After losing their daughter to domestic violence in May 2018, Marshall pastor and Wiley College professor Dr. Tracy Andrus and wife, Sonya, have opened up two safe houses, in Harrison County, to provide victims a place of refuge.
The properties — appropriately named “Heather’s House” in honor of their 37-year-old daughter Heather Mouton — were dedicated on Saturday with a ceremonial ribbon cutting. Andrus was overcome with emotion as he thanked all in attendance for sharing in the special moment, which was also observed as a part of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
“This house is something that has come to fruition that we’ve been praying about,” said Andrus, who is pastor of Edwards Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Marshall and director of the Lee P. Brown Criminal Justice Institute at Wiley College.
“My daughter lost her life through domestic violence, being shot point-blank range by her husband,” he said.
The tragedy occurred in Andrus’ hometown and daughter’s city of residency, Crowley, Louisiana. Crowley police recorded it as the town’s first homicide of the year, and dubbed it as a “deadly case of domestic violence.”
According to news reports, Heather tragically sustained two shots in the head. Sadly, the murder occurred just shortly after Heather, who was also a mother, had finally found the strength to leave her husband and file for a restraining order. Her husband, Demetric Savoy, had just been served the order the day he took her life.
Although painful, the Andrus family said they’re grateful to be able to bless others through the tragedy, by offering safe homes in Heather’s memory, through the Tracy Andrus Foundation.
A Safe Haven
Andrus stood beside a bouquet of purple balloons and a pair of Bibles, on Saturday, as he kicked off the ribbon cutting with a prayer of thanksgiving.
“It’s been a blessing because now I understand better what people go through when they don’t have a place to go and I understand more about domestic violence; and God put it on our hearts to do something for our community in memory of our daughter, Heather,” Andrus told the crowd. “This is what we came up with and purchased this property.”
“It’s in a very secluded area and we thought this would be the perfect place to build a safe house,” the father said.
The homes will be registered, as of next week, with the Texas and Louisiana Registry, in order to serve as an official safe haven for both men and women victims from East Texas and northwest Louisiana.
“If someone from Tyler to Monroe needs a place to get away, whether it’s for a few weeks or a few months, they can come over here,” said Andrus. “They don’t have to pay a penny. We will provide them with everything that they need while they stay here.”
The homes are already equipped with furniture and appliances to accommodate victims and their children’s needs. Andrus said they also plan to provide Internet access. Additionally, surveillance cameras will be added as well as a privacy fence to further provide security.
“We’re going to do everything we can to protect folk as much as we can,” said Andrus. “We just thank God for allowing us the opportunity to have the means to do what we’ve done. God has been very good to us and we’re going to make sure that we’re a blessing to others.”
Andrus’ cousin, Shonnetta Green, traveled from Crowley to not only share in the occasion, but to also give her own testimony of survival.
“It’s such a blessing to stand before you to be able to share a few words about this because I am a survivor of domestic violence,” said Green. “I had a protective order, still almost lost my life, but I’m here today because of the grace of God.”
Green stressed how important the role of a safe house is as it serves as a place of peace.
“It’s not just a place for somebody to lay their heads, but to lay their hearts, because when they’re going through something such as domestic violence, they go through every part of abuse that you could imagine – from physical, to sexual, to emotional, to verbal,” she said. “All those abuses are significant.”
She said whenever victims repeatedly go back to the abuser, things usually escalate. But to have a safe house to turn to as an escape from the bondage is a blessing, she said.
“Love is not abuse and abuse is not love. So everybody does not want to live in that abusive relationship,” said Green.
“Like me, I’m here in front of you today because I had the chance to start over,” she said. “But I didn’t have a safe house to go to, to start over. I had family and I had support; so to be able to have a safe house for somebody to lay not just their head but their hearts, to be at peace and to know that there is a way out and that there is sunshine after the pain, it’s a blessing.”
District 5 Marshall City Commissioner Vernia Calhoun said she was glad to be a part of Saturday’s ribbon cutting, as well. She said the resource is something that’s needed in the local community.
“We, as a community, we are so blessed to have you to provide this,” she told the Andrus family.
Calhoun said she has personally known domestic violence victims and she encourages anyone who is a victim to seek help.
“Any abuse, if they hit you once, it’s going to happen again,” said Calhoun.
“So if it happens, get out,” she encouraged. “Get help. It doesn’t make you any less. Don’t worry about what people say. You have to protect yourself, and especially if you have children. Get you and your children out of that surrounding because love does not hurt.”
