Annette McDonald: Stand Up to Domestic Violence and Transition to Independence

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Annette McDonald

Our Guest

Annette McDonald made me feel like home when I first spoke with her. I was a complete stranger who desperately needed help. She didn’t owe me anything and could have easily turned me away.

Instead, she was trying to do everything she could to help me and make sure I (and my documentary team) were OK. We bonded immediately.

Upon my return from the documentary, we found ourselves were chatting on the phone for an hour. I found out Annette McDonald founded an organization called Access Family Services in New Jersey that provides shelters and transitioning homes to women and children who are victims of domestic violence.

Annette didn’t come from a wealthy background. She’s a single mom. Why would anyone want to pursue a career that has very financial gains for 18 years? I asked her and she said:"Fei, it’s just too important.”

To learn more about Access Family Services, visit: https://afsnj.org/

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. Learn more: https://ncadv.org/take-action

Show Notes

Part 1

  • [06:00] What’s your origin story?

  • [07:00] We crossed paths in a very surprising and interesting way. Do you think it was by accident?

  • [10:00] What does your organization “Access Family Services” do?

  • [12:00] How do people reach out to you to go to your shelter?

  • [13:00] What and how is your interaction with your clients?

  • [17:00] Why do you think that helping other people gives this long-lasting feeling of fulfillment/satisfaction?

  • [19:00] How did you manage to stay in this for so long? How did this all start?

  • [25:00] How should people look at domestic violence, and what are the different degrees or forms it gets exposed?

Part 2

  • [37:00] How can people identify that there is a power-control dynamic (or ‘red flags’), and how should they go about it?

  • [39:00] How do you manage to get support and knowledge to start this journey in social service?

  • [43:00] How does your family react to your job?

  • [46:00] How was your kids’ transition from young to grown-ups, and how did their opinion change towards your job over time?

  • [50:00] Can you share a bit of your real-estate investments?

  • [52:00] How can people reach out to you and your agencies?

Favorite Quotes

[07:00] Your needs and what I need to do to help you was really my first priority.

[15:00] The look on his face and the excitement of just feeling safe, and being in some place where he has support, that kind of interaction keeps me going. What I felt that night is that I could have work the rest of the night with this family just to watch this little boy go through that sense of gratitude.

[18:00] Service to others is, to me,  one of the greatest gifts that we could give ourselves, as well as giving to others.

[23:00] There is so much more that we can do to help these programs, and I wanted to find out what more could I do. I ended up staying at that program for a very long time and taking a full-time job after volunteering for several months.

[35:00] It hurts that the physical violence at times because the psychological piece never goes away. Feeling that you are walking on eggshells, feeling that any move you make could be the wrong move at any time.

[49:00] I had to do a lot of work as an entrepreneurial thinker with my mindset, to stay positive, to stay focused, despite all odds. I kept my eyes on the prize, and the prize for me was helping families to stay safe. Once I was solid with my vision and my mission, I believe that the universe sent people to me.

Transcript of Interview with Annette McDonald

 Part 1.

Fei Wu [4:31] The way I feel is I represent much more than just myself. I want to be able to connect with women who aren't just Asian or Chinese, but women living in America who come from immigrant backgrounds or are immigrants themselves. Our voice and our stories can be so powerful and so resonating.

Annette [5:04] Yeah, absolutely.

My mom came here in the 1970s, so she migrated from Jamaica. And we came here with our green card, I still remember my number, which is crazy. It stuck in my head because my mom always said: “Make sure you don't lose this green card because if you lose it, you may end up having to go back to Jamaica”.

So I do agree that the immigrant stories are very important.

Fei Wu [5:57] I just love meeting people face to face, because when we meet someone new, we make up all the stories in our heads. And I started to think about the people I encounter in my life now.

I want to talk about the way that we met. Long story short, my documentary team and I were traveling, exhausted, and we ran into a couple of issues, and you were so caring and so kind in responding to our needs, which really fostered this conversation, this relationship in such an unexpected way. You call it serendipity, and it's there's so much of that in life that we overlook. Do you think this happened by accident?

