VSS started with a vision and a need for services

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(The Valencia County News-Bulletin and Valencia Shelter Services are partnering to commemorate the 25 years of service VSS has provided to domestic violence victims and to the community. In the coming months, 25 articles recounting the history, highlighting the services, telling survivors' stories and profiling those who have contributed to VSS's history and continued success will be featured. The series will conclude in October, when VSS will officially recognize its 25th anniversary during Domestic Violence Awareness Month.)

(The Valencia County News-Bulletin and Valencia Shelter Services are partnering to commemorate the 25 years of service VSS has provided to domestic violence victims and to the community. In the coming months, 25 articles recounting the history, highlighting the services, telling survivors' stories and profiling those who have contributed to VSS's history and continued success will be featured. The series will conclude in October, when VSS will officially recognize its 25th anniversary during Domestic Violence Awareness Month.)

In the late 1980s, Helen Abeyta's goal was to go to school and earn her nursing degree. Instead she and other dedicated people in the community began something that has become a vital service here in Valencia County.

After she and her husband moved here from Oklahoma, Abeyta was simultaneously working for the Los Lunas Hospital and Training School and taking classes at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus. Eventually, she amassed enough credits and decided to pursue a nursing degree. She attended the University of New Mexico part-time and continued working.

"For one assignment, I had to write a paper on women's issues, so I was going to talk about women's services in the county," Abeyta remembers. "The paper basically was, there aren't any. There was no rape crisis services, no shelter, no counseling groups."

To help remedy that, Abeyta started a support group at UNM-VC called "Let's Talk." She brought in speakers, such as the director of the domestic violence shelter in Albuquerque, psychologists and attorneys, who provided legal guidance for women and families in crisis.

Along the way, she met a woman by the name of Anna Young.

"We realized we really needed a shelter so we called the county commission to look into it," she said. "Anna and I and two other women filed the paperwork and the shelter was approved. But we had no funds."

But even with no money, the volunteers began the work of making Valencia Shelter Services a reality.

In 1989, the city of Belen let them use office space at the Belen Harvey House Museum and the Valley Store House and donated $1,000 to their efforts, Abeyta said. They put together a board of directors and brought in Tom Upton, another Oklahoma native with shelter experience.

The board worked to recruit volunteers to man a 24-hour crisis phone line.

"Every 12 hours I would go to the office to transfer the phone to the next person. When the crisis line was dialed, it was patched through to a volunteer's home," Abeyta says. "There was no one in the office, but we always answered the phone."

Unable to afford a shelter facility of their own, a local motel offered space to women and children who needed a safe place to stay.

"The owner let them eat at the restaurant there," Abeyta said.

Even now, she keeps the name and location of that motel in confidence.

After a little more than a year of bake sales and car washes to raise operating funds, Upton managed to get the sheltering service partnered with the Children, Youth and Families Department. By then, the organization employed two counselors and had moved into office space in the Valley Improvement Association's offices in Rio Communities. Upton, who started as a volunteer, was able to draw a small salary thanks to grants.

Knowing the motel couldn't serve as a shelter forever, VSS was able to purchase an emergency shelter, thanks to a HUD grant that can house up to 21 women and children. The shelter is in an undisclosed location in Valencia County.

"That was a big step for us," Abeyta said.

VSS operations were eventually able to move into a city-owned building on Becker Avenue and it was then that the organization was able to add transitional housing to its services.

"They are apartment units, again in an undisclosed location, where women can go after the shelter," Abeyta said. "We help them get on their feet again — get legal services, job training, child care. Once they are ready to move on, they can take the furnishings with them to set up their new home."

In January 2004, the Valencia Shelter Services took another big step and opened a satellite office in Los Lunas. The satellite office was open three days a week to serve even more clients across the county.

Due to a brief funding shortage in May 2011, the Los Lunas office closed temporarily and VSS had to consolidate operations at the Belen office.

But just a few months later, in October 2011, the VSS staff held its annual candlelight vigil at the Los Lunas offices after moving its entire operation there from Belen after repeated flooding at the Becker Avenue location.

As a board member for more than 20 years, Abeyta says she was never tempted to give up.

"I kept going because there is a need. Such a great need," she said. "This was something I could do. Even after I retired and after I finally graduated from college, I still felt committed to it. It is my goal to see it through. We have a wonderful staff that provides a very, very important service to the community. I am proud to be a part of it."


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.