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Women of the Year: Mable Dunbar helps victims of domestic abuse – ‘People just need to be healed’

Mable Dunbar always knew it was her passion to help victims of domestic violence and abuse. But when she first started her career fresh out of college, taking on an internship at a domestic violence shelter in Michigan, she hated it.

Dunbar became frustrated and confused when many women chose to stay with their abusers.

“To me, they wanted to get rid of the abuse but not the abuser,” she said.

She felt like she was wasting her time.

Dunbar ended up becoming the director of the program where she did her internship. While there, she noticed an issue that she felt wasn’t being addressed.

“I started watching a lot of victims who were Christians and also pastors’ wives,” she said. “I realized that 80-85% of the women were staying because they think it’s their Christian duty to stay in abusive relationships.”

This led to the creation of WHEN, the Women’s Healing and Empowerment Network, a non-denominational, “faith-based” nonprofit Dunbar founded that offers resources to victims of domestic abuse with a focus on abuse in religious communities.

“We provide services for everyone, but the focus is on addressing those religious messages that people have heard that keep them in abusive relationships,” Dunbar said.

Dunbar identifies as Christian, and her husband is a retired pastor. She explained that the Bible’s scriptures being taken out of context and misinterpreted can lead to justifications of abuse disguised as religious messages.

Dunbar has some experience with this herself, which is how she got her passion for helping victims of abuse. She said she is a child of rape and was treated differently than other children in church.

“Depending on who’s giving the message, it is one-sided, and it’s basically geared towards keeping men in power and in power over women,” she said. “Some of these women, they have grown up and they’ve heard this stuff for so long, they believe it to be truth.”

It was certainly true for Rachelle McNelly, one of countless women whom Dunbar has helped.

“I’ve lived in abuse, emotional, some physical, some sexual abuse. It was always in my family; I was always taught that it was OK,” McNelly said.

McNelly experienced abuse in her childhood and in her first marriage. She was isolated in the church she grew up in because she had a child while unmarried.

In adulthood, McNelly developed agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder where a person is afraid to leave environments that they consider safe. For McNelly, this meant her home.

“I was bedridden for about seven years,” McNelly said. “I couldn’t take care of my family, I couldn’t take care of myself.”

McNelly needed to visit a food bank during the COVID-19 pandemic, and she remembered hearing of Cleone’s Closet, WHEN’s food pantry and resource center in Airway Heights. That’s where she found Dunbar.

“I met her there at the pantry, and she started talking,” she said.

McNelly took WHEN’s three-month program for women who are victims of domestic violence and abuse.

“It is an amazing program that (Dunbar) put together; you start changing and realizing and not believing the lies,” McNelly said. “It’s an amazing gift that she has as a counselor.”

After participating in Dunbar’s program, McNelly started volunteering at WHEN. She is now the manager of Cleone’s Closet.

“I’m interacting with people, I’m public speaking, I am singing in a choir,” McNelly said on the verge of tears. “I’m just doing things.”

Though Dunbar’s support for victims of abuse started with women, she has also started a program to help men who are abusers, called Men of Compassion, and an educational program to help young people understand what healthy relationships are, called Youth Against Dating and Domestic Abuse (Yadda).

“I tried to be holistic. I’m looking at the whole picture,” she said.

Dunbar said providing resources to every demographic is essential to ending the cycle of abuse.

“One guy, he said ‘Mable, where were you 20-something years ago? I never knew it was wrong to hit my wife because my daddy hit my mom.’ And he cried and he said, ‘I didn’t know I was wrong.’ And that’s how Men of Compassion started.”

The Women’s Healing and Empowerment Network has a total of three paid staff members, none of whom receives a full-time salary. Yet the nonprofit runs Frieda’s Healing Center, a long-term residency home in an undisclosed location that serves as a haven for women and children escaping domestic abuse, in addition to Cleone’s Closet and the many programs raising awareness of domestic abuse and offering resources to its victims.

“(It’s) because we have fantastic volunteers,” Dunbar said, explaining how such a small organization is able to do so much.

Those connected to the network, however, often credit Dunbar.

Shannen Talbot worked with Dunbar and the Women’s Healing and Empowerment Network in 2020.

Talbot described Dunbar as “the kindest force of nature that ever was.”

“She is incredibly powerful, incredibly passionate and consistently thinks of others before herself while still honoring what she needs to do to be able to serve as many as possible, and I think that that particular combination is a genuine rarity and a necessity in the world,” Talbot said.

Though you’ll hear no mention of this while speaking with her, Dunbar is a certified cognitive behavioral therapist and domestic violence counselor. She has a Ph.D. in family mediation and a master’s degree in education and counseling psychology. She has spoken nationally and internationally about domestic abuse, and has written several books on the topic.

Inside Cleone’s Closet, where every wall is lavender “because the color for domestic violence is purple,” Dunbar explained what it’s like to watch the transformation in a victim as they realize they don’t deserve abuse.

“It’s almost as if you see a light bulb goes in their head,” she said. “They get absolutely thrilled and excited.”

“That’s why I do this…. People just need to be healed.”

Roberta Simonson's reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.