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Advocate’s battle against domestic abuse began with her own case

The boyfriend who had said he loved her hit her hard on the right side of her face with the flat of his hand. Staggering, her cheek burning and her ear ringing, she struggled to see through watering eyes.

“Why, honey?” she screamed as her boyfriend, who had said he wanted to marry her, then pulled her by the hair and started banging her head against the car, her head thudding against the metal like a rubber ball tethered to a paddle.

“You shouldn’t have left the party,” her boyfriend yelled. “You made a fool out of me.”

It is a Saturday morning at Safe Faith United as Rebeca Ferreira, the director of the nonprofit center on East Sahara Avenue that helps victims of domestic abuse find everything from counseling to money for utility bills, remembers her own introduction to domestic violence more than 25 years ago.

She weeps and apologizes for having to get up from her chair to find a tissue. A victim advocate for four years with the North Las Vegas Police Department, she started Safe Faith United with $2,500 in savings in 2008 when grant money for her bilingual — Spanish-English — police position ran out.

As she walks, you see pictures of women she’s helped on the walls, many of whom look like they were in the ring with George Foreman or Rocky Marciano. There’s one of a woman who had her lip bitten off and eaten by her abuser.

“I couldn’t believe a guy I thought I was going to be with for life could hurt me,” she says when she returns. “I told him I had to work in the morning. He wouldn’t leave the party so I started walking home. When I saw his car coming, I thought he finally realized I needed to get home. Instead, he beats me so bad I see in the mirror his five fingers imprinted in my cheek and my head’s swollen. He ruined my hearing in this ear. That’s why I talk so loud now. I can’t hear myself so well.”

The Rev. Ron Zanoni of St. Christoper Church says Ferreira has “long been a passionate leader against domestic abuse.”

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., calls Ferreira a “tireless” advocate for abuse victims.

Safe Faith United has assisted about 1,000 abused women in the Las Vegas Valley in the past six years, but it wasn’t until Maria Gomez nearly lost her hands during a savage machete attack in 2012 that most Las Vegans became aware of either the organization or Ferreira, a native of the Dominican Republic.

As Gomez went public with her ghastly experience — a story media told around the world — Ferreira seemed always at her side. She took her to medical appointments and visits with authorities, cleaned her after she used the restroom.

She did fundraising for Gomez, who supported a disabled brother by cleaning houses and working as a convenience store clerk.

On Monday, as Gomez’s assailant, former boyfriend Armando Vergara-Martinez, went on trial for attempted murder — he was found guilty Wednesday and awaits sentencing — Ferreira once again was squarely in the public eye, calling for harsh punishments for domestic abusers as she stood on the steps of the Clark County Regional Justice Center.

As Ferreira repeatedly chanted, “If I can’t use my hands,” Safe Faith United supporters, many of them abuse victims, replied, “I will use my voice.”

That expression, used by Gomez as she lifted her bandaged hands and warned women in dangerous relationships to get help before it was too late, would become a chant that her tearful admirers used to honor the 53-year-old Gomez at her funeral — six months after the March 21, 2012, machete attack Gomez died of uterine cancer.

As Ferreira tries to raise money to keep her organization afloat, there are admirers who wonder how much longer her passion for what she does can overcome the stress that comes with financial concerns. Ferreira is three months behind on $1,100 a month rent but says she’s starting a commercial cleaning company that will donate money to Safe Faith United.

Lisa Reed, 45, says she prays Ferreira gets the resources she needs. In 2011, Reed was beaten severely by her husband, who spent less than six months in jail. Her larynx was crushed, her nose broken and her face fractured in two places. When she got out of the hospital, she and her two children lived in a car for months. She didn’t know where to turn.

“I heard about Rebeca and she immediately saw we got in a hotel and worked on counseling,” the Clark County school employee recalls. “Then she got a TV station interested in my situation and a lady who saw my story put me and my kids up in a time share. Another woman put us in a beautiful house. Rebeca has a heart after God’s own heart.”

There are social service professionals who say that if Ferreira did what other advocacy groups do — work to get grants from agencies — the financial challenges that almost caused her to close her doors in 2013 wouldn’t be so pressing.

