December 18, 2018

Brightening the lives of children of domestic abuse

Inside their new Santa Monica office, seated at a communal desk in front of a whiteboard scribbled with year-end goals and a display of handwritten thank-you notes, Erica Fisher and Melanie Neumann explain why they founded Present Now, a nonprofit dedicated to helping children of domestic abuse. 

Through Present Now, Fisher and Neumann give kids 18 and younger living in transitional housing shelters three personalized gifts each year, in an attempt to bring them joy and a sense of hope during a time of crisis in their lives. Domestic violence is difficult to talk about, Neumann said, and when people do discuss it, the conversation often is focused on the adult victims. 

“But the kids … a lot of times, aren’t focused on or talked about. They’re kind of, as we call them, the silent survivors,” Neumann said.

That’s why the women founded Present Now in 2012, after spending six months visiting area shelters, researching domestic abuse and working to identify how they could do the greatest good. 

Neumann and Fisher each are mothers of three kids and have related professional backgrounds. Neumann used to do event planning with nonprofits, such as Avon’s walk for breast cancer. Fisher has a master’s degree in social work and a deep-rooted commitment to philanthropy.

Fisher grew up in a Jewish household in Denver, where her grandparents started a charitable foundation, and her family “was very much into giving back,” she said.

“I was raised that it’s our duty and responsibility that we give to those that are less fortunate than ourselves,” Fisher said. “That was the value that I was taught by my parents and especially my grandparents.”

So Fisher and Neumann honed in on a plan to help children celebrate landmark occasions outside of the holiday months, when an overflow of gifts for children in need come each year. Currently, Present Now is working with seven shelters throughout the Los Angeles region and in Palm Desert, one of which has six locations. Present Now gives each child living in these shelters gifts for Valentine’s Day, birthdays and when the kids head to school in the fall. 

The back-to-school presents include a new backpack stuffed with school supplies, including pencils, erasers, calculators and notebooks. For Valentine’s Day, the kids will get an Apple iPod Nano or LeapFrog learning tablet, but it is the gesture that is most crucial on this particular day.

“Valentine’s Day is an especially difficult holiday for this population; it’s a holiday of love,” Fisher said. “Many times, there’s a lot of confusion about what that means coming from a domestic abuse situation.” 

On birthdays, a child will receive a large, white box topped with a shiny, purple bow. Inside are a new outfit of clothing, as well as a toy and a gift card for a birthday dinner out. This package also includes a spatula, cake mix and frosting, so the child can create a homemade birthday cake, a festive departure from a frozen pizza with a candle stuck in it, as is often the best-case scenario among these families, Neumann said.

“Everybody likes to have their special day recognized. Every mom wants to make the birthday special for [their] child,” said Judy Vaughan, founder of the nonprofit Mid-Wilshire-area Alexandria House.

This transitional housing group provides shelter for homeless women and children for up to two years as they move from emergency housing to a permanent home. A few months ago, Present Now began working with Alexandria House, where nearly 90 percent of families have some sort of domestic abuse in their background, according to Vaughan.

Alexandria House runs on a tight budget and receives no government assistance, Vaughan said, so it relies on outside contributions of any size or type.

“When you put it all together, it keeps the program going,” she said of Alexandria House’s approximately $780,000 annual budget. “We try to do everything we can … to make people feel as supported and respected and important as they truly are.”

Although Present Now has been in existence only for a few years, Neumann and Fisher have been able to steadily increase the number of gifts they dole out, starting with 118 their first year and more than tripling that, to 379 last year. 

Initially bankrolling the operation through the generosity of friends, family and business associates, Fisher and Neumann now host an annual fundraiser in Palm Springs. Staged as a 24-hour, women’s retreat, it includes a night at a hotel, a trunk show, yoga, silent auction and a sit-down dinner. Last year, Present Now raised about $100,000 over the course of the weekend and attracted more than 100 people. This year’s event, slated for Jan. 23-24, already has a longer guest list, Neumann said. (To register or to contribute, visit presentnow.org.)

The women said that in addition to helping other families’ children in need, they believe Present Now is helping teach their kids about the importance of giving back. 

“Us starting something and doing something is always setting an example for our children, and getting them involved in Present Now as much as we possibly can is extremely important to us,” Fisher said. 

“To continue that legacy that was instilled in me as a child.”