Community Episode – Heartly House with Jennifer Tousey

Today, we talk with Jennifer Tousey, the Community Engagement & Prevention Manager at Heartly House in Frederick, Maryland to discuss this organization which has a mission to end domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, and child abuse, and to provide victims with safety, shelter, and supportive services.

If you are in need of support, please visit https://www.heartlyhouse.org or reach their 24-Hour Crisis Hotline: 301-662-8800.

Transcript

Announcer: Welcome to the “What Matters Most” podcast presented by First United Bank and Trust. That’s my bank. Visit us today at mybank.com.

Eric: Hello, and welcome to “What Matters Most” the podcast all about finances, community, savings, and security, for you, your family, and your business. This podcast is brought to you by the helpful folks at my bank, First United Bank & Trust. I’m your host, Eric Nutter. And in today’s episode, “What Matters Most” is community support, and specifically through the Heartly House. And for this discussion, I’m thankful to be joined remotely today by Jen Tousey, community engagement and prevention manager at Heartly House. Hey, Jen. How are you this morning?

Jennifer: I’m great, Eric, how are you?

Eric: I’m doing very well. Thank you for joining me today. I really appreciate it.

Jennifer: Well, I’m glad to be here.

Eric: Yeah. So why don’t we start off by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself and Heartly House? Tell us what’s up? What goes on at Heartly House.

Jennifer: Okay, so as you said, I’m Jen Tousey. I’m the community engagement and prevention manager. And as we had said before, that’s an interesting title, but what I do mostly with Heartly House is this kind of thing, is I engage with community members in different organizations, and companies, and groups, to really let them know that Heartly House is here in Frederick, and then just to really talk about who we are and what we do. We’ve been in Frederick since 1977. And most people who are from Frederick, or who have lived here for a while, have heard of Heartly House, but not everyone really knows what it is we do and who it is that we serve. So I’m really thankful for this opportunity to talk more about Heartly House, and just to help your listeners know more about the services we provide…

Eric: Yeah, absolutely.

Jennifer: …and how they can help us, so.

Eric: So Heartly House has been in Frederick since ’77. How long have you been with the organization?

Jennifer: I’ve been here four…just over four years. I started out as a medical accompaniment advocate. And that’s someone who goes in to Frederick Health, if anyone’s taken in for a domestic violence or a sexual assault incident to the hospital, they call Heartly House, and we send one of our trained advocates there to meet with them in person, and kind of help them go through that process of being seen after an event. So that’s how I started. And I spent some time on hotline and then I’ve been doing this job for about three years.

Eric: Gotcha. What drew you to the organization?

Jennifer: It sounds cliche, but like helping people is definitely what drew me there. I don’t have a background in social work. My background is in history and political science. But I have two people who I’m really close with, who went through some pretty intense trauma as children, and the kind of trauma that we work with at Heartly House. And I always thought what a difference it would have been in their life if they had had something like Heartly House, to have intervened and provided support. And so to be able to be part of something that could help people going through what they went through was important to me.

Eric: Yeah. I don’t believe that’s cliche at all. I think that’s a true thing that you feel internally and the passion that you have. That’s a beautiful thing.

Jennifer: Yeah. And…

Eric: I’m happy that there are people like you out there that will do that.

Jennifer: Yeah. And yeah, and I’m grateful to be here. And one thing I love about Heartly House is we work on what’s called a trauma-informed model. And so we just come from a place of assuming that everyone who calls our hotline or comes through our doors had survived some sort of trauma. And it really kind of helps you put in perspective that people are going through something that you don’t know about. And they’ve taught me so much, not just with work, but just in my life in general about, like, how to engage with people and really listen and not make assumptions based on just what we see on the outside, but really kind of get to find out like what has someone gone through that might have brought them to this place where they are today?

Eric: Yeah, that didn’t even dawn on me, but that’s a good point. And I’m wondering, so that has affected you personally, outside of your day-to-day job too?

Jennifer: It definitely has.

Eric: Just how you engaged with the person that cut you off in traffic, things like that.

