The staff at the Center for Victims in the South Side brings decades of experience to their work assisting women and families fleeing domestic abuse. But even among their experts, Operations Manager Stephanie Fox stands apart.

Fox has firsthand experience in the shelter system. Not as a professional or a volunteer, but as a young mother fleeing violence with her own children.

“I had to do it twice,” Fox says. “So I’m very familiar.”

Today, Fox is applying her own experience to an ambitious new expansion of the Center’s offices in the South Side. On Friday, May 3, community leaders joined the organization to break ground on their new Liberty Shelter, which will occupy the first floor of their current offices.

Construction will begin in early June and wrap up by the end of the year. Fox is serving as the program manager for the initiative.

“Her firsthand insight into the needs and concerns of women and children seeking shelter is invaluable,” said Center for Victims President and CEO Laurie MacDonald in an announcement about the project. “Stephanie brings a commitment to creating a welcoming, accessible environment that helps to empower survivors and their children.”

The floor will be divided into 24 hotel-style suites with dedicated bathrooms and kitchenettes, along with common areas for childcare and internet access. Desmone Architects collaborated on the design.

Walking into a shelter “is the hardest move a domestic violence victim ever has to make,” says Fox. “I did not want it to feel institutionalized at all. I wanted it to feel like you’re walking into a home.”

In addition to the comfortable and secure living quarters, guests in the shelter will also have 24-hour access to the other services housed in the upper floors of the building, which include an exhibit on dealing with trauma and help from the Center’s legal aid team.

“When you’re walking into the shelter you’re already traumatized and lost and scared, and I wanted to make it as calming and welcoming as we can,” Fox tells NEXTpittsburgh. “I’m really big on dignity. Dignity is the essence of healing.”

The new Liberty Shelter will replace the shelter the Center currently runs in McKeesport. Fox explains that keeping everything in one building allows the staff to better coordinate their services and gives the guests a foundation for self-esteem and success that will continue long after they leave the system.

“As a survivor now,” says Fox, “it’s my job to pave the way to a better future for domestic violence victims.”