Sowing Seeds of Support: Tera Oglesby ‘94

by Marnie McLeod Santoyo

As a master gardener, Tera Oglesby knows the painstaking efforts it takes to grow a garden—the careful planting and care of many seed before a garden ever begins to take shape.

The seeds Tera has planted and nurtured in her town of Seattle, however, go far beyond the gardens she’s cultivated. Her efforts in promoting the fight against domestic violence in her community started off small, but have since blossomed into a full-grown network of volunteers and police standing ready and available to support survivors of domestic violence.

In the eight years since this Scripps graduate has been in the Northwest, she’s taken a program she started as a JustServe AmeriCorps volunteer and seen it grow into the Seattle Police Department’s Domestic Violence Support Team—a network of volunteers who respond to domestic violence calls, supporting the victims in the moments after an arrest.

“I had no idea that my involvement with the team would change the direction of my life,” says Tera, 30. “In fact, my own understanding of domestic violence changed profoundly. I learned what it is that can make anybody get caught in an abusive relationship.”

What’s struck Tera most, however, is the amazing strength abuse victims have inside to build themselves up and take back control of their lives.

“I didn’t realize what an honor it would be to work with survivors of abuse, to see the incredible courage and strength it takes to break away,” she says.

Mission Seeminly Impossible

As a rookie AmeriCorps volunteer designated to the Seattle Police Department in 1996, Tera was assigned to a unique project: to support a volunteer program that would provide weekend and off-hour intervention of police when responding to domestic violence calls.

“It started as a pilot program,” Tera says. “There was already a civilian unit in the police department that helped victims of abuse through the court system, but that was only available during work hours. It left a gap in the criminal justice system on the weekends. By having volunteers available at the scene, victims could ge the support they needed during that critical time.”

But the program that exists today had an uncertain beginning. When Tera and her fellow AmeriCorps volunteer first arrived, they seemed to confront one hurdle after another. Issues like delays in City Council approval to accept the grant funds—the day the council was slated to vote on the matter, the City didn’t have the quorum needed, ironically because one of the council members was arrested for domestic violence. Once funds were allocated, it still took a while for the police department to hire a coordinator for the program.

Instead of waiting around for processes to be put in place, Tera and her fellow volunteer took the initiative to get the program off the ground—all in a time when Tera was struggling herself. During her year as an AmeriCorps volunteer she worked full time—and like other AmeriCorps members—lived on a small stipend that barely covered the bills.

“It was pretty tight that year,” Tera laughs. “They called us AmeriCorps ‘volunteers’ but you worked full time. We just found innovative ways to live cheaply, and I did some odd jobs to help get by. Still, it was a rewarding experience.”

By the time the police department hired a program coordinator, Tera and her team had already established much of the structure established, and she ended up training her new “boss.”

The person only lasted three months in the position, so Tera found herself immediately employed after leaving her AmeriCorps post.

“It gave me the unique chance to continue to build what I had started,” says Tera, who stayed with the Seattle Police Department as Domestic Violence Support Team coordinator until 2000. The program which has now been written into the police department’s permanent budget, has more than 60 volunteers and is growing strong.

The pilot program also marked a new foray for the JustServe AmeriCorps Program as well. Until then, Tera says , the program, sponsored by the Fremont Public Association, focused mostly on youth violent issues. “It has been really great to see that over the years the since the Victim Support Team was created, the JustServe AmeriCorps Program has expanded to include more and more sites addressing domestic violence,” she adds.

Planting Seeds for Healing

While Tera no longer heads the Domestic Violence Support Team, the cause of supporting abuse victims remains with her. Tera now works for the Fremont Public Association—an organization she worked closely with at the Seattle Police Department—as a grant writer, focusing on funding shelter programs and other domestic violence resources.

In her spare time, Tera continues to work with families in shelters through another program she cultivated through her work with Seattle Tilth and the Master Gardeners Volunteer Program.

“I went through Seattle Tilthe’s master composter training, and then volunteered teaching worm composting to kids at First Place School (a school for homeless children in Seattle). Many of the kids there were living in domestic violence shelters. They got really into composting. They were very protective toward the worms—and they were proud of creating a good home for their worms to live in.

“The purpose of the project is to involve gardeners from the community to support domestic violence victims by doing an activity they love. When women and kids are in shelter they are rebuilding their relationships. Gardening is a great therapeutic activity that moms and kids can do together, making something beautiful and nourishing. Master gardener volunteers bring their knowledge and love for gardening to help make this happen.”

In turn, Tera and other volunteers have worked, often with the kids and moms, to create cutting gardens where children can go and cut a bouquet of flowers for their mothers. Tera has also shown families simple ways to grow food so they wont’ go hungry on their own.

“A lot of women,when they leave their homes, leave behind gardens that were sanctuaries for them, so many say they are grateful to have gardens, she has seen the fruits of her labor come full circle in that many women she’s known as abuse victims are finally beginning to blossom on their own.

“What I find amazing is the courage, strength, and resourcefulness of survivors of domestic violence and what can happen when a community reaches out and supports them,” says Tera. “The kind of hope and healing it offers for women is immeasurable.”