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Shelter head dedicates life to helping others
Faces and Places
Faces and places 002
Tri-County Protective Agency Executive Director Paula Foerstel sits at her desk in her office. - photo by Photo by Hollie Moore Barnidge
Name: Paula Foerstel

Executive director of the Tri-County Protective Agency, a center that helps women, men and families leave and recover from domestic violence.

The shelter’s always open. Are you always here? Foerstel said she works five days a week, but there is a staffer at the shelter 24 hours a day.

How did you get started at the shelter? “Before the shelter was even built, a friend of mine put in to be the director. She asked me to be involved.”
Forestel started with the shelter as a house parent, then became a legal/women’s advocate, before moving up to assistant director. She has been the executive director for five years.
“I was the first employee here on the day it [the shelter] opened in 1988. I remember my first client,” Foerstel said.

Do you ever keep in touch with the clients you help?
“Yes, I had one from Germany. She went back to Germany and wrote me a two- or three-page letter, saying if it wasn’t for me and the staff, she wouldn’t have gotten out.”

What’s the best part of your job? “When families get out of domestic violence situations, and the smiles on the children’s faces.” Foerstel also said it’s especially gratifying when clients come back to thank her after they’ve left the shelter and become independent.

What’s your least favorite part of the job?
“Seeing clients go through so much turmoil before they can be independent and get out of a violent situation, and when children cry and say they miss daddy.”

What makes a person decide to leave a dangerous situation and seek help from your shelter? “First-time clients’ self-esteem is really low. It usually takes seven to nine attempts before a woman will successfully leave a violent situation.”

Why are some people hesitant to leave a violent partner? Foerstel said there are a lot of reasons, ranging from a tough economy, finances, family reasons and jobs, but most people lack the emotional strength.
“They have to be strong enough to say ‘I’m not going to endure this anymore.’”

Of the clients who seek help from the shelter, how many become independent and how many return to domestic violence situations? “Hmm, about 50 percent go back, but that’s something I don’t have a true number on, so I’m just guessing. We get a lot of repeats.”

How do you take care of your clients?
Foerstel and her staff provide victims with anything they need; a place to stay, furniture, clothes, food and help finding jobs.
“Anything she needs to get started, we help,” Foerstel said. “We get assistance grants to help.”
The agency also has an outreach program, under which former clients can continue to receive assistance for six months to a year after leaving the shelter. The program will provide gifts for children around the holidays or school clothes.
“That’s another benefit,” said Foerstel of meeting her clients’ needs. “When you see the look on their face, it just tears at your heart.”

Your jobs seems like it must be emotionally stressful. How do you deal with that?
“You learn how to relieve stress. I have a really good staff. It takes a special person to work at a shelter. You have to have a sense of humor, sensitivity, open-mindedness and you have to be outgoing. We are each others’ stress relievers … I also try to leave work at work, but it’s hard. We had a staff member killed here [in 2001] and that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

Have you ever had a male client?
“Yes, one sticks out in my mind. A man came at night and we housed him in a different wing then put him up in a hotel. We helped him financially to get his children. There’s been other men in the past, we just haven’t housed them in the shelter, but we afford them the same services we do the women.”

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