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Corban University

February 18, 2020

“Each Little Victory”: Alumna Dani Thoren Helps Empower Women in Transition at Grace House

Most people envision using their intercultural studies degree in an overseas context—perhaps serving with a missions agency, a relief organization, or even a foreign embassy. But Dani Thoren (’18) has found a way to use her Corban degree without even leaving the city of Salem.

As the executive director for Grace House, a transitional women’s shelter, Dani puts her intercultural studies and ministry skills to the test almost daily as she helps women transition back into a life of freedom and responsibility.

“Just today, I used the Theology of Ministry class I took a few years ago to create a vision board for our team,” Dani says, explaining how her Corban education—both her bachelor’s in intercultural studies and her master’s in nonprofit leadership—have equipped her for her current role.

In addition to her classes, Dani’s experience as a Resident Assistant at Corban prepared her to oversee the ten or so women at Grace House. At Corban, she led a hall of young women adjusting to college life. Here at Grace House, she leads older, more experienced women as they adjust to life out of prison or off the streets. “You see a lot of similar dynamics—but here, it’s those dynamics with the addition of severe trauma in almost every case.”

The trauma experienced by women at Grace House has shaped their attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs, to the extent that learning how to become self-sufficient and empowered is almost like adapting to a new culture.

“A lot of our ladies come from corrections,” Dani says, emphasizing that prison culture is often very different from civilian culture. “These women are coming from a totally different world than I’ve ever experienced.” Being able to recognize crucial differences in attitudes, perceptions, and even language is essential to Dani’s role.

She gives the example of accountability, and how important it is for the women at Grace House to want the best for one another and hold each other accountable—which includes communicating about issues and informing staff of problems. But this mindset contrasts sharply with women’s past experiences in prison or on the streets, where “snitches get stitches.”

Another example is house rules such as curfew, which are put in place to help women succeed. “A lot of women are coming from situations where they were unable to make choices for themselves, such as prison or abusive situations,” says Dani, “so having set rules may feel like not being able to make choices for themselves.” Dani and her team are tasked with looking beyond women’s outward behavior to discover the underlying fears and triggers that might be causing it. “It’s really challenged me in gracefulness, understanding, and compassion,” says Dani.

Together, she and her team help redirect conversations about things like rules and accountability, helping women see that the survival skills that kept them safe in prison or on the streets will only hold them back from a life of freedom and self-sufficiency—and that’s what Grace House is all about.

Founded in 2013, Grace House is a faith-based transitional women’s shelter that prepares women for self-sufficiency. “We’re one of the last steps for these women before they’re completely self-sufficient, empowered to never go back to prison, the streets, or addiction,” says Dani.

Grace House accommodates about ten women, each of whom is given an individual progress plan by their case manager. Steps might include applying for jobs, finding a mental health counselor, paying off debts or fees, or applying for housing. Women spend approximately 6-9 months at Grace House, learning crucial social and conflict resolution skills as they live together.

Some women come to Grace House straight off the streets; others find it the perfect transition after completing the recovery program at Simonka Place. “We’ve been getting a lot of ladies from Simonka who are ready for the next step,” says Dani. Many women also come from Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, referred by their parole officers upon being released.

While women must be at least 30 days clean and sober before being accepted to the program, their criminal history is not a barrier for entrance; neither is their faith background. “That’s a new phrase I’m learning,” says Dani. “The word ‘barriers.’”

Each organization that provides services to homeless individuals has their own unique barriers, depending on the services they provide. Organizations in the Salem community can be thought of as operating along a spectrum from “low barrier” to “high-barrier.”

Dani gives the example of SafeSleep, a relatively new program that provides a safe place to sleep so women can avoid the dangers of sexual assault and get out of harsh weather for a night. “It’s a great program,” says Dani. “That’s one end of the spectrum. There are no barriers there.”

Along the spectrum between Grace House and Safe Sleep are shelters such as the Union Gospel Mission, which offers both guest services for a night—or even just a warm meal—and a 16-month recovery program, which has stricter requirements to allow men to move forward and commit to long-term change.

Other barriers include whether an organization serves men or women. Some organizations such as The Host serve young men and women (aged 18-24), while others serve families, such as Simonka, which serves women accompanied by children.

At the “high-barrier” end of the spectrum, Grace House is designed to serve women unaccompanied by children or a partner who are ready for self-sufficiency. To that end, Grace House employs only women, and helps clients overcome some of the hurdles that make reintegration into society difficult.

Even if a woman is ready for change, “There are systems of oppression built into our society that prevent that from happening,” says Dani. For example, it’s difficult enough to get housing in Salem, and nearly impossible with a criminal record and history of eviction.

When applying for housing, “you have to document that you’ve had an eviction before, and there are fees, so until you pay off those fees, you still have that barrier to getting housing,” Dani explains. No housing, and you can’t settle down enough to get a job. No job, and you can’t pay off your eviction fees. The cycle goes on and keeps women from moving forward, even when they’ve gotten clean and put in the work. “Unless somebody goes in and pulls them out of that system, they will not be successful.”

But at Grace House, victories happen. “Each little victory is a big victory,” says Dani. “We see women reuniting with their kids—whether they’re adult kids and they’re conversing again, or they’re young kids able to bring Christmas gifts to them. It’s beautiful to see. I love being a part of those exciting moments.”

Along with victories come challenges and heartbreak. “If a woman relapses, that hurts for weeks,” Dani says. To anyone who plans to enter her field, Dani advises, “Prepare to be heartbroken a lot. Hearing the traumas these women have gone through, you just want to bundle them up and give them a good life.” But you can’t. One of the biggest challenges Dani has experienced is learning to recognize that the Lord is the only one who can truly change a life and bring about reconciliation. “Grace House is just a piece of His plan,” says Dani. “It’s not because of us whether women succeed or fail. We’re doing our best because the Lord has placed us here, but at the end of the day, these women are His, not mine.”

Just as Dani can’t blame herself for the times when women fail or make mistakes, neither can she take pride from their successes. She emphasizes that victories belong only to the women themselves, and to the Lord. “They’re successful because of who they are, who the Lord created them to be, and the path He has them on. It’s not our glory; it’s His.”

Dani Thoren earned her bachelor’s degree in intercultural studies (’18) from Corban University, as well as her Master of Business Administration and Master of Arts in Christian Leadership (’19), with an emphasis in nonprofit leadership.