05 July 2018

A haven of hope

Shocked to learn about the rates of domestic violence in her own backyard, Sharon Levy of Bartier Perry is  doing what she believes lawyers do best and helping people when they need it most, writes DIANE NAZAROFF.

It was a business lunch that changed Sharon Levy’s life and inspired the corporate building and construction lawyer to set up a women’s refuge. The guest speaker was the then mayor of the Hills Shire Council, Yvonne Keane, who was also the chairwoman of The Sanctuary – The Hills Women’s Shelter. The topic was domestic violence.

“She was telling stories which spoke about the way in which domestic violence did not discriminate,” the Bartier Perry senior associate says.

Levy was stunned to learn that one in two women who sought crisis accommodation were turned away.

“And the fact that one woman a week in Australia is killed by a current or former partner.”

The statistics “just blew” Levy’s mind.

“It haunted me to think, ‘When they are turned away, where do they go?’

“Do they stay with their partner? Or do they live on the streets? Or do they live in cars with their children? It really affected me.”

After some sleepless nights, Levy set about trying to fix the problem.

“I found out that Penrith actually had the second highest reported rate of domestic violence in the metropolitan area,” the mother of three says.

“I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it – and worse still that it had been underneath my nose all of that time and I had just been unaware, I guess, living and working in a cushy office.”

Levy inspected The Sanctuary and met with Annabelle Daniel, the chief executive officer of Women’s Community Shelters, the charity that ran the shelter. After forming a board, she incorporated The Haven – Nepean Women’s Shelter last July.

Then came the challenges, the first of which was finding a suitable rental property in Penrith. This was not an easy task, as it needed to have six bedrooms, two kitchens and three bathrooms.

But the challenge wasn’t limited to identifying appropriate properties, as not everyone was willing to lease to a refuge. “That was difficult,” she says, citing two knockbacks.

Then she had to get development consent, which meant notifying neighbours. Again, she found that some people were unwilling to have a refuge next door due to the “stigma attached to it”.

 “The concerns weren’t warranted. There are no drugs or alcohol on premises – it’s a completely dry house,” Levy says.

When it was time to get the refuge ready, however, local schools, businesses and volunteers all pitched in. A local security firm donated and installed CCTV, a painting firm rejuvenated the entire property, Bunnings built a vegetable patch and fixed up the backyard, and businesses donated items such as bedding and whitegoods.

“We’ve also had local schools donating appliances, toasters and that kind of thing, and running cupcake stalls to raise awareness but also to raise money for us,” Levy says.

The Haven costs $500,000 a year to operate and while half of the money comes from Women’s Community Shelters, which is partly subsidised by the state government, the balance comes from community fundraising and philanthropy.

Levy has no doubt the community will keep funding it, giving the example of local rugby club Penrith Panthers, which has promised $35,000 a year for the next three years.

“So that’s our rent covered for the next three years – that’s already a big step up,” she says.

“And we are looking at other club grants, and local businesses and other entities that are willing to support us.”

The Haven opened on 16 April this year, and Levy says it was full within two weeks.

“It saddens me to think that there was such a need for us,” she says.

“But I was comforted to know that these women have now escaped a life of fear.”

Each year, the refuge will provide close to 7,000 nights of refuge for those fleeing domestic violence.

“When you walk in, you can hear kids playing and babies laughing and just being kids, and mums being able to play with these children,” she says.

“Many of these children are so young that they actually won’t know a life of violence; they will never remember the fear.

“That brought me to tears instantly, knowing we had played a hand in changing these people’s lives.”

On Mother’s Day, a local school purchased Westfield gift cards so the children at the refuge could give one to their mums.

“Some of these women have not been able to buy new clothes or new bras for 10 years and now they have the financial freedom to do that,” Levy says.

Her aim for The Haven is a 100 per cent strike rate, with no one returning to a life of violence.

“The women get to stay with us for three months – some stay more, some stay less – before they transition out into housing,” she says.

“In that time, we provide enough support to enable them to stand on their own feet and transition into a life free of violence.”

Levy fits her role at the refuge around her day job at Bartier Perry, which she says has been “wonderful” in offering support and flexible work arrangements.

The firm’s employees have also embraced her refuge work by cooking and collecting meals for the refuge, and donating clothes and beds.

For the lawyer of 17 years, the extracurricular job has been a rewarding challenge that “was totally unintentional and unexpected”.

“I think it all comes down to that inherent [nature we have] as lawyers, that we try to do for people what they can’t necessarily do for themselves.”