A New Kitchen, A New Life Free from Fear

AFTER: Here's how the west kitchen will look after the remodeling. This side of the kitchen features wheelchair-accessible counters and sinks, and there's a handy counter where the kids can eat.

BEFORE: Here's what the west kitchen looks like now. It houses six refrigerators. In the new design, triple-wide, side-by-side commercial style refrigerators will as hold just as much food while taking up far less space.

I recently volunteered to redesign the kitchen of a domestic violence shelter. Quite a challenge!

Picture your own kitchen after a party, a potluck where a dozen people prepared different dishes. Now, imagine how it would look if it were used by 50 people every day! That’s roughly how many people use the kitchen in a domestic violence shelter, which provides a safe haven to as many as 25 women and their children all at once.

A shelter’s kitchen needs to be as tough as a restaurant or hospital kitchen. But considering the tough times the residents been through, I didn’t want it look or feel institutional. Having taken some similar lumps myself, I think I know how these women are feeling. They want to feel safe, cared for and valued. They need a warm, welcoming space.

Architectural plans and interior designs can’t fill all those needs, but the spaces in our homes – even temporary ones like this one – do carry strong messages. I wanted this one to deliver a very positive message.

I hope to do it with the golden glow of maple cabinetry, Formica 180 FX backsplashes, and counters that look like rosy granite. (A tip of the hat here to kitchen designer and fellow blogger Paul Anater, who suggested using Formica FX for backsplashes.) A handsome floor of Daltile Passagio Nocino ceramic adds an Italian flair. I opened up windows and let the light pour through, and opened doorways and pass-throughs to link the rooms.

Giving Back

I did this pro-bono job over the Christmas holidays. It was an offering I gave in recognition of the good souls who helped me through a crisis similar to those experienced by the residents of SAVE. SAVE, (Safe Alternatives to Violent Environments), is located in Fremont. California, but the address is kept secret to protect its resident women and children from stalking and further violence.

As I told Diane Anderson, Grant Writer and Counselor at SAVE, “What goes around comes around. I know that good will come from this for many people, me included.”

AFTER: The southwest corner of the kitchen will feature a pass-through that enhances safety by reducing kitchen traffic. A newly widened doorway and pocket door on the south wall will open the kitchen for wheelchair access. On the west wall, a Dutch door will prevent collisions and allow moms to keep an eye on kids in the dining/living room.

BEFORE: Here's how this cramped corner looks now.

My kitchen design is a contribution to SAVE’s “Raise the Roof” campaign, an accessibility and remodeling effort that began in 2010. I hope that my plans and drawings will help SAVE win a reconstruction grant from the City of Fremont, and to raise funds from private donors. If there was ever a kitchen remodel that deserved doing, this is it!

As SAVE writes in their grant application:

The kitchen was last renovated in 1998 after a fire destroyed it.

Since then, the kitchen has been used by about 25 people daily (resulting in more than 120,000 uses) and is in need of significant upgrading.

Our kitchen is also not wheelchair accessible, but this renovation will significantly improve our accessibility.

A New Life for the Kitchen

The SAVE kitchen is part of a large house that originally was home to a doctor’s practice and family. The kitchen wasn’t originally intended for the amount of traffic it now receives, and the strain is showing. The counter around the cook top has cracked and there’s a big gap in the surface. The vinyl flooring is curling and pulling up around the edges. Cabinet hardware is loose, and the cabinets are nicked, bumped, and bruised. The finishes and surfaces throughout the kitchen look very, very tired.

In addition, the kitchen suffers from accessibility and traffic problems.

SAVE’s leaders have been gradually upgrading the house to make it accessible to those who are disabled. The shelter usually serves two people each year who are wheelchair-dependent, and many more who have mobility limitations. As they write:

These residents can remain with us for up to 90 days. We recently had a resident who decided not to bring her teenage wheelchair-dependent daughter into our shelter because of the kitchen accessibility limitations. This event really highlighted for us the need to do what we can for all our residents to be as accessible as possible.

The need is especially keen because none of the other three other domestic violence shelters in the area are accessible to those who are mobility impaired.

To fill the gap, SAVE has already installed ramps in the house and built an ADA-compliant bathroom on the first floor. The kitchen is next. My plans will enable SAVE to  make the kitchen wheelchair accessible with widened doors and passages, a pocket door and a wheelchair-height sink and cooking area.

