by Kate Branum • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
Ashley Ward had always been an independent, hard-working go-getter. When she finally stepped away from the wreckage of her two-year relationship, she realized she had temporarily lost many of the strong assets that made her whole. As she began to rebuild her life, rediscovering her interests and attributes, she refused to let the baggage she carried define her; rather, she used her experiences to find her purpose and create a life she’s proud of.
Throughout her childhood, Ward had witnessed domestic violence in her household. As she transitioned into her teenage years, she found herself gravitating toward boyfriends who treated her poorly.
“I (went for guys who would) belittle, abandon or put me down regularly and consistently,” Ward shared. “I found myself thinking that that was love. Anything good that crossed my path, I seemed to sabotage and I was very good at that.”
In her early twenties, Ward attended a party at one of her friend’s houses and met a guy. He was charming, charismatic and outgoing; naturally, Ward fell hard and the two became inseparable. He doted on Ward, showering her with thoughtful gifts and affection, and she basked in the sweet attention she had never received from any of her previous boyfriends.
“I didn’t see any of the red flags at that time,” Ward explained. “He would hunt me down to give me presents wherever I was–whether I was at the mall or with my mom at lunch. He was charming and charismatic and loved to be the center of attention anywhere we went; he would even show up randomly when I was out with my girlfriends. At the time I thought ‘Wow, he really loves me and he can’t wait to spend more time with me,’ so I was very excited about it at the time.”
As the relationship progressed, Ward started to notice a change. Her boyfriend’s strong personality began dominating the relationship, purposely overshadowing Ward’s opinions and forcing her into the background.
“He started to make sure that I knew that his opinions were more important than mine,” Ward stated. “He would talk over me, and he began to sever my close relationships with my friends and family–just really getting in the middle and causing drama between the two parties.”
The emotional abuse and manipulation continued, growing more and more prevalent as the days passed. Her once-loving boyfriend began to erode Ward’s confidence, picking apart her personality and criticizing her appearance. Trapped in an unhappy haze, Ward quit her job, per his request, and the couple moved in together, further distancing Ward from her close friends and family members.
“I was forced to rely solely on him, whether it was for friendship, emotional stability or financial needs,” Ward recalled. “All aspects of my life pointed back to him, which I think was exactly what he wanted. I had never found myself feeling more like a prisoner in my own home.”
Ward realized there were some serious problems in her relationship, but she never identified any of them as domestic abuse.
“I thought to myself, ‘Well, he’s not hitting me, so I don’t have the grounds to stand on to leave this relationship.’ I always wanted (to build) the kind of family I never had with the person I loved, so I really felt myself clinging to him and staying in the relationship,” Ward admitted.
“I found myself realizing, ‘I really don’t deserve this. This isn’t love, and I shouldn’t be in this type of relationship.” –Ashley Ward, domestic abuse survivor
Once the emotional abuse turned physical, Ward knew she needed to get out.
“I found myself realizing, ‘I really don’t deserve this. This isn’t love, and I shouldn’t be in this type of relationship.’” Ward said. “I also found myself unable to recognize who I was. Years ago, I had been this independent girl with three jobs, putting myself through college, and now I didn’t have any of that. I wasn’t being the person I knew I was designed to be.”
Ward decided to come up with a game plan. She began researching domestic violence agencies in Grand Rapids and stumbled across Safe Haven Ministries’ website; she was immediately drawn in by the faith-based aspect of the organization. Taking a chance, Ward signed herself up for a intake session.
“I had some strife inside, mentally, because I didn’t think I was really being abused, so I didn’t know if I should attend the intake session,” Ward said. “When I arrived, they welcomed me with open arms and just showed love and support. There was no judgement involved whatsoever.”
After joining an eight-week support group at the agency, Ward remembers experiencing a surge of clarity and reassurance. She began to recognize and understand the different types of abuse that she had experienced in her relationship, including emotional, financial, physical and verbal.
“I didn’t realize I was being taken advantage of,” Ward said. “(The program) really helped open my eyes to realize that I deserved better. I gained back my confidence and strength through Safe Haven to take care of myself and become the independent woman I had previously been.”
Tara Aday, Prevention and Education Director at Safe Haven, notes that one in four women will experience some form of domestic violence in her lifetime, and many of those women don’t categorize what they are experiencing as domestic violence. Safe Haven’s first priority is to spread awareness about the many different forms of domestic abuse.