Annette [6:59] I don't think it's by accident. I think people come into our lives for a reason, and we're blessed when we can identify why that person crossed our path. That's why it is so important that no matter who it is, we treat everyone with care and with respect and with love. If I ignored your needs and your concerns, you and I would not be speaking today. But my first thought was “What's best for Fei? What can I do to help Fei?” And it's a natural part of my being that I've come to understand. So your needs and what I needed to do to help you was really my first priority.

Fei Wu [7:54] I was so touched by it. We go through life, unfortunately, not experiencing so much of that. So I'm in a situation, for example, I believe if I hire someone to do something, I always pay them immediately because they've done amazing work. And I've also encountered clients who don't pay on time, who ignore your invoices, who don't really treat your work with respect.

And then I’ve discovered you at that moment. We were driving and we've been sleeping for four hours a day, and that was the last interview. And I remember the way that you said to me “Hey, Fei, I'm sure you and your team are exhausted. Please just grab the water, grab the snacks”. Obviously, we didn't take anything, but we took that message with so much care. Then I was in the car, in the huge van with tons of equipment, and my team was asking me: “Fei, are you chatting with Annette?” Like, every time I was texting, they're like “You're not talking to us, so you must be talking to her”. And then I'm like “Oh, did you know we're friends now?” [laughs]

Annette [8:56] I felt the same way. It's interesting the way you're coming off, even your voice. I didn't know you, I didn't know what you look like, nothing, but the mere fact that you were so receptive, I was feeling very concerned about your friends traveling and not being able to provide for your needs right away. My first thought, again, was “What can I do to make sure they're okay? They're in a strange neighborhood, what can I do?

Fei Wu [9:43] And of course, I became incredibly interested in who you are as a person, your backstory, so I investigated that without you even mentioning a word on the phone, right. And clearly, you're a very kind person, you have a very kind heart. So I discovered, in fact, that you are a philanthropist. And then you've been working on social service, which is a huge theme because the core of our podcast is social service and paying forward.

 

Could you tell me a little bit about your organization The Access Family Services?

Annette [10:12] In a few words, we save lives at Access Family Services. We're a full domestic violence program. In Essex County, New Jersey, we have a 15-bed homeless shelter, which is the 15 beds specifically geared towards victims of domestic violence and their children. And that's the big part of our services, as along with our outreach services, where we serve offenders of domestic violence as well. So I see both sides, the victim piece, and also the perpetrators piece as well. In a nutshell, that is what we do 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year with awesome help and volunteers as well.

Fei Wu [11:12] How long have you been doing it?

Annette [11:15] 18 years now, a long time!

Fei Wu [11:21] Could you tell us how do people approach you? Because I think when a woman's life and especially her children's lives are threatened, the desperation, there’s just no words to really describe it. And you have to be calm, you may or may not have a phone or access to the internet. So how do they reach out to you and connect with you?

Annette [11:49] For example, we have a National Domestic Violence Hotline, we have a local statewide hotline that they are familiar with through another agency that they may have come in contact with, who are able to refer them to our hotline. So that's generally the first line of contact with a woman or man, it doesn't matter who needs our services. That is where we begin our safety planning and letting them know about our services. That's where the care and the concern and all of the safety planning begins - right on the hotline. And it is a process. That time when they're contacting us, they may not even want to come into shelter at all, they just might need information so that they can plan to come into shelter or plan for their safety along the way. So the first line of contact usually with us is through a hotline.

Fei Wu [12:58] You talk about voice and the tone. I try to imagine how these women, men, children interact with you for the first time. And I know you're not the only one, there’re volunteers because it's impossible to do all by yourself.

 

How do you interact with these people?

Annette [13:23] One particular family comes to mind. This happened recently.

