Proud to be from Pittsburgh: Local woman survived domestic violence, now helping other victims

PITTSBURGH — Domestic violence is happening in our neighborhoods. You might not know about it, but there are neighbors who are too afraid to leave and get help.

A local woman who escaped is now using her professional talents to help other victims feel more comfortable once they get the courage to leave.

“I’m your safe place. I can create one for you,” said Jennifer Zimmerman.

Everything she picks when she’s designing a room, from the pillows to the books to the candlelight, Zimmerman selects carefully.

“The blankets are important to me because they represent safety,” Zimmerman said.

“The artwork is intentional for me too.” One of the wall hangings reads: I’m going to make you so proud-note to self.

“I want to help people create sanctuaries, a place for healing because that’s what I had to do,” she said.

For years, Zimmerman was in relationships that were physically and mentally abusive.

“I’ve publicly be beaten. I remember being on all fours, it was summertime, and I had on shorts and I could just feel the gravel on my hands and knees and it hurt,” Zimmerman said. “And just as severe as those assaults were, they were worse behind closed doors.”

She knew there were shelters where she could find safety for her and her children.

“I chose not to go because I didn’t know what I was facing when I got there. Sleeping in a stranger’s bed was scary to me,” said Zimmerman. “When my son was very young, I didn’t want to have, to have him lay his little head on someone else’s pillow.”

And leaving was hard.

But seven years ago, after she finished her third round of chemotherapy, something in Jennifer changed. With a second chance at life right in front of her, she left.

“I have an obligation now to share my story,” said Zimmerman. “When you share your story it creates a safe place for people to talk and share their stories so they don’t feel alone.”

Zimmerman created one of those safe places right before our eyes. She turned part of a conference room at the Center For Victims office into her vision of a bedroom at their shelter. She’s volunteering her interior design talents to transform seven of them at their emergency shelter.

As she mentioned, all of the pieces are intentional. Some come from her kids, like a broken porch post that her son turned into a lamp and a painting that her daughter did.

She told us a story about a conversation about paint color that really solidified her calling to help victims of domestic violence.

“He asked me ‘do you think the colors really matter to them?’” Zimmerman explained. “The problem is they do care about the paint on the wall, they just don’t think anyone else does. But I do.”

“Her perspective is so valuable because she understand what it feels like to be in that space,” said Bethany Wingerson, director of Domestic Violence Services at Center for Victims. “Those soft touches and the warm, comforting environment to sleep in, provides a sense of security.”

Between 300 to 400 men, women and children find comfort at the emergency shelter every year. Wingerson says that since the pandemic, people are staying there longer because permanent housing is harder to come by.

“Which has been difficult. A crisis program and emergency services are meant to be very fast paced and quick turnaround times and that hasn’t been the case,” said Wingerson.

She says families used to stay for 4-6 weeks and now it’s closer to 6-8 weeks.

“We’re working with people through those challenges, supporting them through the stress of that length of time because being in a shelter is certainly not anyone’s first choice,” said Wingerson. “It’s difficult, it’s stressful, so being there longer than normal is hard.”

But Wingerson is hopeful the touches Zimmerman will be putting into the bedrooms will help them feel more at home.

“The generosity that you can just feel from her, the genuine desire to give something back, and to just give somebody a little bit of peacefulness, that she realizes is not easy to find in those moments, is incredible,” said Wingerson.

“I want to go into these spaces and I want men, women and children to know that it is OK to leave,” said Zimmerman. “You will be taken care of and you will be safe.”

The project is part of a group she created called (r I s e). It helps support men, women, and children who have experienced sexual or domestic violence. She wants them to know there is light after darkness.

“Now I’m filled with so much joy, pure joy, I can’t contain it! I want people to understand you can have it too. There’s hope and there’s help,” said Zimmerman.

Click here for more information about (r I s e).

Click here for more information about the Center for Victims.