SPONSORED: When Suzi Pearson, executive director of Abused Women's Aid in Crisis (AWAIC, pronounced "awake"), meets with potential donors, she has a story she likes to tell.

Years ago, one of AWAIC's prevention speakers was at a local middle school, explaining what an abusive relationship looks like. His presentation resonated with one of the young girls in class; what he was describing sounded awfully similar to her mother's home life.

"She went home and told her mom, 'Look at this information, I think you're in an abusive relationship,'" Pearson said. "(The) mom called us really upset, asking how we could tell her daughter these things. But a few days later, (the) mom called again and said, 'I think I am in an abusive relationship and it's not safe for me to be at home.'"

The woman and her daughter soon came to the shelter, working their way through AWAIC's various programs — ranging from recognizing domestic abuse to legal advocacy — before leaving the toxic relationship and relocating.

"The continuum of services we provide greatly touched those lives," Pearson said. "It's incredible that it all started with one kid in a classroom."

A place to breathe

Many people in Anchorage might hold the notion that AWAIC is simply an emergency shelter. While that's partially true — the non-profit provides a 52-bed shelter where victims are safe from emergency abuse, the largest of its kind in the state — the breadth of their services encompasses so much more.

They also provide personal support, advocacy and support groups; maintain a 24-hour crisis line; and have a myriad of programs available to help victims, ranging from emergency financial aid and relocation, to preventing violence through education and outreach.

"We work with people to first be safe and then start addressing what they identify as their needs," Pearson said.

Those self-identified needs can be anything from support in finding housing or landing a job, to getting substance abuse help or learning how to open a bank account.

What AWAIC does best, though, Pearson said, is provide a safe and non-judgmental environment for those experiencing domestic violence. A place to breathe. A place to think.

"If someone needs to come back 20 times, that's the number they need to come back, they need that safe place," Pearson said. "It's very difficult to leave an abusive relationship, so the fact they know they can always come back to AWAIC is really critical."

This  is particularly significant in Alaska, Pearson said, a state that experiences the most domestic violence in the nation. According to the UAA Justice Center, one in two Alaska women experience domestic or sexual abuse in their lifetime. In the last year, more than 7,000 women have been abuse victims in Anchorage alone.

"When you look at those stats, it's evident that domestic violence shelters are so necessary," Pearson said. "We have almost 300,000 people in this community, but only 52 beds. We've been at or over capacity for a decade — that shows you that the demand for our services is critical."

Continuing support

As a non-profit, AWAIC is constantly working to stay nimble in the current economy and continue to grow to meet demand.

AWAIC is currently in the middle of a campaign to raise funds for an expansion that would add 15 more beds, three of which would be designated for male victims (now, males who seek aid are put up in hotels), as well as create more designated office spaces to house their services.

Another way they continue to grow is by working with investment management bankers at First National Bank Alaska to help turn their savings into greater amounts.

"We have a commercial banker (at First National) who finds me the resources I need," said Susan Peterson, AWAIC's Finance Director. "They help us much like a community member would."

Beyond support from their bank and grants from the state, another $900,000 comes from individual donors annually.

"It's expensive to do what we do for the community," Pearson said.

There's no shortage of success stories in Pearson's repertoire or in the number of people who believe in the non-profit's mission.

For the past two New Year's Days, AWAIC has been the recipient of Kaladi Brothers New Year's Day of Giving. Profits from every beverage and baked good sold at Kaladi's locations on January 1 went directly to AWAIC. The baristas volunteered their time, working strictly for tips. Sponsors chipped in to help match the funds raised.

Last year, AWAIC was gifted approximately $25,000 from the New Year's Day of Giving. It was a sum enough to keep the lights on and survivors safe for about five days.

"We have great relationships with people in our community who believe in what we're doing," Pearson said. "How can you not get behind helping people who are recovering from domestic violence? We have people dedicated to the mission. Without them we wouldn't be able to do what we do."

This article was produced by the creative services department of theAnchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.