The holidays bring extra-complicated emotions to the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, so all the more reason to be festive. On this night freshly wrapped gifts are tucked underneath a large Christmas tree, and the spicy smell of barbecue wafts in the warm air coming from the kitchen as “White Christmas” plays softly from small stereo speakers.

The 17 women and 13 children are here because they were considered to be in immediate danger. They are safe for now and that is to be celebrated. But they are also scarred, separated from families and friends at the time when they need them most. The shelter can comfortably take about 40 survivors at a time, which employees know is not enough. Last year they had to turn away 700 people, ushering them to similar facilities across the region.

Victims stay until the shelter can find an affordable landing spot for them, usually 45 to 60 days. The names change often, and the hope is the transiency of the population means more lives are being changed for the better.

“Hey ladies! Will’s here!” yells a staff member.

This night should be special. Steelers cornerback William Gay is here to serve his annual holiday dinner. He likes that each time he visits the shelter, he is greeted by new faces carrying untold stories of bravery.

“Every time I go,” Gay said, “it’s like a new beginning.”

Barbara Nicholas, the shelter’s development director, introduces him. She wants the victims to understand that Gay is not just some NFL player who happened to take up domestic violence as his issue now that it has become the league’s hot-button topic in the aftermath of the Ray Rice incident. Gay has been helping the shelter since 2009, she says.

“I don’t know if you know my story,” Gay says, “but my mom passed away from domestic violence. So to see ya’ll get out of situations, I call ya’ll heroes. My mom, unfortunately, she couldn’t get out of the situation. She lost her life to it. For you guys to bring your kids here, it’s just tremendous.

“Want to come bless the food with me?”

What the women and children don’t know is Gay needs this time with them every bit as much as they do. For nearly two decades after he lost his mother as a 7-year-old, he felt that if he just kept the pain inside long enough it would finally disappear. Instead it became part of his inner lining, affecting his everyday interactions in a world of happy parents and children that he simply could not comprehend.

“Bow your heads,” he asks. “Dear Lord, we just want to thank you for another blessed day. … We ask you to lift these women up, and their families, and everybody who helps out with the Women’s Center & Shelter …”

For those like Nicholas who fight against domestic violence every day, one of the constant challenges is finding victims to step forward and into the spotlight. Real-life examples are needed to put an end to the shame survivors live with and show them they aren’t alone. That Gay, with his Steelers celebrity, has done public service announcements for the shelter, been the spokesperson for its new “RU Safe?” mobile app and traveled the country doing speaking engagements has been more than Nicholas could have ever expected.

When he first expressed interest in learning more about the shelter, neither Nicholas nor Steelers community relations manager Michele Rosenthal knew what had happened to his mother. He had said he just wanted to eat dinner with the victims and get a sense of the place, but once he began hearing their stories, something came over him. His words poured out and they haven’t stopped since.

After all those years, William Gay was free. But if he was going to start telling his story, it was time to find out the truth.

RELIVING TRAGEDY

He had never asked questions. His mother was there for him one day and then she wasn’t. What did the details matter? William Gay had bought into a message given by the elders in his family that was meant to help a young boy put one foot in front of the other: The world was not fair and nobody was going to feel sorry for him.

Now he was coming for answers. Gay returned to Tallahassee, Florida, after his first visit to the shelter, and sought out his uncles and his grandmother, Corine Hall, who had raised him.

He did not remember more than the basics about his mother. They didn’t have much, but Carolyn Hall Bryant worked to give him and his brothers the things they wanted. She asked them to be good citizens. But the specifics were murky. By not talking about her, year after year, her image had become blurry, her voice faint. Gay was there to bring her back to life.

“When I went home, that’s all I wanted to know about,” he said. “What happened, why did it happen, where were we when it happened …”

Carolyn had three sons with three men, and she had recently married Vernon Bryant, the father of her third boy, Verterris. At age 30, she had an office job working for the state of Florida, and she had just given her life over to God.

Her relationship with her new husband was far from perfect.

For the adults, that was easy to see. They would sometimes become heated around family but not the kids. One uncle told Gay that he knew Carolyn and Vernon were having issues but they always had viewed Carolyn as tough, able to handle anything that came her way. So he stayed out of it.

That was one thing Gay kept hearing: Nobody felt it was any of their business – a tired refrain in domestic violence cases.

March 14, 1992, was a sunny Saturday. Carolyn dropped the boys off at their grandmother’s house and walked down the street to visit a friend. She was considering leaving Vernon and he wasn’t taking it well. He tracked her down at her friend’s house, and she came outside to talk to him.

Minutes later the friend was running frantically down the street to Corine’s house. Carolyn’s brother, Ronald “Gene” Hall, was there with the boys. The friend told Gene that Vernon had shot Carolyn and then turned the gun on himself. When Gene reached her, Carolyn was laying on the driveway, bleeding onto the concrete.

Gene held his little sister and tried to keep her from moving. She was breathing so there was still hope. He stayed with her in the ambulance and into the hospital. The outlook wasn’t good; she had been shot five times.

