A Texas couple create a new community to help women exit cycles of abuse.
This feature was originally published in the Summer 2016 issue of Philanthropy Magazine.
“Excuse me, do you know anything about these apartments? I drive by them every day and they’re just beautiful. When will they be available for rent?”
I overhear this query upon walking into the welcome lobby of the Gatehouse, a 61-acre community in Grapevine, Texas, built to serve women and children trapped in cycles of domestic violence, unemployment, and poverty. The aesthetic is so cheery and elegant, the hopeful walk-in’s mistake makes sense.
“Oh, these apartments are not for rent,” a staff person explains gently. “We exist to serve women and children in crisis who need a home.” Though it’s encircled by dry Texas brush, freeways, and the landing strips of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, the Gatehouse is an oasis.
Founded by Lisa Rose with her husband, Matt, executive chairman of BNSF, one of America’s largest railroad companies, the Gatehouse welcomed its first residents in April 2015. “Women have been calling since we’ve had heaped-up dirt and a website,” Lisa says. So far, 47 women and 80 children have been accepted into the Gatehouse’s supportive living program, although the organization has received over 950 requests.
The Gatehouse is a Christian response to domestic violence. It aims not just to shelter women by offering safe refuge, but also to help them achieve real success in life. It provides practical resources to help women become self-supporting and independent. It offers help in healing relationships. It ministers to children and entire families. And it stands by its residents for an extended period of time as they build a new existence for themselves.
The Gatehouse stands out among transitional housing programs in the range of its offerings: shelter, child care, transportation, food, clothing, medical care (including dental and vision), professional counseling, and spiritual resources. “There are many good programs out there,” says Deborah Lyons, architect of the Gatehouse’s Independent Life Program, “but we haven’t found any that offer such a comprehensive menu of services a woman needs in order to thrive.”
The program looks for candidates who are ready to end cycles of abuse, who are hungry for freedom and responsibility and simply need the support to get there. Then it works hard to instill confidence and practical independence, erasing perceptions of victimhood. “We are not a shelter. We are a community,” says Lisa Rose. “We are a pathway to permanent change.”
Starting small—and getting big
Rose admits she’s an unlikely face for such a project, having no personal experience with abuse. But since 2008, she has been running something called First Friday, a monthly gathering of women at a Dallas movie theater to hear “experts in their field give proven, practical ways to navigate life’s daily challenges.” In five years, attendance grew from 40 to 400 women, spanning many ages and walks of life.
By 2011, First Friday participants were hungering for tangible ways of improving their community. Rose founded a nonprofit called projectHandUp, where women could apply to receive funds for needs like dental work or a car. It was satisfying, but the sporadic financial gifts could not fix deeper problems Rose and her fellow volunteers were increasingly concerned about, such as domestic abuse, unemployment, and crime.
Around this time, Rose started volunteering as an emergency-assistance caseworker at a Dallas jail. That’s where she met Deborah Lyons, who was managing housing assistance for homeless women and children. The two women began discussing ways to get at the deeper roots of domestic violence.
“Lisa had seen the repetitiveness of other programs. Every other month the women need help with their electric bill and their rent. Problems go on and on.” Grown children of beneficiaries were coming in with the same problems. “We were bothered by the lack of permanence, of change…by the fact that what was being given was so temporary.”
The program created by Lyons was having some long-term success with women from many socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. But she was constrained by government budgeting and short cycles that were forcing the participants to head back into problematic environments before they had a chance to complete their degrees. Moreover, there was friction between the faith-based paradigm of Lyons’s program and its public funding. The two women began dreaming of expanding the program in a privately funded apartment building, with a little chapel, additional social supports, and more ambitious services. The idea appealed to the leaders of the First Friday group, which would supply mentors and volunteers, and Lisa and Matt Rose offered to fund it. They found a six-acre site. Then they hesitated.
“I got an awful feeling that something wasn’t right,” she recalls. She wanted the program to be more ambitious. “I told my husband. And he got on the phone with his real-estate partner and said, ‘John, she needs more land.’”