SAVE: Providing More than Walls

The damage that is inflicted on the body in cases of domestic violence heals faster than the emotional, social and financial wounds. As one woman told me eloquently years ago, “The bones have long since healed, but the nightmares remain.”

This visualization was created by the author, interior designer Nicolette Toussaint, using the Revit software program and Photoshop.

Women who muster the courage to escape from their abusers must often leave behind friends, family and jobs, severing ties for their own safety and that of their children. (Although men do sometimes suffer domestic violence, more than 90% of the victims are women.) To survive, some women must leave with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

To understand how hard this is, I ask men and women to visualize the process: Put your wallet, your keys, your credit cards, and all your money on the table. Now walk out of your house. Leave your car. Keep walking. Could you do that? Could you go to a new city where you know no one and start over? Could you leave all your friends and family? Call no one? Ask for nothing? And could you do it without using any part of your identity – education, licenses, business contacts – that could enable your abuser to track you down?

Tools for Starting Over

Because the clients of domestic violence shelters face the daunting task of re-creating virtually every aspect of their lives – as well as those of their children – domestic violence shelters try to offer far more than the safety of their four walls. Here, again quoting from the grant application, is what SAVE has to say about the enormity of the challenge, and what they provide:

Victims of domestic violence suffer hunger, homelessness, underemployment, psychological trauma, substance abuse and a range of mental health issues secondary to the abuse. Children suffer too, with a myriad of problems from poor academic achievement to increased rates of depression, anxiety and conduct disorders. Our program addresses the barriers that victims of domestic violence face on their path toward safety and self-sufficiency.

Formica has changed! This handsome surface is the new FX 180 from Formica, Red Montana pattern. Extremely beautiful, but durable enough to stand up to lots of kids.

Daltile Passaggio 12 x 12 Nocino, a beautiful floor that will withstand traffic and water.

We provide safe housing, food, clothing, financial literacy, employment readiness, and counseling among many other services.the period between July 2009 and June 2010 we received over 4,000 calls to our crisis hotline and provided more than 7,500 shelter and motel bednights. We served about 250 women and children where 94% of the families served had an annual income below $35,000.

Putting a Face on the Issue

Who are these women?

Statistics say that nearly one-third of American women (31 percent) report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives. I was once one of them, despite having two university degrees and the social privilege that comes with white skin.

The fear sparked by that experience led me to leave my home state of Colorado, severing ties with all but one friend and my parents. I moved to Illinois. Years later, I became a domestic peace advocate and spoke and wrote publicly about the topic in California and other states, but I always remained wary of publicity in Colorado.

The physical bruises fade, but the emotional ones can linger for years.

Thus, I feel a kinship with the women of SAVE. I met a few of them in the process of measuring their kitchen and drilling a few exploratory holes in the wall. The women’s names, like the address of the shelter, must remain secret to ensure their safety. But profiles of some of them are sketched on the SAVE website, and I have taken the liberty of reprinting them here, so that my readers can meet them. Please meet:

  1. Sara, who graduated from SAVE’s transitional housing program,  got a great job with the County and is raising her son in a violence-free home.
  2. Elena, who told SAVE that the first night she spent in our shelter was the first night she had slept without fear in 10 years.
  3. Annie, who got her son back and who told us that the people at SAVE were the first people who believed that she could be a good mother.
  4. Hosina, who told the staff at SAVE so matter-of-factly about all the terrible things her daddy had done to her.
  5. Shelly, who just today got the keys to her new apartment, after 17 years of abuse and almost a year in shelter.

If you would like to help these women, and others like them, I encourage you to visit SAVE’s website and make a donation. The shelter could certainly use your help. Last year, SAVE served more than 4,500 clients while having to cut staff due to loss of funding. What’s more, they desperately need a new kitchen (plans below)!

Floorplan for new SAVE kitchen. Designer: Nicolette Toussaint

I encourage any reader who has a friend or relative who has suffered from domestic violence to donate in the name of their loved one.

If you’re a contractor or manufacturer of appliances, cabinetry, tile or stainless steel countertops, you could do a good turn by making an in-kind donation of your products (hint, hint).

You will find links to SAVE’s website below.

Links for SAVE

Links for Author Nicolette Toussaint


2 thoughts on “A New Kitchen, A New Life Free from Fear

  1. Nice, Nicolette.

    I too have been a victim of domestic violence and have been writing extensively about it elsewhere, gathering many resources to help abused people. I need to figure out a way to make that information more broadly available…

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