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Hannah Van Sickle
Walnut Woods Founder and Executive Director Julie Bishop (L) and Natalia Bystrianyk (R) on Railroad Street in Great Barrington.

On the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, local woman envisions a transitional home for women and children fleeing domestic violence

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By Sunday, Nov 25, 2018 Life In the Berkshires 1

Today, Nov. 25, 2018, is the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Julie Bishop shares her vision for Walnut Woods, a transitional housing project for women and children facing domestic violence. 

Great Barrington — Julie Bishop has a rather large item on her holiday wish list this year; if it comes to fruition, she will not be the beneficiary. But she has been in the shoes of those who will benefit, which makes the gift all the more meaningful and impactful. Bishop, a Great Barrington resident and single mother of two, is the Founder and Executive Director of Walnut Woods, a transitional home for courageous women and their children who have left their homes due to domestic violence. 

The roots of this ambitious project run deep and close to Bishop’s heart: in 2011, she left a mentally abusive relationship that had turned violent; in doing do, she experienced first hand the additional trauma of having no place to go — which is why she is choosing to give back, particularly at this auspicious time of year, by harnessing community support to fund a home for five women and their children in time for the holidays.

“Facing homelessness was horrifying for me,” says Bishop. “I couldn’t find an affordable apartment,” she recalls of this time in her life eight years ago. While Bishop survived by sleeping on friends’ couches or at times in her car, the experience brought into sharp focus the lack of affordable housing in Berkshire County. Statewide there are over 8,900 calls per year on the domestic violence hotline asking for shelter. There are fewer than 26 specialized shelters with just over 400 beds in the entire state of Massachusetts to accommodate these calls. Local temporary housing for the homeless is critically full; transitional housing in South Berkshire County is full, including 10 beds at Construct, Inc.; roughly 60 people are currently on waitlists as of this month.

“If I did not have the education I have, I would not have been able to do this on my own — you really have to jump hoops,” Bishop added of the barriers she encountered at every turn. Bishop ultimately began to seek out other women, in similar circumstances, with whom she could partner — not only to share living expenses like rent and utilities, but also to create a sense of community to carry them through challenging times. “We did it one family at a time — to make it work for everyone,” Bishop explains. “Sometimes women came [into our home] by themselves, sometimes women came with children, and they stayed anywhere from three months to a year….and then they would move on.” In short, Bishop made the best of a terribly difficult situation by surrounding herself with others who could understand her plight, and whose plight was familiar to her. She explains, “What helped the women [I met] the most?” she asks before offering an answer. “My belief in them, my support, and my love is what transformed them the most.” It is in part due to this symbiotic — or mutually beneficial relationship — that Bishop is now hoping to replicate her model on a larger scale. 

Walnut Woods was born of Bishop’s own experience living in a rural area where the shortage of affordable housing poses particular challenges for vulnerable families facing isolation, limited transportation, limited access to services, in addition to social stigma. “It’s the isolation,” says Natalia Bystrianyk, another single mother who has faced similar challenges. “You want to isolate yourself because you are embarrassed,” is how she puts it. “And there is a stigma attached with not being able to support yourself — and your family — as well as facing homelessness,” Bishop chimes in. The two women, who are colleagues at the Stanton Home in Great Barrington, can speak not only about the pervasive alienation of single mothers, but also what is needed in order to enable women in these situations to thrive. 

“Healing happens in community, when like minded people come together,” is how Bishop sees it. Which is why she believes this project is vital. Her goal for Walnut Woods is to secure a rural, New England farm — one with enough acreage to allow, in time, for permanent housing — that can provide transitional housing for women and their children who are facing homelessness in the face of domestic abuse. 

“The initial need is transitional housing,” Bishop says. “The more you are moving people around [who have experienced trauma] the worse it is” she adds. Her hope is to create spaces for mothers and children that are homelike — spaces that, from the outside looking in, are indistinguishable from any other family home. “A true New England farmhouse — with private suites for families — with all the touches of home,” is how Bishop puts it. “A safe, beautiful, functional and aesthetically pleasing place in which they can heal.”

Christina’s House in Springfield and the Stanton Home in Great Barrington are two intentional, shared living communities that have most inspired Bishop in her work. In fact, her vision for Walnut Woods is to create a community that addresses the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of those who seek solace there. 

“It’s not just about the housing,” she emphasizes. The model she continually looks to is one that cares for the whole person, something that will be achieved at Walnut Woods through specific programming. “Part of  participating in the program is a willingness to give ten hours a week to the community,” Bishop explains. Whether an individual is able to provide child care or to cook meals, this component gives residents the opportunity to develop skills — often basic life skills they might not have had prior. Therapeutic programming will include the use of animals, nature and the earth — from growing herbs and cut flowers to creating botanical products for the home — all of which will not only help to sustain the project but also will help the population she is serving. 

Berkshire County is home to myriad residential communities that aim to address the needs of specific populations ranging from the sick and the elderly to those facing challenges of addiction and mental illness. Women and children who are leaving domestic abuse — or who have experienced a major life catastrophe — are just as deserving of a space in which to regroup, and reshape their lives. To get back on their feet. “There are more than five women who need this, but I have to start somewhere,” is Bishop’s outlook.  “Why not start one woman at a time?” she adds. Something Bishop was courageous enough to do in her own life, and is now ambitious enough to take to the next level.  

Bishop is approaching this project in a multitude of ways. She is working collaboratively with existing and aligned local and state programs such as The Elizabeth Freeman Center, Construct Inc., Sisters For Peace’s R.E.A.C.H, Berkshire Housing Development, and Berkshire Community Action Council to provide a curriculum of support for Walnut Woods; she has assembled a founding board of six women (including Bystrianyk); and she has enlisted the help of a volunteer fundraiser in the community who is lending time each week to building relationships with those who might be in a position to support Walnut Woods. 

Bishop’s professional background as a Certified Integrative Coach — she holds master certification in leadership, business and personal development — has also been a boon. Bystrianyk’s talents as a graphic designer have been instrumental as well. Her logo for Walnut Woods is a butterfly, the quintessential symbol of transformation. And her words to complement the image are fitting: “It’s not about the housing, it’s about the experience….and being held in a nurturing, supportive way” Bystrianyk says. “Julie is helping to make people realize they are worth something — that they are worthy — and [supporting Walnut Woods] is a way to help others move forward, like they matter. It is so much easier to move forward in your life when you feel safe and held, like you matter.”

Walnut Woods has obtained official 501(c)3 nonprofit status thanks to their fiscal sponsor, Angels for Angels; they are proudly participating in FaceBook’s Giving Tuesday where all dollars donated will be matched by PayPal. For more information, or to make a tax deductible donation, visit: https://www.gofundme.com/WalnutWoods-MakeAMiracle.


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