There're families dealing with us. A woman came in with her children, one of them was a young man of 10 or so years. It's very late at night, and this child had probably a little TV that he wanted to bring in with him. They have obviously been to a couple of different shelters by the time they arrived here with us. The young man said to me: “Can we take my TV, my screen with me?” And I said: “No, I'm so sorry. We're not allowed to have that in the room because it's a shared space”. I said: “But how about I show you where your personal space is?”, which is a room for teens and preteen that we set up at the shelter for them. And I brought him downstairs and he saw the TV, the games and everything which was set up there for him. And he was so excited. And his mom obviously was concerned because here we're saying “no TV”, and once she realized that room was there, I could see the relief on her face. Then I said to him: “How about I take you upstairs and show you your room?” And I took him upstairs with me, I opened the door and I said: “This is your space”. He goes: “Oh my god, is this a room? Is this s my bathroom?”. So the look on his face, the excitement of just feeling safe, being someplace where he has support, and his mom saying “Thank you” - that kind of interaction keeps me going. What I felt that night, Fei, it was like I could have worked the rest of the night with this family just to watch this little boy go through that sense of gratitude and feeling like “I'm here and I'm okay”. So that's just one of my interaction among many.

Fei Wu [15:54] This is why I sense that not only it's an enjoyment that makes you happy, it almost feels like an addiction, in a good way, to help other people because it gives you such joy internally. I feel like you're showered with joy. There's so much of what we do in life that doesn't matter. For example, how much you spent on material goods. Immediately remember myself when I was a kid, I would get a piece of candy for 50 cents, and I would feel so happy for a long time. Whereas now as an adult, I could go shopping, find my favorite dress and then the moment I come back home, sometimes I don't even touch the bag. I forget it even existed. It doesn't give us nearly the same level of satisfaction.

 

Why do you think you feel that way when helping other people?

Annette [17:41] Service to others for me has been so gratifying. And probably for you too, you described that. When you're able to impact or affect someone's life, a human being’s life, to somehow offer them something, give them information, provide a home or something in return, you’re doing that for them, and that is great. But I think that joy that you feel inside - money, nothing in the world can really beat that. To me, that's how I felt that night when I met with that family. It just reminded me so much of what I need to do and that this is what's important - the smile on his face. A million dollars is great, yes, and we do need that to run these programs here, in New Jersey. However, just the mere gratification of knowing that he’s saved means the world. So service to others is, for me, one of the greatest gifts that we can give ourselves as well as given to others.

 

What brought you into this program? How did this start?

Annette [19:12] Sometimes it's important to look back to move forward. I realized after being in this field for such a long time that I've had that social work heart since when I was maybe seven years old, I remember as far back helping my grandma. She had three sisters. She was one of the twins, and then another one was the first child for my grandparent’s parents. And I remember helping this grandaunt of mine, she had no children at the time in the neighborhood. I was going there after school, making sure she was clean, making sure she was okay. I was very young, but I recall that experience from such a long time ago.

Then, obviously, moving to this country much later on, living with my family, I ended up being a child and witness of domestic violence myself. So after living for many years with this and knowing many people who are going through domestic violence, even children, it is a very difficult thing to talk about. “Relationships and crimes are what thrives in secrecy and silence”. No one wants to talk about what's going on, and especially as a young child growing up in a household where some of that was seen, you don't know where to go, where to turn, and what happens next.

Fast forward, I moved to New Jersey. And this is when I say nothing is a coincidence. I'll get back to it. So I moved to New Jersey, and I got a speeding ticket. This is my entrance into this field. The speeding ticket led me to a courtroom. When I got to the courtroom, there was a victim, they're responding to a domestic violence incident. And this victim, she said: “I do not want my husband arrested. Father of my children, I don't want him arrested”. And the judge said: “Ma'am, I'm sorry, we are issuing a warrant for his arrest”. I sat there and I'll tell you, Fei, up till today, I feel like I got lost in that whole courtroom and in her situation. It reminded me of what I had gone through with hearing my mom saying: “I'm dropping the restraining one, I don't want to go through this”. I actually went home and journaled it, that was my first entry into journaling. If only this woman had an advocate with her, that she may or may not have been so willing to drop that restraining order. And support is really, really important for victims. Really, the advocacy and the amount of work that volunteers and staff put in is very important.

