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Jesse Eisenberg and Anna Strout support local organization Middle Way House


Actor Jesse Eisenberg and Toby Strout, former executive director of the Middle Way House, stand in front of the Middle Way House's New Wings Emergency Shelter in 2015. Eisenberg wrote a book that takes place on IU's campus in 2002 for Audible that will be narrated by himself, actress Kaitlyn Dever and actor Finn Wolfhard. Courtesy Photo

Domestic violence hotlines across the country receive over 20,000 calls daily, an average of about 15 calls every minute.

Due to COVID-19, families are isolated and victims of violence are quarantined with abusers. Therefore, calls have increased and domestic violence is on the rise.

At the Middle Way House, a local organization that supports victims of intimate partner violence and human trafficking, the situation is no different.

“People are quarantined together,” Anna Strout, a program producer and volunteer at the Middle Way House said. “I was speaking with the shelter this morning, and stats show that calls are up at the shelter.”

The Middle Way House provides services to victims of intimate partner violence and human trafficking. Services Middle Way House provides include shelter, a 24-hour crisis hotline, legal advocacy, support groups, child care and job placement services to all genders.

Despite the pandemic, the shelter is still operating 365 days a year, seven days a week, 24 hours a day in a disclosed location across from the police station on 338 S. Washington St. They have two housing centers, the 30-bed New Wings Emergency Shelter for temporary crisis housing and the Rise, a transitional housing center that accommodates 28 families. 

Strout, a Bloomington native, began volunteering at the Middle Way House when she was 14 under the guidance of her late mother Toby, who served as the executive director for 30 years.

Today, Anna and her husband, actor Jesse Eisenberg, live in Bloomington and dedicate their time to working at the shelter. The couple and their 3-year-old son have been living in Bloomington for the past month after self-isolating in an RV for two weeks while traveling from Los Angeles. 

Eisenberg, who is known for his Academy Award-nominated portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,” grew up in New Jersey and had never heard of Bloomington before he met Strout. He said he’s in awe of the community-minded citizens and creativity that is present in the town.

“It felt like a well-kept secret,” he said. “Bloomington seems to be made up of some of the most civically minded, socially engaged citizenry.”

Eisenberg took his affinity for Bloomington and wrote a book for Audible that will be narrated by himself, actress Kaitlyn Dever and actor Finn Wolfhard. It takes place on the campus of IU in 2002. There are plans for a movie adaptation as well, produced by Emma Stone and starring Julianne Moore, Eisenberg, Dever and Wolfhard.

His involvement with the Middle Way House started with Strout and her mother, who he said ran the organization in a way that was egalitarian.

“I’d never seen a nonprofit work so efficiently,” Eisenberg said. “It was empowering to the community and the people who pass through the shelter.”

He has spent his time at the shelter doing more tangible tasks like painting, cleaning and disinfecting, allowing him to feel more useful.

“Sometimes I feel inadequate just doing interviews about it or just giving money,” Eisenberg said. “I want to be helpful in a more direct way.”

Eisenberg recently made a $50,000 donation to the organization after family friend Amy Schumer, comedian and actress, did the same. Strout, Eisenberg and Schumer filmed a public service announcement to raise awareness and distribute the National Domestic Violence hotline number that will be released Monday on Instagram.

Global organization GivingTuesday organized a giving day in response to COVID-19. This is in addition to the organization’s annual Giving Tuesday on Dec. 1. Strout said it's a great opportunity to support the Middle Way House and other organizations in need.

The Middle Way House is collaborating with local businesses such as the Inkwell Bakery and Cafe, Primary Inspired Eats and the People’s Cooperative Market to raise money for the organization. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to support the Middle Way House. In addition to making donations, a wish list of items that the Middle Way House needs is available on their website.

Abbey Stemler, owner of the Inkwell, began volunteering for Middle Way House while she was a student at IU. She said she felt inspired to help after listening to a podcast about the rise of domestic violence during quarantine.

“As a woman, you can empathize with how terrifying this is,” Stemler said. 

One in four women and one in 10 men experience some kind of intimate partner violence during their lifetime, according to 2015 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection.

Debby Herbenick, a professor at the IU School of Public Health, said that there is limited data that suggest victims are experiencing elevated rates of intimate partner violence during the pandemic.

“If you live with an aggressor and you can’t get away from them, there is a greater risk of violence,” Herbenick said. “Shelters are critical to give people the opportunity to escape, whether it’s temporary or long term.”

Middle Way House has a 24-hour crisis hotline available to those in need. They can be reached at 812-336-0846.

Advocates for the National Domestic Violence Hotline are available 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) in more than 200 languages. All calls are free and confidential.

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