NEW YORK CITY, N.Y. — From America’s wide-open spaces to its most crowded cities, domestic violence knows no bounds.
Even in the nation’s largest city, Sheena Butler felt that isolation, despite living with her young son and his father.
“You feel like you are alone,” she said. “The minute I step off the elevator before I put the key in, I always say a prayer like, ‘Please let us have a good night. I don't feel like arguing tonight.’”
Butler spent 15 years working in retail in New York City. Lockdowns upended that career during the pandemic and brought her home life into sharper focus.
“When the pandemic happened, our arguments became more,” she said.
She wasn’t alone. According to the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, domestic violence incidents grew more than 8% across the country. The United Nations said domestic violence incidents were up more than 20% around the world during the pandemic.
During that time, Butler said she experienced verbal and financial abuse from her son’s father.
“I didn't realize that I was in an abusive relationship,” she said.
Once she did, though, she and her son went to a shelter run by the Urban Resource Institute.
It also opened up a whole new world.
“The Fab Lab that we have in our center is the only one in the United States of America that is focused on providing an environment where students have access to engineering in machines, technology and being able to do some robotics,” said Joel Gregory Thomas, senior director for URI’s Economic Empowerment Program.
The brand-new Fab Lab is designed to help those in domestic violence and homeless shelters find a new career path in the COVID era, focusing on training for in-demand jobs.
“When you think of jobs of the future, this is the environment,” Thomas said. “We have 3-D printing, 3-D scanning. We have also milling.”
There’s also access to workplace wardrobes and training for job interviews for 500 people in the New York City-area program. Coupled with the tech-driven training, they hope it can inspire shelters elsewhere to try the same.
“We're hoping that this can really be we can have the ability to have a model that other shelters and other organizations can really look to,” Thomas said.
The idea is that financial independence can help those experiencing domestic violence strike out on their own.
“You always want to have confidence. You always want to believe in yourself,” Sheena Butler said. “And when you're in that situation, you don't believe in yourself.”
While living at the shelter, she got job training and landed an internship at a marketing department. She’s now looking for full-time work in a field she never imagined she would be working in.
“It showed me something different,” Butler said. “it showed me that I can really be anything and do anything I want to be.”