A life reclaimed

Photo by Monica Salazar


Thrown to the ground by her boyfriend, Karen Gonzalez curled up in an attempt to protect herself from his stomping and kicking. She caught her breath, screamed and managed to fight him off and run toward the phone. But before she knew it, she was pinned to the bed with his knee pressed against her neck and his hands covering her mouth.

That trauma is not a distant memory for Gonzalez, and has driven her to find hope for herself and others through her nonprofit organization Helping Hands. Gonzalez started the nonprofit four years ago to provide people affected by domestic violence and trauma with the basic necessities they needed to rebuild their lives.

Gonzalez’s abusive and toxic relationships started at an early age with memories of her parents constantly fighting.

“My father was a cheater and that made my mother a different person,” Gonzalez said.

She described how her mother, Martha Romero, would beat her until bruises and marks were left on her skin. Despite this, Gonzalez said that she and her mother have reconciled in her later years as an adult.

When she was 13 years old, feelings of anger and depression overwhelmed her and led her to attempt suicide.

“I didn’t understand why I was hurting,” Gonzalez said. “I lost hope and didn’t feel safe. I attempted suicide with pills and cutting until one day I passed out at my middle school.”

Gonzalez went through the motions of counseling and therapy sessions at Milliken Middle School for a whole year. They had little effect on the troubled young girl.

“I only said things that the therapist wanted to hear,” Gonzalez said.

Pain translated into love for Gonzalez when she entered high school. There she met Eric Solaves, her first boyfriend. Having felt hurt and depressed all her life, Gonzalez found comfort in Solaves’ familiarly destructive behavior.

“He became too much and so obsessive,” she said. “He questioned everything I did. He tried to control what I wore from my makeup to my clothes. He didn’t like me having friends.”

Frustrated by his controlling and possessive behavior, Gonzalez tried to leave one night with their 3-month-old daughter Michelle. He tried to stop her by strangling her, but Gonzalez managed to fight him off. She ran out of the apartment with only her car keys and infant in her arms, leaving everything else behind.

This was her first encounter with domestic abuse in a romantic relationship.

“I didn’t know anything about the cycle of violence. I thought it was normal,” Gonzalez said.

Niaz Khani, a clinical psychologist and mental health director at Pierce College’s Health Center, explained that the cycle of violence is a constant battle.

“Sometime people forget that even though it’s quiet, the cycle is still there. Nothing has been resolved. There is a feeling of hope that maybe things will change for the better,” Khani said. “They [the victim] feel like they are being loved even if they are being abused.”

When she met Rudy Alvarado, Gonzalez was enraptured by his charm, but his two-faced behavior worsened during the next six years of their relationship.

Alvarado shared the same harmful traits as her first boyfriend. He would fight guys on the street just for looking at her, and when she became pregnant he demanded she get an abortion. She refused.

“His behavior became worse when I got pregnant,” Gonzalez said.

The baby arrived earlier than expected because of the stress Gonzalez experienced. Seven months after giving birth to her daughter Lelani, Alvarado’s behavior reached a fever pitch.

He pinned Gonzalez down against their bed with his knee planted against her neck and his hands over her mouth.

“I started to black out. I just remember putting my hands up and scratching him in the face,” Gonzalez said.

The scratch allowed her to push him off and make a dash to the phone, which she used to call the police. However, when the police arrived, the arresting officer happened to be a friend of her boyfriend. According to the officer, she was the abuser because she drew blood with her defensive flailing.

Gonzalez spent two nights in county jail with bruises all over her body and a shock collar on her mangled neck. The next morning, Gonzalez called the National Domestic Violence Hotline and its members were able to set her and her baby up in a motel.

“I was scared. That night of the attack I thought I was going to die,” Gonzalez said.

She and her daughter stayed at a crisis shelter for 60 days until they were transferred to a transitional shelter for the next 18 months. Her three children, Michelle, Jonathan (from a different relationship) and Lelani stayed with relatives.

“This is where everything changed for me. At the shelter, that’s where I got reconnected with my faith and got closer to God,” Gonzalez said. “I then started to do domestic violence counseling and group therapy because I was so confused as to why I had feelings for this man. I was with him for six years. It was like a drug that I was addicted too.”

Although Gonzalez was finding emotional and spiritual healing, there were other basic needs that were going unmet.

“When I lived in the shelter, I started to see a lot of injustice. Services not being provided for victims,” she said. “I don’t see numbers, I see human beings. I see lives. How can you not care about the needs of these people?”

Repeatedly, Gonzalez witnessed the shelter not provide simple things like water and new clothes. She believed that basic necessities were the last thing the victims needed to stress about.

“My trials and hardships brought me to a place where I knew something needed to change. I wanted to give back to the people who have been abused and neglected,” Gonzalez said.

During this time, Gonzalez received numerous personal donations that kept her afloat. With an abundant amount of goods, Gonzalez’s generosity kicked in. She and a friend found out what each woman and family needed and gave them their extra donations.

This is how Helping Hands came to be.

“It started in my apartment. We saw that there were 19 women and 36 children here that the outside world had no idea about,” Gonzalez said. “We started to go door by door asking the clothes sizes of the women and children and what they needed.”

Today, Gonzalez’s desire to help others has evolved into an organization that not only provides women and families with basic necessities, but spiritual and emotional healing as well. Helping Hands provides a place where women and families can receive counseling, workshops and education on domestic abuse awareness.

Certified as a parent educator through the organization Eco Parenting and Education, Gonzalez has been able use her expertise to assist others. She also found an alternative way to parent her children to heal the wounds caused by past traumatic experiences.

“I want to leave a different legacy for my children and it’s up to me to break it. I don’t want them to stay broken and to think this is normal,” she said.

Helping Hands has grown since her last attack four years ago and is based at Hope Chapel in Winnetka, California. It was officially established in 2013.

“We have been able to get sponsors and have fundraisers to help keep Helping Hands successful,” Gonzalez said.

One of the members, Diana Olarte, a 42-year-old mother, grandmother and Pierce College student, has volunteered with Helping Hands for the past two years. She has helped with the outreach department, making people aware of this nonprofit.

“Something deeper was going on at Hope Chapel. I needed to be there. I met Karen and our stories sounded the same,” Olarte said.

“Nobody wants to talk about domestic violence. Our organization enforces that it’s not healing over you, it’s healing with you,” Gonzalez said.

If you met Gonzalez today you would have never thought she suffered from such an experience. She is not alone in her second home and safe haven at Hope Chapel, where she stands in contrast against her bruised and lonely past.

“My whole life I felt alone. When I reconnected with God and saw my value in him, it was the first time in my whole life where I didn’t feel alone,” Gonzalez said.