A Haven for the Abused : Shelter: Seal Beach-based Interval House has received a presidential award for offering battered women 'a safe place to live and hope for the future.'

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When her soon-to-be-husband began spying on her as she left work, Yolanda Mendoza was surprised. When he sneaked around her back yard to make sure she was home, she began to wonder about him.

After they were married, he began erupting in rages when he thought their home was not clean enough.

When he started hitting and slapping her as she showered, Mendoza became terrified.

The breaking point came after 14 long and tearful years of marriage, when her husband pointed a gun at her during an argument. She decided she had had enough, but she did not know where to turn.

Uncertain of a future alone with her young son and haunted by her husband's prediction that "if you ever leave me, you'll be out on the street," Mendoza needed a helping hand.

The Orange woman got that help and began what she said was the first day of the rest of her life 2 1/2 years ago when she entered a shelter for abused women run by the Seal Beach-based Interval House.

In recognition of its 13 years of service, Interval House was praised this month by President Bush, who awarded the organization a Daily Point of Light award for offering women such as Mendoza "a safe place to live and hope for the future."

It is a sentiment with which many "graduates" of the Interval House program agree. For them, Interval House provided solace during difficult times in their lives and helped them begin the process of understanding themselves and coming to terms with the abuse by their spouses.

More than 6,000 women have crossed that threshold at one of Interval House's two primary shelters or at one of its half a dozen safehouses, making the often-frightening journey from an abusive relationship into a new environment of support, counseling and recovery.

"It changed my whole belief system. I came to understand I didn't deserve this," said Barbara Carlson of Orange, who came to a shelter five years ago after suffering through three years of a marriage that she said was filled with physical and mental abuse. "I was lovable. I was OK. It wasn't my fault."

The shelters are nondescript, modest and bright. One in northwest Orange County is a converted tract home in a quiet residential neighborhood.

Up to 55 women and their children can live in Interval House's facilities at one time. Their length of stay ranges from a few days to several months, depending on each woman's situation.

A spectrum of races and backgrounds are represented at the shelters, from a white secretary to an Asian homemaker and a Latino businesswoman.

Yet they share remarkably similar experiences.

"Even though there were nine ladies and children there, it was still peaceful," Carlson said of her time at a shelter. "There was no threat of attack there. . . . We all had the same stories."

According to experts, the abuse often begins with verbal tirades for which the boyfriend or husband later apologizes. Then, the anger intensifies and the abuse becomes physical.

Many women at the shelter said they had separated from their abusers before, only to be lured back with promises that the situation would improve or out of fear of being alone.

Many also said that by the time they arrived at Interval House, they felt guilty that their own behavior had caused the abuse. It is one of many myths shelter officials seek to dispel.

The women spend time understanding the root causes of the abuse and come to realize they are not to blame.

They also talk with domestic violence counselors and receive help in getting through the legal entanglements of divorce and child custody. Information about housing and job opportunities is also offered. And to match the shelters' diversity, some counselors speak Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Cambodian and Spanish.

"They need a safe place where people understand them," Executive Director Carol Williams said. "They need a place where they can get support."

Mendoza and Carlson are Interval House success stories. Mendoza divorced her husband, took a job as a supervisor at an electronics firm, purchased a condominium with her sister, and is thinking about going back to school. Carlson now works as a secretary and is active in both church and Interval House activities.

Others are not as lucky. Hundreds, in fact, have been turned away over the years because Interval House simply does not have room for them, officials said. Even though the center recently expanded its facilities, the need for more shelters is still great.

That is a fact that troubles Mendoza, especially when she thinks about how Interval House changed her life.

"Now when I talk to (my ex-husband), he's not a scary person to me," she said. "I learned that I'm a person and should not be treated like an animal."

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