Jennifer: Right. Yes. I know. And I don’t always keep it at the forefront. But there’s definitely times where it’s like, “Okay, you’re going through something too. We’ll get through this,” deep breaths, so.

Eric: Yeah, absolutely. Well, let’s talk a little bit about the mission of Heartly House and who do you specifically help.

Jennifer: So our mission is to end domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, and child abuse, and to provide victims with safety, shelter, and supportive services. And we just added that human trafficking piece about six years ago, so that’s newer to our work and our services, but still very important and fits right in with our mission and the work we do. And when people hear Heartly House…and the word “house” is in the name, so it makes sense people think we’re a shelter for women. And we do have an emergency shelter, and that is an important part of what we do, but that’s just one part of it. And we actually serve any person in Frederick County, who is a victim or survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, or human trafficking, so that it doesn’t matter, race, age, gender, gender identity, orientation, income status, if you need us, we’re here for you, and that includes our shelter. So we are able to take anyone into shelter. It’s really a neat setup. We have some like communal style bathrooms, but each family or individual who comes in or gets their own private, like, bedroom, living quarters, and then we have a separate kind of self-contained, kind of like a little apartment for male clients, or trans clients or teenage boys, maybe, who might need that private bathroom space. And then, because of COVID, we’ve had to adjust the way we do shelter, because we weren’t…you know, we can’t use the communal bathrooms for more than one family. But we have a lot of really good partners in Frederick County, hotels in different places who work with us so that we can make sure anyone who needs shelter will get it in a safe way.

Eric: That’s awesome. I mean, outside of bathrooms, what other impacts have COVID had on the mission that you all strive to provide?

Jennifer: Well, we had to shift all of our in-person services. We’ve got…we were very lucky in that we did not have to stop any of our services, we didn’t have to cut back on any of our services, but we had to stop doing in-person counseling, was the main thing. And we were able to shift…

Eric: So you just do it with FaceTime or like digital means or over the phone?

Jennifer: Yeah, we use Zoom for that. Because we have…because of the nature of our work, and we do have grant funding from different places, we have to make sure that all of our interactions with clients are as confidential as possible. And Zoom is one of those platforms that we’re able to ensure, you know, is safe for our clients. But one thing that we were finding difficult was not a lot of all of our clients had means to access like Zoom, like maybe their cell phones weren’t working, or they didn’t have a laptop, and we were able to, with another grant provide cell phone, so all of our clients who needed them to use for telehealth, and counseling, which was really, really good.

Eric: That’s awesome.

Jennifer: Yeah, so that was the main shift was moving our counseling sessions to virtual and then having to shift around how we brought people into shelter. But I feel like we did it really smoothly, considering, and we just…we were able to take advantage of some of those…was that PPP grants? Like those loans and grants, we were able to take advantage of those to upgrade our phone systems so that our hotline staff could work remotely, make sure, again, all of our clinicians were able to work from home in a way that was safe for them and their clients, and also just to make sure like those connections worked when our clients needed them.

Eric: Right. Well, that’s really cool. So how can…so if someone is experiencing something, what’s the way that they can get the support that they need? What’s the easiest way to reach out to the Heartly House?

Jennifer: The best way is to call our hotline, and it’s, I’ll say it, it’s 301-662-8800. And then we have our website, it’s heartlyhouse.org. But that hotline is 24/7. A live…like a live person will answer that 24/7. And sometimes we call it an emergency hotline, but it’s not just for someone who’s in the midst of a crisis. Maybe someone has been reminded of something that they haven’t talked about in a while and they’re just having a hard day, they can call that number. It doesn’t have to be you’re in crisis or…

Eric: It’s like a support line.

