Carmen Pitre came to Milwaukee over 32 years ago looking for help. It was the day after Christmas 1984, and the 22-year-old was so terrified she would relapse back into alcoholism that she’d uprooted herself from warmer southern climes and retreated to an unfamiliar city. Earlier that year, she buried a cousin – in truth, closer to a brother – after he was killed in a drunk driving wreck.
His death cast a frightening spotlight on her own life, forcing her to acknowledge the alcohol dependency she developed growing up in Cut Off, La., an unincorporated community 90 minutes outside New Orleans. That fall she entered a local rehab program as she finished work on an English degree from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Four nights a week she attended therapy after classes. Her drinking stopped, and she completed the program within weeks of her college graduation that fall. Any joy she felt was short-lived, however, when her alcohol counselor gave her his brutal assessment of her future.
“‘One of three things is going to happen, Carmen,’” he said at graduation. “‘You’re going to relapse, you’re going to kill yourself, or you’re going to call me and tell me you’ll do whatever I tell you to do.’ … I was like, what kind of graduation speech is that?” Pitre says.
Pitre chose door number three, which turned out to be a trip to a treatment center in Milwaukee. Despite, or perhaps because of, its reputation as a world-class drinking city, Milwaukee boasted one of the country’s best rehab programs at DePaul Rehabilitation Hospital, and her counselor wanted her to sign up for the program. Engulfed by profound depression, she scrounged up enough money for a one-way ticket to Wisconsin.
Her arrival did little to buoy her spirits. “There was a blizzard. It snowed 13 inches. I got off the plane and thought, ‘I am utterly lost,’” says Pitre. “I went to my first meeting that night and thought to myself, ‘I’m going to die here.’”
She was, in a way, right. She’d never leave this place. But instead of languishing, she’s thrived, building a career based on helping women and families out of violent and chaotic relationships, and giving them a boost to turn their lives around.
Now 53, Pitre heads up the newly created Sojourner Family Peace Center. Fully operational as of early 2016, the center is being praised as the most comprehensive cooperative model in the world. Offering a traditional shelter to victims fleeing abusive households, the center also houses both police and prosecutors assigned to domestic violence crimes, as well as medical and wellness services from Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and other private-sector partners.
A single mother of a 15-year-old daughter, Pitre has a natural, low-key warmth, a toothy grin and a pensive listening posture – earmarks of a leadership style that’s proven very effective. Her attentiveness and acceptance hint at the unusual level of collaboration she’s been able to forge, while hiding a ferocious determination to finish whatever she starts.
“Carmen Pitre is a transformational leader. She is quiet. She is soft-spoken. But she is as tenacious and determined and visionary as any nonprofit leader I’ve met anywhere in the country in the last 30 years,” says Casey Gwinn, president of Alliance for Hope International, a leading national group dedicated to eradicating family violence. “She is the driving force behind what’s happened in Milwaukee with the Family Peace Center.”
The 72,000-square-foot facility at West Walnut and North Sixth streets is currently considered the largest of its kind in the world. But it’s not the size that interests Pitre. Rather, it’s the center’s ability to provide adequate shelter and resources for everyone who needs it.
“It’s my job to support our staff and our clients and to be a visionary and a leader around the culture. Milwaukee doesn’t need one more beautiful building. If people don’t feel loved and healing when they walk in here, we’ve missed the mark,” she says.
Anyone – and that includes men – in need of a way out of a dangerous living situation can be helped at the center, either through prearranged admittance or by walking in off the street. Outwardly, a fortress of heavy gates and impenetrable access points, the facility softens inside the walls, assuming a hospital-like atmosphere steeped in healing, confidence and compassion.
Before the new center opened, Sojourner averaged around 9,500 clients every year. The new building is equipped with 56 beds for victims, which Pitre says have been about 90 percent full since opening. Without leaving the building, clients can file a police report, discuss their situation with law enforcement and be examined by medical staff. Milwaukee Public Schools in on the premises to teach displaced children. In the unfortunate event that someone should need a funeral as a result of family violence, the center can help out there as well with emergency funds.
“The center from our standpoint is designed to identify all of the needs in the family at the time they are calling law enforcement for help, because we know that in many cases, not only is there the existence of a violent relationship, or certainly an act of violence, but often times there are several other co-occurring difficulties within a family,” says Milwaukee County Chief Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern. “The goal of the center is to help victims of crimes, victims of violent situations, come to us and tell us what their needs are as well so that we can respond to them at the same time we’re responding to the actual criminal act itself.”
To prepare for the creation of the center, Pitre and some others went to San Diego to view a similar facility which served as the model. Alliance for Hope International’s Gwinn was there to meet her, and says she took the idea and ran with it.
“Carmen’s taken our dreams in San Diego, and just put them on steroids,” Gwinn says. “It’s the only facility of its kind in the country. She is doing what we’ve been calling for.”
Pitre is the daughter of an itinerant sex worker; her mother was just 16 years old when she gave birth to Carmen in 1962. Four years later, she was gone. Though Pitre’s parents had wed, it was a violent and destructive marriage. Pitre doesn’t remember any abuse first-hand, but as she got older, she gained wind of the horror stories. “He used to hit her so hard that the house would shake,” she says. “She left with the idea that she would come back for me.”
