The banging of pots and pans echoes from the kitchen at First United Methodist Church on Fourth Street. Apron-clad women bustle about, creating dishes such as raspberry chicken and shrimp-filled lettuce packets.
In less than six hours, these women of Middle Way Food Works will serve dinner to 50 people from the Quad County Bar Association.
At first glance, they seem like a typical catering service. But these women are anything but typical. They are survivors.
"The program was set up to provide secure employment for women who have been working to extricate themselves from bad situations," said Business and Operations Manager Donna Storm.
Middle Way Food Works was created in 2002 as part of the economic development program at Middle Way House, Bloomington's only emergency shelter for women who face domestic violence.
Nine women from Middle Way House are employed by Middle Way Food Works. They provide up to 1,400 meals a day at 24 locations in two counties. Along with preparing lunches for the Area 10 Senior Nutrition Program and Bloomington childcare centers, they also cater to receptions, weddings and bar mitzvahs.
"These women are very motivated and they work very hard," said Storm. "The logistics here are unique compared to other food operations because the women have to come up with the menus, deliver the meals Ð there's a lot more going on than just slapping food down and taking it out."
Before the creation of Middle Way Food Works, Middle Way House had already invented one job opportunity for survivors of domestic violence. In 1997, Confidential Document Destruction was established as Bloomington's first mobile shredding service.
The business has two shredding trucks, each with its own shredder. After shredding documents from Bloomington's businesses, the women bale the paper and ship it to a paper mill in Wisconsin. To date, the women have shredded more than 1,500 tons of paper.
Like many victims of domestic violence, the five women working at Confidential Document Destruction had initial problems with adjusting to a work environment.
"In the beginning, it's hard to train someone that has dealt with domestic violence," said supervisor Tracy Shipp, who is also a survivor of domestic violence. "It's not that they're untrainable, but it's just hard when they're coming from being dependent on someone else, instead of dependent on themselves."
Storm also said that the women of Middle Way Food Works faced obstacles in the beginning, but are fighting back.
"It's still difficult," she said. "They have children and a lot of stress in their lives, so it's hard to stay focused. When I came to this program, I was in awe by what we were trying to accomplish. To see it work is very satisfying."
Both of these programs were made possible in 1995 when Middle Way House received a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to tackle the barriers to productive employment faced by victims of domestic violence.
While the programs still rely on aid from Middle Way, they are on the verge of becoming self-sufficient.
"It has been our practice to plow whatever may seem to be 'profits' back into raises for the women, and added health care three years ago," said Charlotte Zietlow, director of Middle Way's economic development program. "It was a costly decision, but the right one, and probably the difference between 'making a profit' and not."
Middle Way Food Works and Confidential Document Destruction offer on the job training, a wage starting at $7.50 an hour, and the responsibilities typical of the real work force.
"Many of the women have worked sporadically and have almost no training," said Zietlow. "We specifically take people who are hard to employ and we try to make them employable. It's slow work, but it's work."
Both of these programs offer benefits to the women of Middle Way House that other businesses in Bloomington may not be able to offer.
"Middle Way is very family-oriented," said Shipp. "They are more understanding if you need to take off because your kids are sick or if they have doctors' appointments."
While Storm agreed that flexibility is a benefit for the women, she also said that mutual understanding is important.
"The biggest benefit of working here is working with women that they can relate to, who won't pass judgment," Storm said.
After working for Middle Way, many women have used their experiences to help them locate other opportunities. Confidential Document Destruction has employed over 30 women in the past eight years, many of whom found jobs elsewhere.
Zietlow said that while most of Middle Way Food Works' employees have been with the business for one to three years, some of the women have moved on.
"We have had several women leave to go back to school, which is a really good thing, one for medical reasons, two for family problems beyond our capacity to help fix, though not back to their abusers, and one very good cook who is now with a local restaurant, doing well," said Zietlow.
Along with the economic development program, Middle Way House also offers a 24-hour crisis line, an emergency shelter, housing, case management, support groups, legal advocacy and other services that help women make the transition from dependence on an abusive partner to self-sufficiency.
"Middle Way has worked hard to see that it makes women feel safe and independent," said Storm. "Being able to leave means being able to say, 'I can support myself and my kids.' These programs give them the opportunity to do that."
Amanda Robert can be reached at .