Lisa Lynn Chapman, director of community relations for Safe Nest, which opened in 1977 and is the oldest agency serving domestic abuse victims in Las Vegas, says it’s crucial for social service agencies to apply for grants: “That keeps bills paid.”

But Chapman acknowledges new organizations need benefactors. She said only a sizable donation from entertainer Wayne Newton in 1980, coupled with a benefit that saw donations flow in from “big people on the Strip,” kept Safe Nest open.

“I wish I had a grant writer,” says Ferreria, who sometimes sends women she helps to Safe Nest for professional counseling and a place to stay. “But I don’t have time. That’s like writing a book and I’m working 12 to 15 hours a day.”

Safe Nest has a $3 million a year budget and a staff of 57. Chapman says her agency is spread too thin by the overwhelming number of domestic abuse cases.

In 2012, Las Vegas police handled more than 22,000 domestic violence-related cases where a crime was committed. The department responded to more than 60,000 domestic calls throughout the year. For five of the past six years, Nevada’s rate of women killed by men — in 2012 it was 2.62 for every 100,000 women — was the nation’s highest.

Ferreria operates on a yearly budget of about $30,000, although she says she has had large $20,000 and $10,000 contributions in the past. She donated $5,000 of her retirement savings. Less than $5,000 a year goes to her for gas, food and personal expenses. Abuse victims she’s helped often volunteer to help her with other victims. Although women of all races are welcome, most women she helps are women of color. Many are Spanish speaking.

She says family and a friend who admires her work help her pay for her modest two-bedroom apartment and food. Her 2005 Ford Taurus is paid for. She has two grown daughters and a 19-year-old son.

April Green, the directing attorney in the domestic violence unit for the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, says Ferreira does “excellent work for the community. She definitely refers cases to us that have to do with domestic abuse — divorce, custody, immigration, temporary protections orders. It’s a passion for her.”

Chapman says Ferreira’s philosophy of going to the media with cases “is different than ours. We don’t want to sensationalize.” She says she has never had a domestic abuse victim ask to talk with the media.

Ferreira says she only approaches the media if a victim wants “to shine a light on the terrible abuse in our community.”

“I don’t want to sensationalize,” she says. “I only want to get someone help.”

It was Ferreira, according to Tejuana Reeves, who helped her in 2012 when her 10-year-old daughter, Jade Morris, was found stabbed to death, allegedly by her father’s girlfriend, Brenda Stokes. Her murder trial is set for June.

“She found out about what happened and came to me with the paperwork I needed to get victim’s assistance for the funeral,” Reeves says. “It was such a relief. That was such a big burden for me. When my son passed from natural causes five months later, she was at the house praying with us. She doesn’t leave your side. She cares about people.”

Plastic surgeon Dr. Carl Williams, whose mother was a domestic violence victim, says Ferreira’s public push against abuse in the Gomez case played a large role in his decision to donate free plastic surgery to women needing it as a result of domestic abuse.

It was Williams who reattached Gomez’s hands.

“Rebeca really made me think about how we all should do something for this community in this area,” he says.

Ferreira says she relies on God to get her through difficult situations.

Keep in mind, she says, that she came from a poor, Spanish-speaking family in the Dominican Republic and she learned English well enough after immigrating to the United States that she earned a degree in criminal justice from UNLV and a master’s in business administration from the University of Phoenix.

She says that after she came to the United States in the ’80s to be with her sister on the East Coast, she certainly made mistakes, but she not only learned from them, she became stronger because of them. They were the kind of horrific experiences that she says continually fuel her passion for helping needy women through crises today.

The biggest mistake, she acknowledges, was getting back into a relationship and eventual marriage to the mechanic boyfriend who beat her. That led to more beatings, including being thrown down the stairs from a second-floor apartment when she was five months pregnant. She curled into a cocoon as she fell to protect the baby. When she hit bottom, her husband kicked her repeatedly, trying to kill the fetus. Somehow both she and the baby survived. But she now has severe back problems.

She cries as she shows documentation of restraining orders against her husband that she says did little good.

As she struggled to get by in Massachussets by baby-sitting and caring for the elderly, she says she met an individual so concerned about her welfare she was given travel expenses to Las Vegas, which she was told had “more diversity.”

“There are good people everywhere,” says Ferreira, who arrived in Las Vegas shortly after the new millennium. “I want to be one of them.”

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.

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