District 2 City Commissioner Leo Morris also extended his congratulations on the program, noting how helpful it will be in the community.
“God is blessing you and you saw the fortitude to pass that blessing on, because the people that are going to have access to this program is going to be deserving of it and I’m sure that they will benefit greatly from your efforts,” Morris told the Andrus family.
Sonya Andrus said she, too, was grateful for all who shared in the occasion.
“When God allowed Heather to be delivered from her situation, he opened the door so that we can provide a blessing to provide deliverance to other women. So we pray that this safe house provides a refuge for women so that they can have an opportunity to develop a closer relationship with God, to build relationships, to build their self esteem and to know that there is restoration and hope,” she said. “That’s what we hope that Heather’s House will be.”
Dr. Andrus said his foundation has teamed up with law enforcement agencies and family services entities to refer victims to Heather’s House.
“If anybody needs help, or they have somebody that really needs to get away, they can contact us directly, or the police department would have access to getting here also,” he said.
East Texas Baptist University met Tuesday with members of the Nu-Town Revitalization Group (NRG), a local non-profit organization that strives to promote social, educational, and economic awareness to improve the Marshall community. University President J. Blair Blackburn presented co-founders Chris Frazier, Tasha Williams, and Anna Ansari with a donation of $1,500 toward the creation of NRG’s forthcoming Educational Resource Center and Youth Recreation Center.
“This donation will help us get the essentials we need to bring our plans to fruition,” Frazier said. “We’re starting from scratch, so we need everything — office supplies, desks, chairs, computers. We’ll also be renovating our future facility, so once we get our building together, we can do everything we want to, such as open after-school programs and offer adult education classes.”
Nu-Town Revitalization Group was recently granted nonprofit status by the state of Texas, and their soon-to-be-opened Education Resource Center will offer a variety of services to both adults and children, including tutoring, computer access, homework assistance, and resume-building. The organization hopes to serve the Marshall community and give hope for the future through the gift of education.
“When I was growing up, we did not have these avenues for community growth or development at all,” Williams added. “That’s what inspired me to make an impact in our community. Like me, a child may not know what is inside them, what they are capable of doing. All it takes is someone working with that child, helping them discover what makes that light come on and showing them that someone actually cares about them. This is what we want to achieve at the center.”
Working with NRG is part of the University’s continued commitment to serve the city of Marshall, including the Neighborhood Renewal Initiative.
“Partnering with Nu-Town will give ETBU students the chance to get involved and enhance our community,” Dr. Blackburn shared. “Part of our mission is developing Christian servant leaders that can invest right here in Marshall. We want them to take the initiative, wherever God leads them after this Hill, to invest in their community, much like Chris, Tasha, and Anna.”
Three of NRG’s founders in attendance on Tuesday graduated from Marshall High School and eventually found themselves in a position to give back to the town in which they were raised.
Co-founder and Marshall native Anna Ansari moved to Austin to become a lawyer but says she keeps coming back because of her family roots and the feeling that she can’t help but want to be involved in the place that has her heart.
“I’ve always believed education gives you so much power,” Ansari said. “I have a law degree, and with that single piece of paper, I can do lots of things. Many kids don’t feel like they have that power, but if you give them education, it emboldens them. That’s why it’s so great to have a partnership with this University, so these kids can see college students and know the kind of power that’s accessible to them through education. Giving them inspiration and experiences like these embodies what we hope to accomplish with the opening of NRG.”
Rush Harris, CEcD, has been selected to serve as the new Executive Director of the Marshall Economic Development Corporation w(Marshall EDC) by a unanimous vote of the organization’s Board of Directors. Harris will be replacing, Donna Maisel, CEcD who announced her retirement last month. Harris previously held the title of Director of Business Services for Marshall EDC and has worked with the EDC for over six years.
“I am honored to serve as the Executive Director of our local economic development organization. Not everyone gets the opportunity to engage in a profession they are passionate about, much less, to do so in your own hometown,” said Harris. “Over the past 12 years, Donna has led a professional organization through good and bad times, with a focus on employment, industry growth, and continuous internal improvement. I will continue that, as well as address the issues and opportunities of the future.”
Harris continued, “Our EDC requires us to wear many hats and take on many roles which I’ve experienced firsthand with many projects, tasks, and initiatives. It’s an opportunity many don’t get to experience in larger EDC organizations.”
