“Why don’t you just leave?”
That question is at the heart of the issues that Milly Gonzales grapples with every day as the executive director at HELP of Door County. The organization provides free, confidential services for victims of domestic violence of all kinds, and when Gonzales hears people ask that question – or hears victims ask that same question of themselves – she gets frustrated anew that society hasn’t learned to point the question in a different direction.
“Why do we always put the onus on someone that’s being victimized or oppressed?” she asks. “We never ask why the oppressor is behaving this way. Why is this person using power and control or physical violence or sexual violence? It’s the way we’ve been conditioned to perceive things, and we need to flip that narrative.”
Leaving sounds easy to the outsider, but for victims, it’s far from being that simple, Gonzales explains. And the issues victims face anywhere are exacerbated in a rural community.
“Is affordable housing accessible here in Sturgeon Bay?” she asks rhetorically. “I’m consistently struggling with finding housing for people who want to leave their partner. If by chance they find some housing, you have to think about day care options. You can’t get away without having a vehicle. So if you leave, you may not have access to affordable housing, or day care, or public transportation or a vehicle. So now you have to navigate this and try to provide housing and stability for my family as a single parent while you’re dealing with the traumatization. And then you engage in the criminal justice system or family court system – it’s very, very difficult.”
The financial and emotional obstacles can quickly seem insurmountable. That’s where HELP comes in: assisting clients to start safety planning, connecting them to options, defining barriers and outlining the help available to get past those barriers.
Each day in their offices on the west side of Sturgeon Bay, Gonzales and her staff members counsel residents who have been the victims of domestic abuse about options and resources. Some are victims of physical or emotional abuse at the hands of a spouse or partner; others are seniors taken advantage of by caregivers; some have suffered financial abuse. All are in crisis of some form or another. All are our neighbors.
“When you have the picture of who we are as a community, Door County has so many amazing things about it,” Gonzales says. “So sometimes we forget that there are people unseen here and isolated.”
In 2021, she saw 369 different clients. She views her role in part as someone who can pull them out of that isolation, who can make them seen. And Gonzales takes care to include diverse images and language on the walls of her offices so that someone in the midst of crisis feels welcome and safe in at least one place.
She’s hoping to do more. For example, right inside the entry is a counter at adult height.
“I’d love to lower this,” she explains. “We often get mothers coming in here with their young children, and I’d like them to be able to see over this [counter] and see a face here to help them.”
Gonzales’ job isn’t easy. The people who visit are struggling to navigate a bad relationship – a process that often leads them to separate from their abuser. That means Gonzales is sometimes blamed by the abuser, and in a small community, it’s impossible not to cross paths with those people.
It’s uncomfortable, heavy and sometimes scary. But it’s what she found she was meant to do.
“I’m lucky and blessed to be in a field that I am deeply passionate about and love doing,” Gonzales says. “Seeing that healing is possible and that this does turn into resiliency, that’s what I’m proud of.”