Fast forward 10 years almost to that day, I became a volunteer at a domestic violence shelter. One day, on a Sunday afternoon, I would go and volunteer. So I had that experience of working with families and then realizing that there's so much more that we can do to help these programs. And I wanted to find out what more could I do. So I ended up staying at that program for a very long time and take a full-time job in after volunteering for several months at that program.

Fei Wu [23:06] I love the backstory. I think sometimes we almost neglect our own stories. And it's interesting, even with me coming to this country at the age of 17, I felt like part of me swept under the rug because I felt a little embarrassed to talk about things that happened half a lifetime ago. I also assume that perhaps so many people, especially people who grew up in this country, find it difficult to relate to that story as if I don't want to waste people's time if it doesn't overlap in any way. But the most surprising thing is whenever I go on a podcast and when I'm being interviewed, that's the number one question that will ever come up - what was that journey like?

As you said, we need to look back to where we came from, because that is our origin. So I'm very interested in your volunteer work. And I would like to help some of the listeners understand and dissect domestic violence a little bit more because my experience working in homeless shelters is that I learned the critical fact that people didn't want this for themselves. People assume it was all because somebody did drugs, or they did something really wrong. But it's not the case, a lot of people found themselves in a very vulnerable position and they can get out.

 

How should people look at the domestic violence issue? How does it come about?

Annette [24:59] Yeah, so you mentioned the homeless shelters and people being in a homeless shelter. They don't want to be homeless. Of course, nobody wants to be homeless, right? So no one wants to be a victim of domestic violence. These are oftentimes the most intimate people that we love and care about, who are perpetrating the violence against each other or perpetrating the violence against the victim. There's a lot of power, uncontrolled dynamics that go on in a relationship. Using the children, the manipulation, the psychological abuse, all of that plays into the victimization of someone. You don't judge, and you don't know what a person is going through just by assuming something. Someone can look perfectly, well-dressed and well-put-together, and that person can be going through the worst course of controlling behavior ever in a relationship. Coercive controlling behavior can be if you go to the mailbox to pick up an envelope, it could be a financial statement, and the person says to you “I don't want you to look at it”. And she's or he's is so fearful that they never go to the mailbox and over time that breaks that person's esteem down, breaks their spirit down. So the fear of the violence or even the sexual violence, connected to the homelessness, is very scary.

Part 2.

How to identify if there is a power-control dynamic?

Annette [1:39] Yeah, there are some things that we'd like to identify as red flags. If you have a friend of a friend is with you and she's constantly saying: “Well, Fei, I can't come tonight”. If she's never allowed to go out with you, if she's isolated from her family and you're seeing that, or she never has any money to spend when you go out. There’re different abusive tactics that abusers use. So the most you can do, of course, is not judge that person. You might see her with a bruise on her face, she might be your coworker at work, and each time the phone rings, it's time for her to go home. She's very nervous because he's checking now the time when she leaves work and knows what time is she going to end up at home. She can't be five minutes late. And you might recognize that doesn't seem right. So I would recommend if you're with someone, you just express concern: “Would you mind if I ask you? Are you okay? Are you sure there isn’t something that I can do to help you? Because I'm concerned”. So those are some of the things. There are a lot of different signs that you can identify and possibly ask someone if they're okay, or to let them know that you're concerned.

Fei Wu [3:23] This is so important, because we never had a course in school, whether it's secondary school or college, on self-protection, psychologically as well as physically. Some of these psychological barriers are even greater because they’re really sneaky and you don't even see it coming, it’s part of your life. And most people have no way of protecting them themselves or seeing this for others.