Hal Cornish, Chairman of Marshall EDC commented, “Marshall EDC began an early strategy for a long term staff succession plan. Rush’s expertise in many areas, recent certification and extensive knowledge of the community have been and will continue to be a tremendous asset. The organization is fortunate to be able to retain and promote from within. Promoting Rush to Executive Director provides a strong continuity of the high level of service and productivity of the organization. Based upon his performance and drive for excellence over the years, we have every confidence in him and his ability to manage the EDC.”
Rush Harris is a native of Marshall. He graduated from Marshall High School in 1995 and attended Southern Methodist University, graduating with a BA in Business Administration. While at SMU, Harris interned with the United States Department of Commerce Export Assistance Center and served as President of Phi Delta Theta. From 2002-2004 Harris volunteered with the United States Peace Corps in the Agricultural Marketing program in Guatemala. He obtained a certificate in International Marketing from the US Peace Corps during his time there, as well as Advanced level fluency in Spanish from ACTFL.
In 2008, Harris pursued an MBA at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, where he graduated with Honors from the internationally recognized business school. While at Thunderbird, Harris participated in an emerging sustainable markets program while studying abroad in Brazil. He also obtained certifications in Conflict Mediation and Global Business Communications. As he worked with Marshall EDC, Harris completed the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) Basic Economic Development Course taught through Texas A&M University.
He continued this specialized education through the University of Oklahoma Economic Development Institute (OUEDI), receiving his OUEDI Economic Development Certification. In 2020, Harris qualified to test for the Certified Economic Developer (CEcD) professional designation. He received the designation last spring and is one of approximately 1100 active CEcDs across North America.
Harris explains, “I’m glad to be in Marshall. There are real and practical opportunities for growth, both financially and in terms of our population, right here in Marshall. How our community unifies and how we plan toward that growth matters. How we educate and train our future labor force to fulfill the growth of that demand is of paramount importance,” said Harris. “I’ve spent a good deal of time studying and applying skills for economic development. At Marshall EDC, I’ve put that knowledge into actual practice. I’m ready and honored to lead this organization and serve Marshall.”
Harris is active in several local organizations. He currently serves as President of the Marshall Boys & Girls Club Local Advisory Council and sits on the Board of Governors for the regional Boys & Girls Clubs of the Big Pines. Additionally, he sits on the Board of Directors for both Trinity Episcopal School and the East Texas 100 Club.
In addition to his economic development experience, Harris has worked in various capacities within the distribution, farming, timber, oil and gas, financial, professional services, and information technology sectors.
Harris is married to Dinora, whom he met while living in Guatemala. Dinora currently works with the Greater Marshall Chamber of Commerce.Dinora and Rush have two children.
“We’ve loved being back in Marshall with our daughters and near my parents, Dr. James and Beverly Harris. Work-life balance is always a challenge, but life is good when you can live in a great community, have a job you love, and still be close to your family,” said Harris. “I am hopeful to be a part of Marshall’s economic growth for many years to come.”
Harrison County has had an impressive voter turnout for the first week of early voting in the Nov. 3 General Election, with 20 percent of registered voters casting ballots.
“Wow… That’s a total of 9,255 check-ins,” Elections Administrator Donald Robinette reported Saturday, noting that was the turnout for four full days — Tuesday, Oct. 13, through Friday, Oct. 16.
To accommodate the heavy turnout, Robinette said he’s ordered additional paper ballots and is printing more to have available at the various early voting branch locations.
“My original plan was to have residents of Marshall to vote here in the main office, therefore (I) didn’t send but a few of Marshall ballots to the branch locations,” he explained. “I’m seeking to remedy that just as soon as possible.
“More city ballots will be going to branch locations,” he said. “Obvious now, we should have had more than one polling location within the city. However, we were running low on early voting equipment, which is part of the reason why there’s only the one location.
“We must still have enough equipment to do Election Day voting,” Robinette explained.
Nevertheless, he said voters can still cast their ballots on electronic machines.
“Even though it is old technology, it does give the voter a summary of their selections before actually casting their ballot, and it also allows you to go back and change anything you want to,” he said. “It’s just that rotating a wheel to make selections is hard to get used to after nearly everyone is used to touch screens.
Touch screen voting equipment is in the works, he said, but the county just couldn’t make it happen in time for this election.
