Valencia Shelter Services is in Los Lunas, New Mexico, just 30 minutes south of Albuquerque. What began as a crisis line in 1989 for women experiencing domestic violence and in need of shelter and resources has grown to a fully comprehensive advocacy program providing resources for hundreds of women, men, and children throughout Valencia County and the state.
Tucked next to a residential area, the salmon-colored building that’s housed VSS for the last three decades is unassuming, intentionally veiled, but welcoming.
Nearby, Fortis Construction and Sheehan Nagle Hartray Architects have been working on a series of projects in the Albuquerque-region for the last six years.
Naturally becoming a part of the Los Lunas community, the project’s Women in Construction group, backed by Fortis’ firmwide commitment to Making An Impact, led the initiative to identify a local organization that could benefit from construction and architectural services – an organization like VSS.
“Originally, the New Mexico team got us involved for the shelter’s Christmas gift giving. Then VSS approached us about other needs and invited us to tour the facility where we agreed to help with some projects. As part of Fortis’ annual giving, VSS received the first $10,000 gift in 2017 and we have continued to give each year since then. We also had a golf tournament that raised over $50,000,” says Fortis Construction project engineer Cyndee Hadley. “It was around that time we decided to explore building them a new facility that would better serve their mission.”
In the fall of 2019, SNHA project team members met VSS staff for a design charette, performing breakout activities to get thoughts on paper and build consensus for what the new VSS building should be for the community, with some of the most important priority spaces including:
- Private family spaces
- Community outdoor/green space
- Administrative services/Staff offices
- Designated space for counseling/therapy and medical space (meds and on-staff nurse)
- Life skills and GED/continuing education classroom/work area spaces
The breakout sessions included four key activities that helped VSS and SNHA dig deeper:
Mission Map: Big picture thinking about priorities and possibilities and where conflicts between mission objectives may occur.
Beyond Four Walls: Evocative word map hybrid of “Home”. What is inside and outside the home?
Program Priority: Programming priorities and expectations for the shelter – additional component for geographic proximity/adjacency.
Building Blocks: Discussion about program content, adjacencies and potential plan configurations for critical program areas.
Among the staff was a consensus that the improvements should emphasize the general need for security and privacy without sacrificing connection with the rest of the shelter community as well as the need for life skills and educational programs that could change a survivor and their family’s life trajectory.
SNHA project architect Tom Veed explains the invaluable experience the unique partnership has provided thus far. “It is an incredible privilege to work with passionate and engaged project partners,” says Tom. “VSS and the project’s Women in Construction group came to this project with energy, ideas and experience and our team was able to sit back and learn from their knowledge. Every building type requires careful consideration, but especially when dealing with the unique complexities of shelter and recovery, the best architect needs foremost to be a really good listener.”
Stephanie Villalobos, Executive Director of VSS adds, “To watch Fortis organize support around our agency and watch those supporters show up to donate or dream on what the shelter could be... that was huge. The ability to dream what a shelter would look like if it reflected VSS’ wholehearted service model and the needs of the community… when SNHA came back with the vision, VSS was speechless. It took me over a week respond because we were all just floored. The advocates at the shelter were in tears because they have put their heart and soul into helping others and to finally have validation refection a physical structure means so much.”
But when the spring of 2020 swept in, like so many other community-serving organizations, VSS was overwhelmed, putting full-focus on managing the crisis in front of them and taking it day by day.
“VSS had to quickly pivot to meet the need of our county and those of surrounding areas. We normally operate an 18-bed shelter, but when the pandemic hit, we got survivors calling from all around the state of New Mexico and Texas, Arizona and Colorado as their local agencies were unable to meet their needs,” says Stephanie. “We leveraged hotel spaces to serve as a temporary shelter alternative in order to offer our services in a COVID-safe way. We rapidly exceeded our normal 18 beds to over 35. We also lifted the stay timeframe and kept families in shelter services until we could stably place families. We provided support to a family from March to October. Our depth and breadth of services we provide is our cornerstone and we showed up in ways we never before thought were possible.”
Though progress on the new facility temporarily slowed this past year in response to the shift in priorities, Stephanie and her team are ready to begin moving forward again, more determined than ever to begin the final stretch: funding.
For help, they’ve recently hired Vicki Finnegan, the organization’s new Community Education & Development Specialist. “Her role will lead the capital funding campaign and create the road map for us to meet the goal of creating the vision SNHA has created for us,” explains Stephanie.
Likewise, Fortis and SNHA are eager to see the project progress forward.
“We are anxiously awaiting these next steps and excited about what the future will bring to this important union,” says Cyndee.
And while despite the inability to physically be together in recent months, the partnership between VSS, Fortis, and SNHA has remained strong and steady – a sense of community and motivation to look to the future with optimism and hope.
“There have been so many positive experiences up to this point,” says Cyndee. “One of them being the benefit of the sharing of information and experience with one another. From financial impacts to construction, we have been able to advise and participate in the shelter’s ongoing success through knowledge, experience, and the sharing of information.”
Stephanie adds, “We always say it takes a village to raise a child and it’s the same here. We need a community to make this vision become a reality.”
You can support VSS and its campaign here.