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Magdalena House offers new start for abused women

Anide Joseph studies for a college course while living at Magdalena House, a transitional home for abused women in San Antonio.
UMNS photos by Stephanie Kovac.

By Stephanie Kovac*
July 16, 2008 | SAN ANTONIO (UMNS)

Denise Barker knows firsthand that dreams do come true.

Anide's son Aaron, 8, plays a computer game at the home.

Her dream, seven years in the making, was realized in March 2007, and now she is trying to help other abused women realize their own dreams.

"I know what it means to not feel good about yourself, and to not feel worthy, and to not feel that you have anything to offer," Barker says. "I didn’t think that any woman should ever feel that way."

Barker, who herself was raped in high school, has long felt compelled to help women who have had similar experiences. For four years, she worked at the Visitation House, a shelter for battered women, offering spiritual transformation. But she longed to do more.

"I really felt like you had to be involved in a woman’s life every day in order to make a transformation, to be able to change that person’s life," she says.

Last year, Barker opened the Magdalena House, a transitional home for women intent on changing their lives. Christened in part after Mary Magdalene, the name Magdalena also reflects the city’s Hispanic culture.

"Mary Magdalene seems like a character or a woman (for whom) Jesus truly transformed her life," Barker says. "I think it’s a perfect image for a woman wanting to be transformed by the power of God’s love and grace."

Learning self-sufficiency

An associate pastor at University United Methodist Church, Barker found more than 300 volunteers to help her construct the four-bedroom home on a sprawling, five-acre wooded lot. The land was leased to the church for $1 a year. All the furniture was donated.

The Rev. Denise Barker, herself a victim of abuse, opened the home last year with the help of 300 volunteers.

What sets the home apart from a traditional shelter is its emphasis on education. A woman cannot live at the Magdalena House unless she attends classes five days a week at a local community college or area high school. The objective: to leave the house self-sufficient.

"We know that through education, a person can become empowered," Barker says. "We know that the true power comes from God, but we believe that through education, a woman’s opportunities open up to her."

A case in point is Anide Joseph, 28. She and her two sons, ages 8 and 2, were the first residents.

"When I came here, my self-esteem was really low, my kids' self-esteem was really low," Joseph recalls. "We weren't as happy as we are now, just moving here, being able to get a sense of peace, and not (being) in the same situation anymore."

A victim of domestic violence, she fled a life of extreme poverty and a culture of male dominance in the Caribbean. But once in the United States, she was exposed to more of the same. Before arriving at the Magdalena House, Joseph never even dreamed of college. Now in her second semester, she aspires to be a dental hygienist or radiologist.

"One day I could just be able to provide for my kids, and have a better job, better career. That way I wouldn’t have to worry or depend on no man like I used to depend on my husband."

Transformational place

For Barker, the transformation in this young woman has been amazing.

Aaron and his brother, Ashton,
enjoy a cupcake.

"We've seen a woman who was physically detached, emotionally detached from her boys, now sings to her boys, reads them stories at night, hugs them, loves on them, plays chess with them on the weekends, takes them to karate, is engaged, fully engaged, we think, emotionally, with her children. And that may be the greatest victory."

The Magdalena House offers three families safe refuge for two to three years, and is staffed by volunteers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In addition to housing, residents have access to many other services, including counseling, tutoring, parenting and finance classes, and spiritual transformation.

Barker has long-range plans to build four more houses on the same property in the hopes of one day housing 15 families. For now, she sees Magdalena as a gift from God, a house of hope and healing.

"I think it's a success when you can see the lives of an individual family change because you've not only helped that mother, you've helped those children, and those children's children, and those children's grandchildren, and so on and so on," Barker says with a proud smile. "You have broken generations of violence."

*Kovac is a freelance producer in McKinney, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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