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Our Neighbors...Barnum woman has a heart for others

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It was no mere coincidence that Jill Peterson was selected for a one-year run as Miss Congeniality in the prestigious Western Saddle Clubs Association (WSCA) Royal Court. Ever since the time she was a young child, Peterson has exhibited an extraordinary heart for both people and animals. Today, that penchant for helping others has led her to a career in advocacy for those in need of a helping hand.

Peterson runs the Carlton County office of WINDOW Victim Services, an agency that provides advocacy services for victims of family violence, sexual assault, elder abuse and general crime. At her side is Sue Wojciehowski, who operated the Rural Women’s Advocates of Carlton County for some 30 years. Wojciehowski now works part time with Peterson to fulfill a similar — and much-needed — role after that program was dissolved in August 2012 for lack of funding. Both women represent a valuable lifeline for victims who don’t know where else to turn.

Peterson attested that she loves what she does and it’s the fulfillment of a goal that had its roots in her childhood.  

“When I was younger, I was directly affected by abuse,” she related. “I watched how significantly it can impact the lives of everyone involved, not only in that moment but for many, many years to follow. My career path was an obvious choice for me. I knew that someday I wanted to be a support system for victims and help them to make sense of what they are going through.”

Peterson grew up on a hobby farm in Barnum where her family raised horses. A self-proclaimed “geeky” kid in school, Peterson didn’t participate in any sports but instead gravitated toward activities such as National Honor Society, Student Council, band and the 4-H Horse Project.

Peterson was still a little girl when she began competing in the show ring with her flashy but somewhat obstreperous pony, Minnie.

“One time I panicked and jumped off her when she was running and had the wind knocked out of me,” recalled Peterson.

Another time, Peterson and a friend were trying to get the pony to pull them on their sled and her mom told her, “Just tie the sled to the saddle and then put it on the pony.”

“The pony went through Mom’s fence three times and ripped the fenders off the saddle!” related Peterson with a grin.

Peterson not only competed in 4-H horse shows but also on the Western Saddle Club Association circuit, traveling to shows throughout the state as well as participating in the WSCA Champ Show, held each fall on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in St. Paul.

“I think I learned a lot of discipline from that,” reflected Peterson. “All the other kids were out doing who knows what while I was at home getting ready for my next horse show and going to bed early so I could get up for it the next morning. I’m a morning person, though, so it worked out well.”

She graduated from Barnum High School in 2002, with only an inkling of an idea of what she wanted to do with her life.

“I knew I wanted to help people somehow, but I wasn’t sure just how,” she said. “I always like working with people.”

Following graduation, she said she couldn’t wait to get out of Barnum and “do her own thing,” so she moved to Hibbing and attended Hibbing Community College for a year with an eye toward going into nursing. At the end of the first year, however, she moved back to Barnum — “Because I missed my mom!” she said.

That summer she got a job as a personal care assistant (PCA) in a private home, working with a 4-year-old boy with autism.

“He was an incredible little boy with an incredible family, and I didn’t want to leave,” she said. “They were such great people that it was really hard to think of moving on and going back to school.”

Peterson would spend the entire day with the little boy, going to school and therapy appointments with him, and they also spent a lot of time together out at her mom’s house, where the little boy also became best friends with the family dog, and Jill taught him how to ride horses.

Peterson stayed on to help out with the boy for the next seven years, eventually going back to school at Lake Superior College where she earned her emergency medical technician license. By then, however, she sensed her calling was for something more.

“I knew I wanted to do something in advocacy,” said Peterson. “Sue  Wojciehowski told me a legal background would be a good idea, so I got my associate’s degree and paralegal certificate. I continued to work with that same family through all of it because they were willing to accommodate my class schedule.”

Peterson then applied for a number of jobs until she was hired in February 2013 by WINDOW Victim Services, a non-profit agency based in Hinckley, with branches in both Pine and Kanabec counties.

Peterson started out in WINDOW’s main office in Hinckley, securing the additional training she needed and was fortunate enough to be placed in a branch office in Cloquet that would service all of Carlton County. Thanks to the support of the United Way of Carlton County, state grant funding through the WINDOW program and donated office space, Peterson was soon up and running with the new office in Cloquet. Wojciehowski joined her last August as a part-time assistant, an asset that Peterson said has proven to be invaluable.

“Sue’s a pretty smart gal,” said Peterson. “She knows the system. She knows the people. It’s been really great to have her on board.

“Since she has come in,” continued Peterson, “we’ve been able to do a lot more outreach such as support groups. She has gone to a few places and just talked about WINDOW, gotten the word out and talked about domestic violence and sexual abuse. Any time we have an opportunity to speak to the community, we’re open to it.”