Annette [4:12] That's very important that you said that because the psychological abuse and a manipulation - those are some of the most difficult things to prove. Even in court when you're going for a restraining order. And you have many people just say that it hurts more than the physical violence at times because the psychological piece never goes away. Walking on eggshells, the feeling as though any move you make could be the wrong move at any time - that is powerful. And for someone to live with that and to have to live under those conditions, you can imagine how they feel once they come into the shelter. As a matter of fact, I have one woman, recently she came into shelter. I have to tell you, she's an older person, and I said to her: “Oh my goodness, how do you look? Almost 20 years younger, and you've only been here for days”. And she said: “Oh my gosh, my best friend said I look 10 years younger”. And it doesn't necessarily mean that she was being physically battered, but the psychological abuse that she was going through and the manipulation and the threats to keep her outside or do something very sneaky and manipulative, as you said, was really weighing her down and aging her. So when we see the women and the children come in shelter, and we're able to offer that little respite for them to get us together, it means the world. It really does.

 

How did you start contributing as an entrepreneur and founder of Access Family Services?

Annette [6:43] Absolutely what I was blessed with, is some knowledge from my years of working to towards becoming a domestic violence specialist, understanding a little bit about failure and trying. I think I'm an entrepreneur at heart, I am a risk-taker, I have done entrepreneurial things even as a teenager. However, when it came to doing this particular business, because it is a business even though we say it's nonprofit, there wasn’t anybody who was going to say: “Oh, I know you're starting a domestic violence program, so here are a million dollars”. As a matter of fact, Fei, I applied for a million dollars, I did not get it. You mentioned you worked with the homeless, and it is so vitally important for the women who are leaving shelter to have a transitional space. And I thought maybe I will work on getting a transitional housing program. Turned out, that was one of the most impossible things to do with the all of the variances that you needed and all of the approval from the different municipalities. It was very, very challenging. And I had raised some money to help put up a transitional housing program because that's what I thought I was going to do and it didn't work out. We did not get that grant. But I knew still that housing is very important, and there was still a gap in services for a shelter. S after trying maybe about four times to try and get a specific transitional housing program, I decided to ask a realtor to help me get the space where I am right now. He turned me down actually about three times. I think fourth time I went to him, I said: “Listen, you're going to help me get this place. We need to save lives. This is why I'm doing this”. And he decided to help me. Prior to that, where no money came into the play, I had started an outreach facility to work with people in the community who need advocacy, to help them find housing, to help them link to different services in the community. And that was just with a local church, so he offered me space where I can work with the community, and we didn't have to pay the rent for that particular space, which is great. But I knew we were working towards a bigger vision, which is and was eventually what is now the shelter.

And I mentioned to you the thrift shop and entrepreneurial ideas that I come up with. So one day I saw a homeless gentleman on the sidewalk. And the pastor of that particular church gave me permission to use a space in the church to do a sale and try to raise some money to help pay the phone bill. Because we needed money to pay the phone bill and the light, and I was thinking: “How am I gonna do this? I have no money, but I do have space. And if I utilize that, it can somehow help us to do sales on the weekend”. And this young homeless man was sitting on a park bench right beside the church. And I walked past him one day and then looked back at him and said: “Hey, how are you?” And he looked up at me and he said: “I see you going in and out, do you need any help?” He helped bring bags in and out every weekend, to help us raise some money to help with saving for the day when we had the opportunity to open the shelter.

Fei Wu [12:13] God, it's an uphill battle for sure. I can imagine the 18-year-old you that probably would love shopping, dressing up, and I think most women certainly feel that way, I feel that way. And now you've found yourself in a social services business for nearly 20 years, even though you could make so much more money doing something else.

 

How does your family react to your job?

Annette [13:19] The need for social services is so great in our community, period. The entrepreneurial type of mind that I have, I have to shut it down. Sometimes I get excited every day when I wake up knowing that I'm coming to help another human being, that keeps me going. But balance is so important, especially for us entrepreneurs. Sleep is really, really important. And I go to bed late at times. I do what I have to do, I go home late, I have to wake up early, but I take care of myself internally, as we talked about earlier in terms of trying to eat right and trying to create that balance. And knowing that no matter what my family still is the most important thing that I have, the most important people are my three sons that I have in my life. And so there is that balance, and bringing them into what I do and having them understand what I do is really, really important. I started to do that while I was working at a couple of different agencies over the last 18 years.  I've had my children go to travel with me to Washington, DC to help advocate for Violence Against Women Act and funding for programs in New Jersey to teach them a little bit about community, and also I have had them help serve food at times. So for me, it's a little bit easier.

