On a cool November night in Wanaque, between the police station and a laundromat, I walked into the office of Strengthen Our Sisters, a homeless and domestic violence shelter for battered women. Two busy volunteer secretaries, one at her desk in the back and the other at her desk by the door to my right, greeted me. To my left, on both ends of a row of solemn black chairs (the kind you might find at the doctor's office), laid piles of colorful toys and three gallons of milk. In the center, packed with women of different ages and backgrounds, stood Sandra Ramos, the founder of Strengthen Our Sisters (SOS).
After her divorce in 1970, Sandra took in a woman fleeing her abuser despite neighbors who said that they "didn't want a battered woman on their block". Since then, this attitude towards domestic violence has changed and it's no longer viewed as a private family affair. However, this shift doesn't always translate into action.
"People say things but [are] not doing what they should be doing," Ramos says. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who's taken more action against domestic violence than her. For over 30 years, Sandra Ramos has dedicated her life to ending the cycle of domestic violence. She runs seven licensed shelters, two licensed day care centers, a thrift store housed in an old church and a food pantry. Since 1998, she's developed and taught a course called "Dynamics of Domestic Violence" at Ramapo College, educating others on the cyclical nature of abuse. She goes above and beyond to fight for what she believes in, and what she believes is, in her words, "the radical notion that women are people".
Strengthen Our Sisters, for all of its success, has faced some major hurdles. In 2011, the Passaic County Board of Social Services cut three-fourths of their funding. SOS had to lay off 55 paid staff and survives only because of the dedication of 13 volunteers. The shelters are home to over 150 residents, most of whom lack education and have used up their five years of welfare and TRA, which Ramos says is especially crippling. Since the residents lack welfare, other shelters won't take them and, according to state policy, they are given 60 days to get back on their feet. Currently, Ramos and her volunteers are working hard to find someone to pay off their mortgage or at least hold the mortgage to avoid foreclosure.
I asked Ramos what motivates her to push forward in spite of these hurdles. She said seeing a woman torn and battered transform into someone strong and self-sufficient continues to inspire her. It is this strength, passion, and dedication that makes Strength Our Sisters remarkable.
Zarina Akbary is a Biochemistry major at Drew University