the ideal location,” Cheeley said. “Within a few months they had purchased the land.”
Pauletto said the land cost slightly more than $400,000 and Union Gospel will begin raising money with plans to break ground on the North Idaho center this spring. If all goes well, it would open in 2012.
Union Gospel Mission was founded in Spokane in 1951 by a group of Christian businessmen who wanted to help the poor. It has grown to include three shelters, two thrift stores, an automotive department and a children’s camp ministry. The nonprofit agency operates free of government funds, relying instead on donations and revenue from its thrift store and other ventures.
Pauletto said the organization’s goal for North Idaho was to offer something not currently available through other social service agencies.
Jeff Conroy, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul North Idaho, said a women’s and children’s rehabilitation center would fit that bill and be an “awesome thing for Coeur d’Alene.” St. Vincent is the largest nonprofit center for homeless assistance in Idaho’s five northern counties.
Union Gospel Mission’s North Idaho facility will offer 24 bedrooms with space for up to 50 women and children, split among singles and women with children, Pauletto said. A separate “rescue” building will offer an additional six rooms to provide up to two-week stays for up to 24 women and children. The main building also will offer a medical clinic, child care center, counseling rooms, a large multipurpose room, kitchen, living room, classrooms and a beauty salon.
The land also offers space to expand in the future into accommodations for entire families, Pauletto said. “Our real heart commitment is life transformation. We’re not going for a temporary fix. We want their life to be transformed from the inside out,” she said.
Women interested in participating in the program Leger is enrolled in are invited to attend orientations held every other week to decide if it’s for them. The “grace-based” program requires participants identify with Jesus Christ, choose to live by Christ-based standards, take full responsibility for their actions, and go through a process of self-evaluation, Pauletto said.
Leger said she was distrustful and defensive at first and wanted everyone to prove to her that the program worked. She said she “just wanted them to fix me,” but realized after a time that her growth could only come from examination of her inner self.
“I walked in and didn’t consider myself that ‘broken,’ ” she said. “Then I realized I had a pattern that had been established over a long period of time,” which included abusive relationships.
Three choices will cause a participant to be expelled: assault, relapse or theft. However, if they can examine and take responsibility for those choices and recommit to the program, they can be welcomed back, Pauletto said.
“I can’t believe the outpouring of love from the community I experience here,” Leger said. “This will be my first clean and sober Christmas probably since my teens.”