How Lombard volunteer turned a gift card into outpouring of support for domestic violence survivors

It all started with a gift card.

Heather Booton and her co-workers each received a $100 card from their company CEO with instructions to pass it along to people whose lives were disrupted by the pandemic.

Booton knew she wanted to help domestic violence survivors. But she's the kind of person who can turn a selfless moment into a bigger idea. She's also someone who believes generosity means giving your time and dedication, not just writing a check.

So she turned to her network of Facebook friends and asked if they could use their giving power to supplement the gift card and provide meals for families finding refuge through the only emergency domestic violence shelter in DuPage County.

Booten didn't know what to expect.

"I was just completely overwhelmed by how generous people were and how eager they were to help," she said.

With their donations, Booton managed to turn the $100 into an outpouring of support for parents and children trying to recover from the trauma of domestic violence.

Her effort raised more than $2,000 worth of meals and much-needed supplies for survivors who escape their abusers and flee to Family Shelter Service, the DuPage branch of Metropolitan Family Services.

"A lot of times our clients come with very little, if anything at all, because they're leaving homes in a rush or they didn't necessarily plan to," said Debbie Galvez, safe home coordinator. "And now they find themselves at a police station, and it's not safe for them to go back home to retrieve these items."

The donations came at a critical time for Family Shelter Service as coronavirus lockdowns exacerbate domestic violence situations. Advocates have seen an alarming increase in both 24-hour hotline calls and the number of people needing emergency shelter.

During the pandemic, the shelter program has operated at or near capacity. When it's full, advocates connect survivors to the Illinois domestic violence helpline and other shelters that can place families in a hotel. The nonprofit organization has made such referrals for 148 people since April.

At the same time, advocates are working to address COVID-19-related issues with employment, child care, mental health and isolation.

Survivors normally stay in a Family Shelter Service site with communal living spaces. But as a preventive measure against the virus, advocates began providing hotel shelter on April 1. Clients also receive mostly packaged food and $25 gift cards every week.

"They are in a nice suite that has enough space for their family," Galvez said.

The suites have refrigerators and microwaves, but lack stovetops, so Booton decided to raise money to give families - 16 adults and 15 children - hot meals from restaurants.

She worked closely with shelter staff, taking into consideration food allergies and family preferences.

"To be able to pick from a menu and get the food you actually want is really empowering, too," Galvez said. "And it made the clients feel as if they were given a choice because a lot of times they haven't been able to choose for themselves."

As a 19-year volunteer for Family Shelter Service, Booton knew she was giving domestic violence survivors more than an empowering choice.

"When they can see with their own eyes proof that other people do care, that's just so transformative, and it helps start the process in which they can disentangle themselves from the lies that their abusers have told them," she said.

To show she cared, Booton first used the donations to patronize local restaurants and shops, giving small business owners a boost as they recover from shutdowns.

Rosemary and Jeans Public House, an Italian restaurant that opened late last year in Lombard, prepared lasagna, pastas and salmon salad for dinner one week. Bricks Wood Fired Pizza, also in the village's downtown, fed families the following week.

Booton also had enough donations to buy treats from Lilac Bakery in Lombard and Courageous Bakery & Cafe in Elmhurst, as well as reading materials from Cornerstone Books in Villa Park and masks from T's N Taps Smiley Dyes in Lombard.

Booton herself delivered the meals, books and masks to families staying in the hotel.

"I think just that human connection was even more important than the donation," she said.

The sentiment left domestic violence survivors in tears and Galvez almost at a loss for words.

"It's a gift to receive something like that and just because she did it twice," Galvez said. "It just kind of doubles that gratitude, that impact and that feeling that 'someone cares about me.' The clients definitely felt strongly about that, and I can't stress that enough. They felt cared for and important and special."

Booton, a programs support coordinator at Million Dollar Round Table, knows she could have just passed along the $100 gift card to the shelter.

"But by thinking about it and growing it and really involving people in it, it really maximized the impact," she said.

How to help

Family Shelter Service is collecting donations of food, clothing and supplies for domestic violence survivors sheltering in a hotel during the pandemic. Anyone interested in donating should call the <a href="">Family Shelter Service</a> 24-hour hotline at (630) 469-5650 to coordinate with staff. The following is a list of needed items:

• Diapers size 5 and 6; gender-neutral pajamas; slippers; shorts and T-shirts; fruits; veggies; juice boxes; microwavable foods; bottled water; quarters for laundry; masks; anti-bacterial wipes; gloves; and cleaning supplies.

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