Jennifer: It’s absolutely a support line. And all of our staff are trained with that trauma-informed model I mentioned earlier. They’re trained to help just really talk through any type of situation someone is in. And we have a lot of resources in-house, but if there’s something that a client or a caller needs that we can’t provide, we know who in Frederick can provide those things. So we are able to offer resources outside of Heartly House for people who call. So I never want someone to feel like, “Well, that number is not for me. I’m always like, just call the hotline. If Heartly House can’t help you, we know who can and we’ll make sure that you get the information that you need.” And I know some people don’t like calling. I don’t like calling phone numbers. But it’s one of those things, like if you can get past that initial stress of dialing a number and talking to a stranger, it’s really worth it because our staff are just phenomenal and just really good at listening and hearing people. And in addition to our hotline, and another thing we offer that people don’t necessarily know about is our legal department. We have legal services for our clients. The main thing they do is protective orders, but they also are able to help with custody, child support, things like that for our clients who are getting divorced or separated as a result of domestic violence or sexual assault.

So again, it’s just if you have a question, and you’re wondering, “Is this thing I’m going through something Heartly House can help me with?” Just call because we have two staff attorneys, we’re about to bring on a third, we have multiple victim advocates who are in the courthouse in Frederick County all the time. So they know how the court works, they know how all those different processes work. We offer bilingual support. So we just…we have a lot of things that we can help people with beyond just shelter or even hotline that people don’t necessarily know about.

Eric: Right. Well, I think that’s comforting to know, for somebody who may be hesitant to dial a phone number, it’s comforting to know that there’s someone, a friendly voice there that, you know, even though they may not be able to help literally every situation, they can help direct you to someone who can help and find a resolution for you.

Jennifer: Exactly.

Eric: That’s really cool that you guys are able to do that. So we have listeners that are…you know, we go beyond Frederick County, Maryland. Would you have support or do you have recommendations for people outside of the Frederick area that if they had needs, what would they…could they call you and you would help direct them? You have contacts in other counties or…?

Jennifer: Yes, absolutely. And we have a list of all the other shelters in the state of Maryland, and even in like Pennsylvania and Virginia and in DC. We have a list of other…yeah, so I mean, especially like Washington County, Howard County, Montgomery County, we work really closely with different agencies there. So we…and again, yeah, we have updated lists, and we can help you find who you need.

Eric: That’s cool.

Jennifer: Absolutely. And we’re even able sometimes to do shelter transfer. So if someone is in a shelter in another county, and maybe it’s dangerous for them to stay in that county because their abuser knows where the shelter is, we can sometimes do shelter transfers, and bring people into Frederick. So again, it’s always just best to call and find out what your options are, and see if we can help you.

Eric: That’s cool.

Jennifer: Yeah, for sure.

Eric: So outside of individual support, I saw in your notes that you do community engagement as well. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Jennifer: Sure. So I mean things like this, just talking about Heartly House, but I also really love to go and do…we do training called bystander intervention. So a lot of times, I’m sure we’ve all had those experiences where you’re at a store or you’re at a bar, or you’re somewhere and you see something happening and you’re like, “That doesn’t seem right.” Like maybe it’s an interaction, maybe someone’s being pressured by someone at a bar, or maybe someone is speaking to their partner in a way that feels abusive at like Target or whatever, and you have that thing later, where you’re playing it over in your head and you’re like, “Should I have said something? Could I have done something?”

We actually have a training for that to help people observe situations, identify if that’s potentially an abusive or an assault situation, and then determine, “Is it safe for me to intervene? And if it is safe for me to intervene, here are my different options for doing so.” That’s one of my favorite trainings that we do because it helps people actually where you’re feeling more empowered to actually take part in prevention and stopping assault. We also do a lot of education around…I call it, like, you know, a deeper dive or like a 201 level on, like, emotional and mental abuse or sexual abuser… And we do a lot of work around human trafficking, too. There’s so many…so many people are hearing about trafficking and are really interested in it and are passionate about it, but a lot of times what you see online might be misinformation. And so to know that Heartly House is a resource, we have staff, we have a counselor who only works with trafficking victims and survivors, and we actually have a new child trafficking navigator on staff and so she actually works directly with youth who maybe were trafficked or are in that vulnerable category where they could be trafficked if no one intervenes.

