A Border Collie spaniel mix sits in front of stairs.
Crisis Center North visitors are likely to be greeted by Penny, a black-and-white Border Collie spaniel mix. Photo courtesy of Crisis Center North.

Penny, a black-and-white Border Collie spaniel mix, eagerly greets visitors at Crisis Center North. She’s a therapy dog that can sense anxiety or depression and is among the pets the center makes available to victims of domestic violence as a way to help them cope with trauma.

At the center’s headquarters that opened during the pandemic, Penny and other rescued shelter dogs have their own space — a canine room that includes a ball pit for playtime. 

While some of the center’s counseling and other services continue to operate remotely as they did during the early months of the pandemic, many clients and staff have returned to the new space which features an expanded open layout and biophilic design elements such as plants and a fountain to create a calm, soothing atmosphere for victims of abuse. 

Like most organizations that assist such victims, Crisis Center North does not disclose its location. 

Founded in 1978, the nonprofit serves people located in northern and western Allegheny County, says Grace Coleman, who has served as the executive director of Crisis Center North since 1999 and also happens to be Penny’s owner.

Grace Coleman, executive director of Crisis Center North. Photo courtesy Crisis Center North.

For the fiscal year ending June 30, the center served more than 2,500 clients. The nonprofit has a staff of 24 and an annual budget of $1.83 million.

The new 6,000-square-foot headquarters occupies leased space with soft blue and gray walls, midcentury-modern furnishings made of light wood, lots of natural light, soundproof consulting rooms where clients can speak privately, a children’s play space, a spacious kitchen for staff and clients, and areas for meditation, yoga and other calming activities. 

One room features a vertical aquarium with twinkle lights on the ceiling; colorful nature photographs by local artist George Hall line the walls.

Jenna Date, who designed the center’s new interior spaces, describes the site in a video presentation as a “sanctuary space … a healing space for staff and victims.”

Crisis Center North is not a shelter but does operate about 20 transitional housing units where residents build skills to overcome violence and live independently. 

Prior to its move, the center occupied 3,000 square feet over three floors in a building with leaks and temperature control problems, says Coleman. When public transportation access to that site was eliminated, she knew it was time to make a move. 

Beginning in 2017, Date’s firm held focus groups with center staff, clients, board members, volunteers and other stakeholders to receive input on the design. 

The group met over three months at the penthouse in the Frick Building in Downtown Pittsburgh, where they shared wine, appetizers and ideas on colors, furniture and how best to make the new space comfortable for victims and staff. 

“We wanted it built by the community for the community,” says Coleman.

The design planning phase was funded through a $100,000 grant from the Mary Hillman Jennings Foundation. Funders for the space build-out which totaled about $227,000, included the Richard King Mellon Foundation, FISA Foundation, Jennie K. Scaife Foundation and the federal Victims of Crime Act Fund. 

Photo courtesy of Crisis Center North.

There was an uptick in calls to the center during the pandemic because victims were sheltering at home with abusers and perpetrators, says Coleman.

In January 2020, just a couple of months before government-imposed lockdowns, the center launched a text-chatline that allowed victims to seek help without making phone calls that could be overheard by their abusers. The service operates from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m daily by texting 412-444-7660 or visiting the center’s website and clicking on the blue chat bubble in the bottom righthand corner. The 24-hour hotline is 412-364-5556.

“We never realized how important that would be,” says Coleman. “It was invaluable for victims … and a way for us to keep tabs on them.”

The center has also ramped up its outreach by establishing mobile counseling operations at hospitals and other sites in the region. 

The newest outreach site will be operational in August at Allegheny Health Network’s Wexford Hospital and Health + Wellness Pavilion. Clinical trauma professionals will be embedded at AHN Wexford to provide victims with counseling, group and family therapy, and connections for economic, housing and legal assistance. 

On-site referrals will come from AHN medical professionals who screen patients for social determinants of health — including safety — in the emergency room or during physician office visits. 

Canine advocates Ari (left) and Penny (right). Photo courtesy of Crisis Center North.

“The purpose is to interrupt the cycle of violence in these people’s lives,” says Kristin Lazzara, manager of community engagement and expansion for AHN’s Center for Inclusion Health. “Sometimes the only safe place to go when you are in an abusive situation is to a doctor’s appointment. If the patient leaves the office, oftentimes they won’t make the phone call [for assistance].”

The mobile advocacy program also operates at AHN’s West Penn and Allegheny General hospitals, AHN’s Federal North outpatient center on the North Side, Community College of Allegheny County campuses and several nonprofits. 

The mobile initiative, which earned the Governor’s Victim Service Pathfinder Award for Pennsylvania program of the year in 2021, recently received $179,000 in American Rescue Plan funds for expansion. 

The program allows the center’s staff to reach people who may not have transportation to its headquarters and others “who may be homeless, HIV-positive or have other barriers to receiving services,” says Coleman.

“We’re embedded in the community. We’re not making the community come to us.”

In October, the center’s PAWS for Empowerment program, established a decade ago, won a three-year grant totaling nearly $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime. 

The money will fund two pet-friendly emergency or transitional housing units for domestic violence victims plus other supports for victims and their companion animals.

“Given that many victims will not leave a pet behind, this grant is removing obstacles that keep the living entities at both ends of the leash safe from harm.”

Joyce Gannon

Joyce Gannon is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.