In her capacity as an advocate with WINDOW, Peterson serves victims of domestic and sexual assault, going to court and/or the hospital with clients, accompanying them to interviews with attorneys and law enforcement officials and helping them link up with resources so they can get legal advice. She also works with them on child protection issues, “safe homing” them, and helping them work through crises, orders for protection and harassment orders.

She also works with the Office of Job Training, which can help victims get child care and fill out job applications.

“Basically, we try to assess their needs and help reach the goals for each individual person,” explained Peterson.

She said the program is very similar to Rural Women’s Advocates and provides much the same services.

“We’ve also been able to do some things recently that are different that should benefit the county,” added Peterson. “We’re working with the Program to Aid Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA) and Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet right now to get a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE), a nurse who is specially trained in doing rape exams.

“They are very client-oriented, focused on the wants and needs of the client and can collect more evidence. PAVSA trains them, and I think it’s going to be a great thing,” said Peterson. “It’s a volunteer-based program, and the SANE nurse is on call for either here or Duluth, wherever he or she is needed.”

Peterson said in addition to working with women, she also works with children and men as well, whether it be a case where a wife may have thrown her husband out of the house or where the man is the victim of abuse himself.

“If you can imagine it, it could happen,” said Peterson. “It’s often difficult for men to come forward, so it probably happens more than you see.”

The WINDOW program has posters up throughout the county telling of the services offered, and referrals often come through law enforcement, child protection workers and human services.

“Sometimes someone just doesn’t know what to do and where to go, so they come here,” said Peterson.

“We can take anyone who chooses to simply walk in, and we welcome that.”

All of the program’s services are confidential and free to individuals.

Peterson said she has seen clients all the way from young women who are pregnant to one who was in her 70s. And with most of them, the procedure is much the same.

“On a first visit, we’ll talk about what’s going on, what brought them to us, what their immediate needs are and what we can help them with, what’s most important to them,” said Peterson. “That might be safety planning. That might be getting an order for protection. That might be just getting a load off their chest and having someone to talk to. That totally depends on the clients.”

She said sometimes she and Wojciehowski can go for a day or two without seeing anyone, and sometimes people are coming and going all day long.

During the most recent quarter (October to December 2013), the local program served 50 women, 11 men and four kids in the areas of domestic abuse and sexual assault alone. They provided over 400 services to these individuals, which included 75 crisis calls and 72 follow-up visits with victims.

Peterson said they sometimes see the same people returning time and time again.

“We’re in the process of putting together an educational component we hope we can introduce in all of the counties WINDOW serves,” she said. “It would educate them on the basics of what it means to be a victim and how they can help break themselves of the pattern of abuse.”

Peterson admitted there are nights when the people she’s seen that day weigh heavily on her mind.

“At the end of the day, sometimes I feel good and sometimes I feel exhausted,” she said. “The staff at WINDOW is like a family, and we all support each other at times such as that.”

And despite her soft heart and love for people, Peterson said making the transition from working as a PCA to working with victims of abuse and violence isn’t as big a stretch as one might think.

“It wasn’t too bad,” she commented. “I had wanted to do this for a long time and had the mindset for it. Our director, Lisa Lilja, is awesome at giving us every opportunity to learn and train. Once I had my paralegal background, it wasn’t all that difficult a transition.

“I have seen and supported people in a lot of different situations since high school,” she added, “so it was something I was familiar with to a point. Did I realize it could get this extensive? No.”

On her own time, Peterson is in the process of buying her own home, raising her 5-year-old daughter and, of course, there’s the horse  thing. She still has a couple of horses she keeps at her mom’s house and she saves up her vacation time each year to participate in the WSCA State Championship Show.

“I traveled for two years straight as part of the WSCA royalty, leaving every Friday afternoon for a different horse show and returning Sunday night,” she explained. “After that, I took a year or two off and I’m now getting back into the groove.”

She also does a lot of fishing, because her daughter loves to fish, and she raises goats, once again because that’s what her daughter loves to do.

“As much as it breaks my heart, she would prefer to bring her goat to the horse shows,” said Peterson with a smile. “It’s hilarious to see her scare all the horses with her goat on its leash!”

Peterson said she is exactly where she wants to be in life, and she feels worthwhile about being able to help others through her advocacy role.

“I think my favorite thing about doing this is seeing an individual — man, woman, or child — feel empowered once again and realize they’re a survivor. It’s amazing to see them reach the point where they can say, ‘Yeah, I can do this. I’m going to be fine.’”

(Editor’s note: The office hours for the Carlton County WINDOW program are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and they can be contacted at 218-499-8088, which will automatically forward to an after-hours number if the call is outside normal office hours.)