After her husband died, Marilyn Gierczak, who had worked to help victims of domestic violence in Ozaukee County, wanted a new outlet for her altruistic instincts. She found it in the mountains of Kentucky.
When Marilyn Gierczak’s husband Dick died in 2007, she knew her life would change, but she never envisioned working in a domestic violence shelter in the Appalachian Mountain area of eastern Kentucky.
That is what she has been doing since August, when she made a nine-month volunteer commitment to the Christian Appalachian Project, which was started in 1958 by Father Ralph Beiting, a Catholic priest who has worked in the area since 1950.
“One of its requirements is a face-to-face interview before you make your final decision,” said Gierczak, who is celebrating the holidays at her Saukville home with her family but will head back to Kentucky on Jan. 3.
“I went down in June for that interview and fell in love. I knew this is where God wanted me.”
Gierczak is familiar with the dynamics of domestic violence. She was the executive director of Advocates of Ozaukee, which operates a shelter and support groups for victims of domestic violence, for nine years, then joined Sojourner Truth House in Milwaukee, also a domestic violence shelter.
She was the executive director of Interfaith Caregivers in Ozaukee County when her husband died, but left that position a year later.
A former nun, Gierczak said she considered returning to the convent because she felt so lost and yearned for a place to belong.
“But I didn’t think I could handle the conservative views of some of the nuns,” she said.
She finds it ironic that she is now being challenged to be respectful of fundamentalist Christian views.
“This is the Bible Belt and you need to respect each other’s faith,” she said. “It’s stretching the comfort zone.”
Gierczak first learned about the program nine months after her husband died. Jane Marotz, who worked at Advocates, told her she might join and invited Gierczak to explore it, but Gierczak said she needed to be with her family.
A year later, Gierczak was thinking about the program when Marotz called her for a letter of reference and repeated her invitation. The next day, there was a story on the Christian Appalachian Project on NBC news.
“I have learned when messages come from the far right or left in bunches, you pay attention,” Gierczak said. “These are not accidents. They are calls. So I went on-line and started the application process.”
Gierczak said she worried about leaving her three adult children and two grandsons.
“But I have to trust that God will take care of them through family and friends. I pray for that every day,” she said.
The last four months have confirmed her decision, Gierczak said.
“I was drawn to it because of its three tenets — community, spirituality and service,” she said. “It’s a good fit.”
There are 12 people in her house, ranging in age from 18 to 80. But that changes as volunteers come and go, she said.
During the past four months, Gierczak has driven vans on steep, winding roads that are often slick from rain or fog; put the shelter in lock-down when an abuser was released from jail and looking for his wife; and offered shelter to female volunteers who were followed by men in a pickup truck who stuck guns out the windows and pointed them at the women.
She has learned that “Mammow” and “Memaw” mean grandmother. “Doesn’t have all the dogs barkin’” means not being very intelligent and “skylarking” is having a good time in a way that won’t benefit anyone.
“You can criticize anyone and say almost anything if you add, ‘Bless his heart’ or ‘God bless him,’” Gierczak said.
The way law enforcement and the judicial system in eastern Kentucky treat domestic violence is about 20 years behind Wisconsin, Gierczak said. She accompanies clients to court and works with judges and bailiffs to ensure their safety.
There are no metal detectors in the Rockcastle County courthouse, but there is a wand that the bailiffs use more frequently now, she said. At her request, they keep the abuser in the courtroom for 15 minutes after the proceeding to allow the victim to leave unseen.
“You so appreciate Wisconsin’s coordinated community support system,” Gierczak said.
Although Gierczak has more experience with domestic violence than the others, including her boss, she said she is happy not to have the administrative responsibilities.
Gierczak is learning to live on $75 every two weeks, the stipend she will be paid if she decides to stay.
“I’m trying to lead a very simple life,” Gierczak said.
Eastern Kentucky is the poorest region in the United States and has the highest cancer rate due to coal mining, Gierczak said.
Beiting began his mission in a rundown house in Berea, where he started the first Catholic church in the area. There are now a dozen churches and plans for more.
The interdenominational organization has a $25 million budget. It has more than 72 programs that provide disaster relief, elder care assistance, respite care for developmentally disabled adults, food pantries, two domestic violence shelters, child care programs,
youth summer camps, alcohol and drug abuse programs and medical assistance.
More information is on the Web site www.chrisapp.org.
Photo by Sam Arendt