That day never came.
“That made probably the biggest impression on me, her leaving,” Pitre says reflectively. “Her whole life, she settled for being hurt or mistreated because of her own need to feel safe and find a home.”
Pitre grew up passed between various extended family members whose lives were equally unstable and marked by violence. “I saw many episodes of violence in my family as a way of coping. Arguments often escalated to someone getting hurt or knives being pulled out. Just high conflict all the time.”
She experienced several incidents of sexual abuse – at the hands of different perpetrators. “Those experiences probably had the second most profound impact on me because it, I think, robbed me of some of my own sovereignty. I was perpetually living in this sense that my body is not mine.”
It was while going through alcohol-abuse treatment in Wisconsin that Pitre began to flip the script of her existence. As she worked on stabilizing her recovery, she found work as a nursing assistant at DePaul, the same place she was undergoing treatment. She finished the sobriety program in three months, but remained employed at the hospital five years.
“The first six months, I thought I would go back to Louisiana. I was going to get my master’s. That did not happen. I realized I needed to stay here and rebuild my life,” Pitre says.
From DePaul, she went to work at a local Planned Parenthood clinic, which she says taught her a lot about the complexities of people’s lives.
“Eighty-five percent of our clients had STDs, and on a Tuesday or a Thursday, we could do up to 300 pregnancy tests in an afternoon. We’d see 12-year-olds and middle-aged women who had too many kids,” she says.
Her next stop was the AIDS Project, where she ran a crisis hotline and wrote curriculum for the education department. Arriving in the early ’90s, she was able to help an organization straining to meet the needs of a community in crisis. According to Pitre, that’s when the heart of being an advocate revealed itself to her. “I got to see the tragedy of what was happening and felt compelled to do something,” she says.
Along the way, she also took time to help found the Wisconsin Association for Children of Alcoholics. She took the initiative to publish the group’s newsletter and set up its conferences.
Without any formal education in nonprofit management, she began to take on positions of greater importance at the organizations she served. “At each job, I was able to translate into conversation what I brought to the table and how it would be valuable for what they were looking for,” says Pitre.
At yet another job, Milwaukee County’s Fighting Back Project – a substance abuse program serving minority communities – she was officially a training coordinator. In reality, that meant she helped develop the logo, planned conferences and provided technical assistance and training to the myriad neighborhood groups using the program.
Her first managing role came in March 2002, when she was named executive director of the Task Force on Family Violence. It was a small nonprofit with big problems, with a staff of less than 25 a million-dollar budget laden with overcommitments.
One of Pitre’s first charges was to stop the rolling layoffs affecting staff and normalize operations. She was able to convince employees to take three weeks unpaid vacation until the budget could be reworked for the next fiscal year.
The limitations of the task force didn’t stop at the budget. While it could provide emergency shelter to people fleeing violent situations, it had no in-house legal advocates to assist victims transitioning away from abusive relationships. It also had little in the way of wellness services to help victims overcome the mental and emotional fallout of the abuse.
In tandem with other family violence activists, Pitre began to work toward a comprehensive facility that combined emergency services with long-term survival strategies. She wanted to do it by weaving together existing operators, without starting another nonprofit that would compete for limited resources within Milwaukee’s philanthropic community.
“She has that 30,000 mile high view,” says Angela Mancuso, executive director of The Women’s Center and an early collaborator of Pitre’s. “She’s been able to stand and survey the community and the needs of survivors of domestic violence throughout her whole career, really. She’s been able to really pinpoint and identify gaps in services. I would say she’s happiest when she’s effecting change.”
Mancuso, Pitre and then-Sojourner Truth House Executive Director Kathie Stolpman merged their organizations in 2009, with Pitre and Mancuso assuming the roles of co-executive directors. The culmination of the merger and the capstone of Pitre’s effort occurred with the opening of the Sojourner Family Peace Center in early 2016.
“She doesn’t give up when even some of the most tenacious people would give up. She is the one who sticks it out. At some stage in her life, she identified with this as her calling, and this is her passion. It’s not easy work. But it’s something that is profoundly important to her and her life story,” Mancuso says.
Pitre is not done yet. Though the facility hasn’t been operational long enough to assess the impact it’s having on Milwaukee, Pitre is already planning the next stage of expansion to include employment services.
Through her work, Pitre confronts the pain of her own upbringing and hopes she can create a place that would have helped women like her mother. Those women are still coming in today, in situations just as bad or worse. Helping those women and others is the fire that fuels Pitre through the grueling work of fundraising cycles and coalition building, and gives her strength for the exhausting task of absorbing so much of Milwaukee’s grief.
“I recently sat with someone who had someone in their family murdered. I could see their heart breaking right in front of me, and all I could do was hold the space. I couldn’t do anything else, other than say, quietly, ‘You have space for your heart to break here. We’re here to help.’”
Where she once turned to alcohol to dull the pain of abuse and neglect, she now channels those feelings into prevention efforts to save others on similar paths.
“I know what it’s like to sit in utter darkness and hopelessness,” she says. “But I know that there’s a way out.” ◆
Zach Brooke is a regular contributor.
‘Shelter From the Storm’ appears in the February issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
Find it on newsstands beginning January 30, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.
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