Campus & Community

Local shelter works to stop abuse before it starts

4 min read

Transition House works with local teens to prevent dating violence

When Elsbeth Kalenderian, executive director of the Cambridge-based nonprofit Transition House, heard Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers speak about Harvard’s recent donation of a microscopy unit to Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, she sprung into action. There’s a link, she told him, between academic achievement and the dating violence her organization was fighting to prevent.

“We know that there’s an unbelievable number of girls in the high school who are victims of teen dating violence,” said Kalenderian, whose organization provides shelter and support services to battered women and children as well as education and outreach. “If they can’t go to the [microscopy] lab because they are in very difficult situations and can’t get the help that they need, all is for naught.”

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Summers responded with a Harvard donation to help Transition House resume its counseling services for teen girls in Cambridge, which had fallen to the budget ax. Now, Kalenderian hopes that Harvard employees will consider earmarking their Community Gifts Through Harvard donations to Transition House.

The oldest battered women’s shelter on the East Coast, Transition House has in recent years reached out to teens with education aimed at preventing dating violence and counseling services for those who were victims of dating violence.

“We saw a lot of intergenerational domestic violence, where we first saw Mom, then 15 years later, we saw her grown-up daughter,” says Kalenderian. Transition House launched prevention and outreach education initially in 13 schools “to teach these girls what is a healthy relationship, what is not a healthy relationship, regardless of what’s happening in your own household,” she says. Boys, too, are involved in learning about dating violence, although the program has been scaled back to just six schools.
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Like many human services nonprofits, Transition House has been hit with budget cut after budget cut and has pared its services down to the core. While the organization has absorbed the cost of its teen dating violence education programs, it had to let go a counselor who worked with teen girls who were victims of dating violence.

“It’s a two-edged sword,” says Kalenderian. “We educate them about it and then when they step forward as victims, we cannot provide the services.”

Creativity prevailed, however, and the organization tapped a local social work student to serve as an intern in that position; funding is still needed for oversight of this work.

The cruel irony of cuts in state and federal funding is that they come as need – and expenses – are on the rise.

“As the economy goes down, the demand increases,” says Kalenderian. “We have seen an enormous increase in the need for adult services.” In the past 18 months, she says, the volume of calls to Transition House’s hot line has tripled. She describes a typical scenario: A husband loses his job and, either due to increased financial stress or simply because he’s home more, domestic abuse starts or increases.

Finding safe shelter for victims of domestic violence in one of the nation’s hottest housing markets presents additional ongoing challenges for Kalenderian and her small staff. Aiming to provide a “continuum of care” that begins with prevention efforts for teenagers and continues through long-term transitional living for women and children who have left the shelter, Transition House must scramble to find low-cost housing.

“The bottleneck is just enormous” for women moving toward more independent living, she says, “because there is no housing for them.”

Kalenderian is leading the organization in a search for new forms of funding, including creating its own revenue stream. A graduate of Harvard’s School of Public Health, she quickly acknowledges her nonprofit financing course there as invaluable for the “financial tricks” it taught her.

Harvard’s recent gift puts Transition House on its way to reinstating counseling services to teen girls at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, and Kalenderian is hopeful that University employees will follow Summers’ lead.

“I cannot stress enough what a terrific neighbor Harvard has been,” she says.