They wound up closing on 61 acres, exploding Lyons’s original vision of basic services for 24 families. The new property would fit 96 families, a clothing store, a chapel, an events center, and more. “It’s like a city,” Rose says, still marveling at the potential of the effort she’s now overseeing.
A healing environment
Rose and her colleagues consistently speak the language of faith when they reflect on the provision of resources and the original inspiration for the Gatehouse. But they also are pouring large measures of human ingenuity and effort into building it. When it comes to the facility’s physical environment, they’re leaving no rock unturned.
“Even amid sad, traumatic stories,” Lisa says, “you can still have a happy environment.” The aesthetic is clean and airy, punctuated by photographs of radiant mothers and flowers. Four “neighborhoods” are arranged in wings with front patios facing one another to encourage sociability. Withdrawal, both within the facility and from the challenges of the outside world, is discouraged.
“This is about engagement,” Rose says. “It’s physical, spiritual, mental, emotional healing. It’s re-engaging for the first time as yourself for yourself.”
While Gatehouse “members”—as the resident women are called—are granted space to progress at their own pace, they do so within a well-developed structure. They can come to the Gatehouse without a job, but in order to stay they need to either become employed or enroll in school. If they don’t have a car, the program provides one so they can leave the premises. For mothers of young children, moderately priced day care can be arranged. Gatehouse leaders hope to build a dedicated day-care facility and preschool on site in the next year.
On the one hand, the Gatehouse strives to get residents fully and happily integrated into the world beyond—working jobs, going to classes, attending events, worshiping in churches, patronizing local businesses, becoming involved in civic groups. At the same time, the ethos of the organization and physical structure of the property resemble a protective cocoon. All of the women and children are surrounded and enfolded with supports that make them feel safe enough to take chances, grow, and transform themselves.
“A gatehouse is a small house that leads to a bigger property,” Rose says, explaining the name choice. “This is the entry to their bigger life.”
When they walk into their Gatehouse homes for the first time, it’s not uncommon for women to tear up. Each bed is covered with a unique, handmade quilt. Above their beds are framed portraits of something their children (if they are mothers) conveyed about their life dreams during the intake interview process. When a member graduates from the program, she and her family can take everything but the furniture—a practical help in restarting the next chapter, and a reminder of the cocoon that nurtured them to independence.
Matt and Lisa Rose’s prominence as active and generous citizens within the larger Dallas-Fort Worth community has attracted support to the Gatehouse from all over the city—including other individual donors, big corporations, small businesses, and civic groups. Hundreds of volunteers have logged more than 11,500 hours mentoring, managing donations, setting up apartments, taking care of the grounds, providing transportation, and more. The Eagle Scouts built toy chests for the Gatehouse children; Girl Scouts painted them. J. C. Penney and Kimberly-Clark provide many of the personal products used by residents. IBM, AT&T, and Accenture help with electronics and communications. Texas Health Resources is a tenant on the property, providing dental services of all sorts for a flat fee of $35.
When women arrive, they’re ushered into a boutique called Keeps, where they’re given a voucher to buy brand-new clothes. They get instruction on what’s appropriate for whatever workplace they’re entering, and advice on what colors and styles suit their skin tones and figures. A voucher is also provided for the general store next door that is stocked with healthy food items. These gifts have the power to shift a mindset.
“Over the course of my relationship with [the abuser],” a Gatehouse member recently wrote, “I gradually stopped caring for myself and slowly started dressing rattier and rattier. A combination of financial punishment and wanting more and more to look like part of the background means that most of my clothing right now is bland, loose, and designed to look like I am unimportant. All of what I own, currently, is secondhand from a friend.
“When I knew I had to face my abuser in court for a custody hearing, I was shaking inside and out. My lawyer said to ‘wear something that looks as if you have respect for the court proceedings,’ but the truth is, I didn’t even know how to wear something that looked like I had respect for myself, let alone the court. I had to bring a friend to my appointment at Keeps because my barometer for how to dress is so broken. I tried on multiple outfits and as I kept looking at myself in the mirror I began to see someone I didn’t know was still there.