Fei Wu [15:14] What was the transition like? Do you remember a time where they were younger? Perhaps their peers were not doing what you were doing.

Annette [15:31] Not so much with the two older ones, but the younger one, oftentimes, he says: “Mom, you're at the shelter, right? You're not on your way home, right?” So I get that quite a bit. But the transition for the two older boys, it was wasn't as bad. It wasn't as hard as what I'm dealing with now with the 12-year-old because he does require more of my time for some reason. The older ones had each other. The younger one is pretty much is with me, so he's like “I need to go here. When is the other event? Because I can get up there and I can speak and I can tell them that they need to support your organization” [laughs].

Fei Wu [16:30] I love it. I love these stories because sometimes women and men feel like they need a whole structure to already be in place, that they need to come from a certain background to do this.

Annette [16:47] I'm going to say no. There's a saying “build it and they'll come”, but getting to build it is one thing. For social service workers, there are many and you've interviewed someone, they just know that this is what they need to do to help another human being. If you had told me “Oh, you're going to end up building an organization that is for women and children, you’re going to be the founder, and you're going to have a domestic violence shelter with 15 beds”, I would say: “Are you kidding me?” To put an organization together, to have a nonprofit within the last four years or so, in our economic times is probably near impossible. But I one thing that I'll tell you is, again, it's that mindset, and I've had to do a lot of work as an entrepreneurial thinker with my mindset to stay positive, to stay focused, despite all the odds against building and having this safe house. No matter what I kept my eye on the prize and the prize was helping families stay safe.

 

Could you talk a little bit about your real estate business?

Annette [18:50] Yes. So I remember growing up with my mom, when I came to this country, she's always talked about owning property. And she never owned a piece of property then, but she always talked about real estate and that it is a really good investment. And my mom's name is Sylvia, by the way, and we actually named the shelter in her memory, she passed away last year. So the shelter is a place dedicated to her. She's a survivor and an immigrant who helped so many people stay in her apartment until they can get on their feet. There are many people that lived with us, and I decided to invest in real estate at a very, very young age. So you mentioned earlier about being 18 and shopping and loving the clothes and the shoes, which I love, but I decided at about 20-21 or so that I was going to save my money and invest in real estate. And that's what I did. So yes, while many of my friends are wearing fabulous clothes for X amount of dollars, I was saving and planning on investing. And I did buy my first property at about the age 22. Then I kept on finding ways to invest in as well.

Fei Wu [20:16] I assume you have multiple real estate condos that you've purchased.

Annette [20:24] Yes, some failed and some didn't. That's the risk thing about being an entrepreneur. And you learn as you go along, I didn't necessarily have a teacher to teach me. I just took a chance like you - you've taken a chance, you're doing your podcast, you're an entrepreneur, and you do your consulting business as well. And I feel like the service to others not only fuels me, but I see that you’re as well using your podcast as a platform to power people. And that's really, really awesome what you're doing.

Fei Wu [21:12] So appreciate that! And if people want to help out or get in touch with you, what's the best way to do that? And the follow-up question is what are some of the opportunities to get some people involved if they listen to this podcast.

Annette [21:28] So volunteerism is very key to helping many of our agencies in New Jersey, as it is key to helping our agency. The Access Family Services would not exist without the crew of volunteers that I have currently and have had that helped really build this shelter program. There's so much work, so much money involved, I had even the Girl Scouts helping me.

They can get on our website afsmj.org if they would like to get on and make a donation or contribute, they can contact me through the website, and we can talk about how they can contribute. It's a great way to give back.

Fei Wu [22:27] I love that. I so appreciate you, thank you for your time! I absolutely loved the conversation. It's an extension of our relationship and our conversation prior to this.

Annette [22:41] Thank you. Thank you for what you do and thank you for bringing awareness.