“The vast majority of people who experience domestic violence will never call the police; most of those people will never actually reach out for help,” Aday pointed out. “What we know is that people who do disclose their situations will initially tell a friend, family member or someone in their faith community, but when we look at comprehensive numbers of those who seek services for domestic violence, there isn’t comprehensive data.”
While Safe Haven aims to provide options, support and resources for domestic violence victims, the organization recognizes that there is only one expert when it comes to someone’s story–the person who has actually lived it. Aday emphasizes that Safe Haven respects any decision a victim chooses to make.
“Allowing (the victim) to be the lead not only best serves them, but give them back the power and decision making that they may not have ever experienced in the life of their relationship, and that’s so important,” Aday said.
Upon the completion of the program, Ward knew what she had to do. She made the decision to end the relationship that had squelched her inner light—she was taking back control.
“Even though I knew I would face potential homelessness and I would be out of work, I realized that my safety and well being was more important than staying in the relationship,” Ward emphasized. “I actually sought financial help at the YWCA. They set me up with an apartment, which was a God-send.”
“The vast majority of people who experience domestic violence will never call the police.” –Tara Aday, Prevention and Education Director at Safe Haven
The next step was to get back out into the workforce. Ward, a graduate of Cornerstone University, was referred to an insurance agency by one of her previous professors. The agency hired her as a recruiter, which was a profession Ward was not familiar with. Despite her doubts, Ward ended up falling in love with the personable, hands-on nature of the position.
“Things just kept getting better and better,” Ward smiled. “It was a healing process and a journey, and it still is; I think it will be for a long time, but I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for Safe Haven.”
With a solid work ethic and unstoppable drive, Ward knew she had what it took to become an entrepreneur. She sought a way to mesh her years of experience and passion for recruiting with her urge to give back to Safe Haven. After months of brainstorming, Ward created Hire for Hope, a third-party recruiting firm that focuses on sales and operations in West Michigan. The organization, which officially launched in February, donates 10 percent of its revenue to Safe Haven.
“Throughout my recruiting career, I had gathered a strong network of professional individuals and I knew a couple of people who had pretty robust skills in terms of start-up companies; I reached out to them and they really were able to mentor me into taking the steps to start my company,” Ward said.
The ultimate goal of Hire for Hope is to build reputable customers service and close relationships with its clients.
“(I aim to) understand (all clients’) cultures and needs, because that’s really important,” Ward said. “I have a handful of really close clients that have stuck with me, and I’m so thankful for them. I keep finding myself getting new referrals for clients, which is great!”
Currently, Ward is working on extending Hire for Hope by adding a branch for career coaching and consulting for employees who find themselves laid off or out of a job. The programs would also benefit stay-at-home moms or women who haven’t worked in their household and would like to get back into the workforce. She hopes to launch the branch in 2018.
While Ward is exactly where she’d like to be career wise, she knows personal healing will be a process, and remains patient with herself.
“I am remarried to a wonderful man and that is going very well; he’s played a very large role in my healing process due to his patience and ability to meet me at my level and show my unconditional love–because I had never experienced that before,” Ward said.
In an effort to help those who have a similar experiences to her own, Ward has gotten involved in various speaking events and fundraisers facilitated by Safe Haven. By reaching out and sharing her inspiring story, Ward hopes to empower those facing domestic violence to break free.
“Remember that abuse comes in many different forms, and no one deserves a single one,” Ward said. “I just want (those experiencing domestic violence) to know that there is another life waiting for them out there; they don’t need to stay in a relationship that puts out the fire that they have–that each one of us has.”
Facts from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:
- In a single day in 2014, Michigan domestic violence programs provided services to 2,492 victims/survivors.
- In 2009, 103,331 incidents of domestic violence were reported to Michigan police. Many others went unreported.
- Over half of domestic violence homicides in Michigan are committed with guns.
- An estimated 18.2% of Michigan women will experience stalking in their lifetimes.
- 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the United States have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner.
- On a typical day, domestic violence hotlines receive approximately 21,000 calls, approximately 15 calls every minute.
- Intimate partner violence accounts for 15% of all violent crime.
- 72% of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner; 94% of the victims of these crimes are female.