And we just are really…I keep saying passionate, but passionate about spreading correct information because trafficking is one of those areas where you can actually cause more harm by saying or doing the wrong thing. And so for us to be able to say we’re a resource, if you have…if you see something online, and you’re like, “That seems weird. Is that true?” you can get in touch with me, send me an email, we can come and do trainings for staff. If anyone works with vulnerable populations, we can come talk to you about what that might look like. I think even with like banking, because I think when you think about banks, especially nowadays, the people who are coming in regularly are probably like regular…you know, their regular customers. And so a bank teller is someone who actually might be able to spot some things off with someone because they’re used to the same people coming in. And so if there’s a change, they might actually be able to know how to engage that person and find out if something…are things okay. So we really…just any of these topics that we work with, these types of violence, we are happy to do more in-depth training for people.

Eric: Yeah, and that helps everybody be more aware, and be more capable of intervening or helping to identify problems and help the community as a whole be a safer place.

Jennifer: Exactly.

Eric: Yeah, that’s awesome. Do you have numbers? Like how many people have you…has Heartly House served over the last year or so?

Jennifer: So last year, we had direct contacts with 20,000 clients.

Eric: Wow.

Jennifer: And so that’s coming through the hotline, and seeing people like in the community, our programming. So it’s 20,000. We have 1,700 unduplicated clients. So that means 1,700 individual clients, who are new, and who aren’t like repeat. So it’s a lot we see. And we actually…we definitely saw a spike last year. Our legal team did, I think it was about 27% over the previous year, caseload, 13%…

Eric: Yeah. Because of the people being together more? Do you think that…did that have an impact on it? Like being stuck at home?

Jennifer: It did have an impact. It was both. We saw an increase in…well, at first we saw a dip in calls. And that was a little disheartening. And we know that Child Protective Service reports dropped like 70% during the pandemic, which is especially concerning because we know that the rates aren’t dropping, that the people who usually have eyes on these kids…

Eric: Yeah, they weren’t in school.

Jennifer: …they weren’t in school, so the people who are usually making these reports aren’t seeing the kids. So that was really stressful for us when those numbers started dropping, but then our calls increased pretty dramatically. And we definitely have people who couldn’t call because they were trapped at home with their abuser and didn’t have a way to call. But another thing we saw that was when people did call, they were more at a place…they were at a…the level of intensity was different. Whereas before someone might call a few times to get to be a client, just talk before they actually asked for help, people were calling and asking for help on the first call because they’re like, “I have to get out of here.” And that was something we hadn’t seen as much.

Eric: Wow, that’s wild. It’s awesome that you all provide this service. I’m curious, you mentioned trainings that are provided, do you have any…and does anything jump to mind as far as a best practice or a tip that you would offer to listeners who might be finding themselves or someone they know in a situation other than…I mean, maybe the advice is call, but is there a best practice or a tip that you like to…is your go-to?

Jennifer: I always say, like, if you have a friend, or if you’re someone who’s maybe in an abusive situation, or you have a friend who has come up with a code word, and…or maybe even two code words, so like, so they can just text you, or if they see you, they can just say this thing and then you know, if it’s this word, I call 911, if it’s this word, maybe I come or I call you, that kind of thing. But I think coming up with a system where you can either help someone or ask for help in a way that’s safe. And then also just what I tell youth is identify a person in your life that is a safe person that you can talk to because I think that’s what holds people back so often is not knowing who they can talk to or not thinking they’re gonna be believed. And we know with youth, especially youth who are vulnerable to being trafficked, all they need is one adult in their life that they can trust to keep them from being trafficked. I mean, it’s that…it sounds so, like, simple that it can’t possibly be right but it’s just, that’s what they need is one adult that they can trust, that they can ask for help. So I think just either being that person or helping someone identify that person is huge. It sounds like a small thing, but it can make such a big difference.

Eric: Absolutely. So how can people help the Heartly House? What’s, you know, either time or money, can people offer to Hartley House to help support you?

Jennifer: Well, we always need money. That’s right.

Eric: Sure.

