“The Birkemeiers are builders,” we were told once, by a member of the one branch of the family that decided to go into farming instead. (Since their chosen crop was filberts, you could say they “went nuts.”)
Aaron Birkemeier is part of the Birkemeier Farms branch of the family, and has raised and harvested hazelnuts his entire life. But he and his wife, Emily, want to build something.
They call it Oregon Only House, and it is meant to be a first-of-its-kind shelter for women veterans and their children who have been victims of sexual or domestic violence.
The numbers are heartbreaking. According to a 2018 report by the Pentagon, more than 20,500 active duty service were victims of sexual assault that year — most, but certainly not all, of them women. This was a 38 percent increase from 2016.
At least a quarter of women veterans report having been assaulted at least once during their military service. Often, these incidents are not reported because the victims fear reprisal or not being believed.
Just like sexual assault in the civilian world, military sexual assault can lead to lasting trauma, which may negatively affect a person’s mental and physical health, even many years later. In another recent study, 82 percent of rape survivors said the experience “permanently changed them.”
The team of Oregon Only House was established by Bruce and Karen Brunette. Bruce and Aaron are longtime friends and hunting buddies, but the Brunettes are also the entrepreneurs behind Oregon Only, a planned destination resort showcasing Oregon’s unique people, products and history.
Plans included a hotel, convention center, water and amusement park, golf course and interpretative museum highlighting the Oregon timber industry. The original location was in Sutherlin, but developers are currently seeking a new site.
Emily Birkemeier, a maternity ward nurse for 17 years, said the idea of a shelter for domestic violence survivors came to the Brunettes, ironically, after a property they owned in Sandy burned to the ground.
“He felt that they had been really fortunate and had had a blessed life,” she said. “Rather than rebuilding it and selling it, he wanted to give back, somehow.”
Though the Brunettes developed the concept and name, the Birkemeiers have taken the project and run with it. The IRS letter approving Oregon Only House as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization arrived on Dec. 31, 2019, and since then, they haven’t looked back.
They have identified two possible locations in the Canby area and have set an initial fundraising goal of $2.5 million to facilitate this purchase, along with supplies and furnishings, and to begin operations.
In addition to fundraising, they are pursuing various government grants serving women veterans and/or victims of domestic abuse. They’ve been in contact with Clackamas Women’s Services and the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ women veterans coordinator.
One supporter the Birkemeiers have gained is Dixie Lynn Johnson, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in treating service members and first responders experiencing trauma. Johnson herself is a rape survivor and a survivor of the Clackamas Town Center shooting in 2012.
“I have an understanding not only from the client standpoint, but as a counselor offering hope and redefining purpose to empower resiliency in the lives of other survivors,” she says in a letter of support for Oregon Only House. “No matter how hopeless a situation may seem, I believe there is always hope and we do not have to go it alone.”
Unfortunately, finding that hope and support can be a real challenge when it comes to women veterans and service members, due to the lack of resources, counselors and shelters.
“That,” she says, “is where The Oregon Only House steps in: a beacon for female veterans who struggle to find someone ‘who gets me’ as they now continue their battle at home, … let alone integrating back into a society where only a select few relate to the military culture.”
As a longtime board member for an an Oregon nonprofit domestic and sexual violence agency, she said she witnessed firsthand “the need for a shelter where women who served in the military have a place to call home, a safe place to embrace them, people who believe in them, staff who support them and ‘sisters’ who listen to their heartbreaking story and come alongside as they regain the inner strength they long to believe in once again.”
The Birkemeiers have a long road ahead of them, but they are motivated to help a population that is so deserving and so in need.
“It’s a challenge, but what job doesn’t have a challenge?” Aaron Birkemeier asked. “Is it going to be fast and easy? No. But for me, it’s bulldozer mode: You put it in gear, and you just keep going until you get there.”
For more information about this project, the Birkemeiers may be reached at contact@OregonOnlyHouse.com.