In order to make it to her job training program in San Bernardino, Deborah Smith would leave Santa Monica at 4 a.m. each morning to take two buses, a Metro train and a Metrolink rail before walking 2 miles to the office.
Few knew that she was coming from a local shelter. Fewer knew she was a survivor of domestic violence. Not even she knew how destructive and debilitating her personal life had been.
“You don’t realize you’re in a toxic situation until you come out of it,” she said.
Close to a year and a half ago, Smith broke free from an abusive relationship that she said lasted 30 years. In January, she started working for Wells Fargo with help from the Jewish Vocational Services of Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization that offers a variety of career services. And last month, she shared her tale at the organization’s Woman to Woman Conference at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
As communities across the country recognize Domestic Violence Awareness Month throughout October, Smith hopes her story resonates with some of what the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates to be 4.7 million women in the U.S. who experience physical violence by an intimate partner every year.
“You find yourself in a circle of violence, and you make excuses for why it happened because it wasn’t like that consistently,” she said. “A lot of it happened behind the scenes, but out in public I smiled and waved. It’s like starring in a play, and you know exactly how the play goes.
“I finally made the decision and thought, ‘This is enough. I may not be able to walk away the next time.’ I had always believed the, ‘Oh, but I’ve changed,’ but people don’t change.”
Leaving home with nothing but her wallet and the clothes she was wearing, Smith was determined to create a new life for herself. And Santa Monica served as an important setting on her path to recovery.
Smith was taken in at Sojourn, OPCC’s shelter for battered women. The Santa Monica-based nonprofit, formerly known as Ocean Park Community Center, is one of the largest social service agencies in the region.
During her stay at the shelter, Smith assisted her own healing process by taking free yoga classes and walking to the beach. She also met a counselor who encouraged her to join WoMentoring, a JVS career program that connects clients with professionals in a variety of fields.
Smith, who had previous experience in the banking industry, then learned about another JVS initiative called BankWork$ that prepares clients for work in the financial services sector and provides them with job placement assistance and career coaching.
That’s when she started using public transportation to commute daily from Santa Monica to San Bernardino. But with an eventual scholarship from the JVS Women’s Leadership Network, she was able to rent a car to complete the 8-week training program.
Smith now works for Wells Fargo as a personal banker and business/community relations specialist. Although she had several job offers after completing the training program, Smith said she chose Wells Fargo because of how respectfully she was treated as a customer at one of its local branches while she lived at Sojourn.
Smith, who has two grown children, described her abusive relationship as a moving car out of which she couldn’t jump for decades.
“I had to start my life over,” she said. “I’m back in traditional housing, I’m happy and safe, and I’m very thankful for the help I did receive at a time when I was basically starting from scratch.”