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Always a Haven  
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INSPIRATION
One day in 1989, when Naomi Berman-Potash was director of sales and marketing for a Houston hotel chain, she had an "a-ha" moment. She had just heard the hotel's general manager stress the need to fill empty rooms, and that same day she had read that a local battered women's shelter was turning clients away for lack of space. "Why couldn't these women and their children stay in the empty hotel rooms?" she thought.

The idea, at first, horrified hotel executives. Would there be enough security to protect these clients? What interaction would there be between them and the hotel's other guests? Could the hotel provide anonymity for these clients? Would they feel too isolated in a hotel room? It took Berman-Potash considerable time to convince the executives that the proposition was doable.

In 1991 the project began, and today it includes more than 400 hotels in 30 cities. (Berman-Potash named the initiative Project Debby after her older sister, who died in 1989 of multiple sclerosis. "She was not abused, but, as a feminist, it was the kind of project she would have loved."

Project Debby finds local agencies that need additional lodging for women in crisis, and it finds hotels to provide rooms at no charge. The project makes about 800 to 1,000 placements yearly, and most stays are for two or three nights. The majority of clients are women who have been physically and/or verbally abused, and 90 percent have their children with them. In some cases, clients are crime victims in the care of district attorneys' offices and need a retreat where they can receive psychological counseling. Local agencies oversee the placements. (In St. Louis, Berman-Potash has found a willing hotel, but she is still looking for a local agency.)

The project "became a passion," she says. "It fills lots of niches shelters don't fill." For instance, shelters usually do not allow males aged 13 or over to stay. Also, shelters usually cannot accommodate women who have certain cultural or religious practices, for example, women who keep kosher. And many middle-class women avoid staying at shelters because of the possible embarrassment associated with running into friends who may volunteer there.

About Project Debby, Berman-Potash adds, "We keep the project simple and lean. All work is done on a volunteer basis." She combines her project efforts with work for her hotel marketing company, Countrywide Reader Board Services, based near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (The firm provides its client hotels with information on what meetings their competitors are hosting.) Also helping out with Project Debby are Berman-Potash's family—husband, Mark Potash, whom she married in 1995, and his children: Robin, 22; Renne, 19; and Jay, 16. Also, Rita Clark manages the project in Florida.

Berman-Potash says abuse is an issue that has come out of the closet, thereby creating more requests for services such as Project Debby. "Years ago, when I was at Washington University, I majored in sociology, but this issue was not in the news much," she says. "Then, I was mainly interested in archaeology, anthropology, and metalsmithing. Most important, though, my experiences helped open my eyes to events in the wider world and to many cultures and how they interact." She adds, "I learned how to approach people of diverse backgrounds and skills, and how to organize and use resources efficiently.

"I'm also glad my parents and the University emphasized the importance of volunteering," she says. "Helping women rebuild their lives is important and rewarding work."