Robinette said when voters have issues he typically likes to personally address it with them, but unfortunately can’t be available all the time. Although he’s not able to personally address all issues, he said poll workers are able to assist where needed.
“Practically every poll worker has had training and should know how to appropriately handle any problems,” he said. “We try to be sure that everyone is given the same instructions and training, but can’t be at every location to monitor what is going on.
“Yet we cannot have elections without all the people who are willing to work,” he said.
He expressed his appreciation to all the poll workers, who are working diligently to ensure a successful election.
“It does take a lot of commitment to do this important though temporary work,” said Robinette. “It is not for the faint-hearted nor the easily angered person.”
Attempting to address all concerns regarding the election, Robinette noted that the process has been a busy journey this cycle. He explained the need for several ballots to accommodate the various local, federal, state and school elections that are going on simultaneously.
“It seemed appropriate to add all the local elections onto the federal and state ballots, that way everyone in the county could receive a single ballot,” he said. “For most people, that would entail a simple one-page front and back ballot. For most of these ballots, the only difference from one to the other would be the county precinct number, which is from 1 to 26. The only other difference would be any local races where a voter resides.
“After spending many, many hours studying the voters lists from all 26 county precincts and also the voter registration lists for each ISD and each city, it was clear that there were many variations that needed to be considered,” said Robinette. “That is five schools and three cities, with the city of Marshall having a very complex ballot, due the number of possible splits.”
He said his office strived to give every voter the opportunity to vote on everything they qualify to vote for, considering their residency voter registration, but not allow anyone who was not in those same jurisdictions to vote on anything they were not eligible to vote for.
“It was a very long tedious process to figure out,” said Robinette. “Then once the local races were added to the national and state and county races, there was also the need to figure exactly which county precinct each voter resides in. Due to the fact that the national election will require precinct by precinct reports, it was necessary to number every ballot with a title number that matches the county precinct where they live — also a lengthy endeavor.”
To simplify the process at the polls, he urges voters to look at their voter registration cards for their precinct number.
“It is still confusing to people, because no one hardly ever pays attention to their voter’s card. It will tell you which ballot you need, as will our poll books,” said Robinette.
ABSENTEE BALLOTS BY MAIL
Robinette said another big issue they’ve been tackling is absentee ballots by mail.
“People do have the right to vote by mail,” he said. “Currently the reasons are over age 65, disabled, or being out of the county the entire voting period, or in jail but with the right to vote.”
The elections administrator said while he’s not on social media nor does he pay attention to complaints in the news, he wants to encourage voters to have faith in the election process.
“Since I’m not into the social media or even the news media, I don’t hear nor see all the ‘noise’ that may be going on in the public arena. I have to keep my nose to grind to get things done,” said Robinette. “That said, whatever is going on, people seem to be acting out of fear, instead of having faith.”
The elections administrator said his office has had an overwhelming amount of new registrations that has taken quite a while to process. The overwhelming requests for applications by mail have also taken many man hours to fulfill, he said. The Texas Supreme Court’s decision to order the restoration of Green Party candidates to the ballot just days before the mailing deadline for overseas and military ballots also caused a delay in delivery, he noted.
Nevertheless, all the annual ballot-by-mail requests by the county’s registered senior citizens were finally fulfilled on Wednesday, he noted. As of Thursday, they were still working, however, on approximately 200 new requests that were expected to be all mailed Thursday.
“But new applications can still be received through Friday, Oct. 23,” Robinette informed.
EARLY VOTING SCHEDULE
Early voting continues today through Oct. 30, with a weekend option as well at the main elections office.
The seven early voting polling places for Harrison County are: Waskom sub-courthouse, 165 W. Texas Ave.; Harleton Community Center, 4335 Community St.; Hallsville’s Gold Hall Community Center, 101 E. Elm St.; ESD No. 9 in Elysian Fields, 130 Farm-to-Market Road 451; Woodland Hills Baptist Church, 2105 E. Loop 281; Karnack’s T.J. Taylor Community Center, 15642 Farm-to-Market Road 134; and the Harrison County Main Elections Office at 415 E. Burleson St. in Marshall.
Early voting will take place at all of the early voting sites from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. now to Oct. 16, Oct. 19-Oct. 22 and Oct. 26-Oct. 29. Extended early voting hours will be 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Oct. 23 and Oct. 30, which are both on a Friday. The weekend option at the elections office, only, will be Saturday, Oct. 24, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 25, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.