Jennifer: And nobody likes to ask for money. But we are funded so much by federal, and state, local grants, and those are amazing. But…

Eric: But they don’t cover everything.

Jennifer: They don’t cover everything and a lot of grants specifically don’t cover like administrative costs, which makes sense, but we need to pay the people who keep the place running so the rest of us can do our work, that kind of stuff. It’s not as glamorous but just…we always need money. And that’s something you can just go to our website, heartlyhouse.org/donate. We also have this new program, it’s called The Healing Heart Circle, and that’s where people who wanna be really invested in the work Heartly House is doing can commit to long term giving, like over three or five years, and be part of this group. And that’s really cool because they get to actually…because they’re making this long term commitment, they actually get to see the work we’re doing in a more behind-the-scenes way and can really watch their investment be put to work in the community. But we also…we put our volunteer program on hold, during COVID.

Eric: Because of COVID. Yeah.

Jennifer: Because of COVID. And also like Heartly House is a little different than like, the Rescue Mission. Like our shelter is on the same site as our offices so we can’t just have people coming. You know, we can’t get that address out. So it can be more difficult to coordinate volunteers, but we are getting ready to launch what we’re calling an ambassador program. So we’re gonna be asking people who wanna do this work with us to be ambassadors. So there will still be those kind of traditional volunteer opportunities but there’s also gonna be a deeper level of training about Heartly House and our services, so that these people can go into their own communities, in their own circles, and go places that maybe we can’t go or don’t know, you know, where these places are [inaudible 00:22:49] and talk about Heartly House and just really expand the work we’re doing in more meaningful and tangible ways. So I’m really excited about that. We’re looking to launch that in early 2022, maybe like winter, spring 2022. So I’m really excited about that.

So I think if anyone’s interested in knowing more about that, or getting on the list for information, when that launches, they can email me. So those are the two main things. And then just following us on social media and sharing information about Heartly House is a huge help. When you see us postings about events, or programs, or just information, that’s a big help to us.

Eric: Absolutely. Well, speaking of events, do you…you know, we’re sitting here at the beginning of October, do you have any events coming up that people should be aware of?

Jennifer: Yeah, we are actually in the midst of our annual Walk a Mile in Their Shoes event. This used to be a one-day event but last year, during COVID, we made it a week-long hybrid, in-person and virtual event. So through Saturday, October 9th, you can walk a mile wherever you are and just help raise awareness about Heartly House and raise awareness about the work we do. So that’s on our website, you can still register through Saturday, at heartlyhouse.org/events. And that’s just a fun thing. We have T-shirt…and then on Saturday, assuming nothing gets shut down, we’re gonna have a celebration at one of the local breweries, so that’s something people can come out and join and all that information will be on our website.

Eric: Excellent. That’s awesome. Well, Jen Tousey, community engagement and prevention manager at Heartly House, I wanna thank you again for joining me. Is there anything else you wanna mention before we wrap up today?

Jennifer: I don’t think so. I think just this has been great. And I just…I always appreciate the opportunity to talk more about Heartly House. And as I said, you’ll have my information so if anyone has any questions about any of the things we talked [inaudible 00:25:00] is a great number, our website, and then they can email me with questions or anything else.

Eric: Excellent. I think you broke up right when you were saying the phone number. So if you wanna repeat the phone number and website one more time?

Jennifer: Yes, our hotline is 301-662-8800. The website is heartlyhouse.org. And you can get me at jtousey@heartlyhouse.org.

Eric: Awesome. Jen, thank you again, once again for joining me this morning and talking about this awesome organization and I really appreciate all that you do and everyone that is involved there at Heartly House, what you do in the community to help. It’s a great thing. So thank you.

Jennifer: Well, thank you, I appreciate it.

Eric: Well, that brings us to the end of our show. You can always find more episodes by visiting mybank.com/podcast, or find us on your favorite podcast app. You can also leave feedback, ask questions or request a topic for us to discuss by sending an email to podcast@mybank.com. Thanks again for listening. We’ll be back next time with more helpful content but until then, we wish you the best and focusing on what matters most to you.

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