“The morning of my hearing I suited up and chose the most official outfit they’d given me. As I walked into the courthouse I had my shoulders back and my chin up, and more than one person thought I was a lawyer. I felt like a million bucks. When I had to speak directly to the judge, right in front of him, something about being dressed properly and looking like I was valuable made it easier to act like I was.”
Everything but the kitchen sink
Those are the feelings the Gatehouse aims to inculcate in all of its members: bold, sunny, unapologetic, hopeful. They’re not just aiming to help them achieve material security, but also to exalt the sense of possibility in women whose insides and sense of self have been distorted. “We want them to find what God made them to do, and be able to fulfill their God-given potential,” says Lisa.
With the Gatehouse open barely over a year, no one has yet graduated from its programs, but the carefully conceived aim of everything it does is to put each woman on a trajectory to permanent independence. To make sure new enrollees are committed to really changing their lives, the intake process requires a referral, a 15-page application, and an interview. The program, now half full, chooses its members with an eye to those who are most ready to benefit from its intensive services; Lyons expects it to be fully enrolled by the end of 2017. The Gatehouse has had to ask one member to leave after enrollment, because of her unwillingness to put forth the effort expected.
The Independent Life Program involves daily contact with an adviser, and weekly sessions addressing areas like household functioning, budgeting and debt resolution, income and employment, education and training, legal issues, and personal and spiritual development. After the first three or so months, the member begins to formulate long-term career aspirations with her adviser, including whether further education or skills training is needed. As she gets jobs, she is expected to contribute to her expenses, including paying rent (although rent payments are held in escrow and returned to the participant at graduation). Professional counseling and twice-weekly classes teaching life skills are ongoing.
By the end of her first year, the member is expected to be fully engaged in self-education, maintaining employment, and learning to live stably, with the goal of self-support in sight. Within two years a member should have completed her education, begun a career, and learned to manage her household capably. At graduation, generally around two and a half years in, she will be able to support her family economically. The goal is women who are strong and independent while also cognizant of their social and spiritual needs. It is hoped that at graduation each participant can wholeheartedly affirm Mark 5:34—“Daughter, your faith has made you whole; go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
The annual operating budget for all this is $4 million, with an estimated $35,000 needed for each member to “thrive.” In addition to the many millions they are putting in themselves, Lisa and Matt Rose are currently raising $60 million for an endowment so the Gatehouse might live on decades after its founders retire. Current donors are a Who’s Who of Dallas and Fort Worth philanthropists: the Rowlings, Perots, and Washburnes, and the Rees-Jones, Amon Carter, and Sid Richardson foundations. The Gatehouse has no government funding.
While Matt Rose has long been a major supporter (and board member) of the Boy Scouts of America, and generous supporter of think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and other contributors to public policy, this enterprise is Lisa Rose’s first major philanthropic effort. The demands of raising children previously kept her volunteering close to home, or focused on her church, where she led two women’s ministries for more than 20 years. But she is a methodical doer, unafraid of big demands, and powered by a desire to help others that comes from her deep Christian faith.
“I wasn’t raised in a family that was philanthropic,” she notes. “We never talked about helping other people.” Now, though, her personal example is inspiring others. John Fegan, Matt Rose’s longtime real-estate partner who has served as the Gatehouse’s construction developer on a pro bono basis, says, “When I signed on, what took me aback was how big it was. I didn’t see Lisa’s vision. I tried to get them to go smaller.” Today, he’s totally won over.
The Gatehouse’s ambitions seem to be expanding every week. Community outreach is on the rise. There is interest in accommodating women with larger families. There are discussions about a longitudinal study tracking the later life course of Gatehouse members.
Meanwhile, the beds are made, the lawns manicured, the shelves stocked, the counselors busy. Women and children who have suffered are moving in and preparing to take control of their lives. Everyone is expecting transformation.
“I want these women to have a second chance,” says Fegan, “to see what their real lives are like after the end of abuse. But watching the kids bloom—that’s generational. That’s the stuff that will last, and break an ugly cycle.”
This feature was originally published by Anne Snyder in the Summer 2016 Issue of Philanthropy Magazine.