Family took William and his brothers to the hospital. This was the part of the story that he could always remember. The boys wanted to see their mother but they were told that they couldn’t. They didn’t understand why.

“After that they told me that my mother passed away,” Gay said. “I thought life was over.”

GETTING ON PATH

Corine Hall’s husband died when Carolyn, the youngest of their five children, was just a toddler. Corine was a housekeeper by day, a stretched-thin mother by night, and Carolyn had gotten her best. Now her baby was gone but there was no time to wallow, not with Carolyn’s three sons she had left behind living under the cloud of an uncertain future.

What were they going to do with Unrikay Hall, 13, William Gay, 7, and Verterris Bryant, 3?

They talked about splitting them up among family members, but Corine decided she would take all three into her home.

This would be no side job for a woman in her 50s. The boys were angry and confused.

“My grandmother couldn’t control us,” Gay said. “I was just enraged, not caring about nothing.”

To give herself and the boys a chance, Corine moved out of Tallahassee’s South Side project. They stuffed nine people into a small four-bedroom home, where William’s temper didn’t subside. He had been taught to swallow his grief and there was no telling when it would rear its ugly head. In junior high, school officials lost patience with his constant fighting and threatened expulsion.

His Uncle Gene told William that if he didn’t start behaving, he was going to end up dead or in jail. But what really stuck with William?

“You won’t play football anymore,” Uncle Gene had threatened.

No football? The game was the one thing that had brought him joy and a sense of belonging. When he did something good on the field, people cheered for him. William was not going to let that be taken from him, too.

He stayed out of trouble, and became a star quarterback and defensive back at Tallahassee’s Rickards High. When he would make a big play, he would point to the sky. Those were moments shared between just him and his mother.

William, at 5-foot-10, wasn’t going to make the recruiting list for hometown Florida State. So he and six of his teammates compiled a video of their highlights on their own and sent copies of it across the country. William’s tape jumped out and he accepted a scholarship to the University of Louisville.

There, away from home for the first time, he was on fast forward.

The Cardinals planned to redshirt him as a freshman because of his size, but they couldn’t keep him off the field. He would become one of the best players in the Big East Conference, and would graduate with a degree in sports administration in just 31/2 years.

Still, though, Gay hadn’t fully proven himself. He was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine or any senior all-star games. He worked out at Louisville’s on-campus pro day, and his agent told him he’d likely be a high-priority undrafted free agent.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t really think about the NFL,” Gay said. “Yeah, that was a dream when I was young. But when I got to school, I knew a degree would bring a lot of opportunities. I was ready to go back home and work, get into coaching.”

On draft day in 2007, there was no big gathering. Gay was half-watching at his grandmother’s house when his phone started buzzing and his name scrolled on the bottom of the screen: The Pittsburgh Steelers had taken him in the fifth round.

Hours later, Corine’s backyard was packed with family, and the meat was on the grill. Fifteen years after her death shattered him, Carolyn’s middle son was headed for the NFL.

USING HIS PLATFORM

William Gay was at home on Sept. 8 when he saw the video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice striking his fiancee with his fist in the elevator of an Atlantic City, New Jersey, casino.

“I was very shocked,” Gay said. “You never see it coming.”

That day, when Gay arrived at the Steelers’ facility, he was approached by team officials who warned him that reporters would be wanting to talk to him about Rice. Gay had come a long way since he first told his story publicly five years ago, and he assured them that he was ready for it. He knew one thing: He wasn’t going to villainize Rice.

“Someone could have died, that’s all,” Gay said then. “That’s how I feel about the situation, so we need to do everything we can to help Ray Rice. Because we don’t need to run away from him and say he’s evil. It’s an issue, we need to deal with it, and we need to help Ray Rice and his (wife) to be better from it.”

Now that domestic violence is being more freely discussed, Gay has been able to step forward as a leader. His face was featured in several NFL public service announcements with the theme “No More,” and, on Oct. 26, he wore purple cleats – the color for the cause of domestic violence – during the Steelers’ win over the Colts. He has received attention for pointing to his mother in the sky after his franchise-record three interceptions returned for touchdowns.

In November, the Steelers named Gay their Walter Payton Man of the Year, which nominates him for the league-wide award, given to players who best serve their communities. During his bye week, he returned to Tallahassee to hand out turkeys and Thanksgiving fixings to 500 local families. The bill was $16,000.

That day, as he and his family manned the assembly line, Corine Hall, now 84, looked on from the community center’s bleachers. She said watching him do that for others makes her happy.

About a year ago, Gay bought her a new house, which quickly became the family meeting place. These days, when he and his brothers get together, they can talk about what happened to their mother. Sometimes it gets emotional but at least everything is out in the open.

“To see William, his success, it helps all of us,” his Uncle Gene said. “You get some of the effects of it.”

The Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh is benefiting, too. At Gay’s holiday dinner, he moved around to speak with the women and play with the kids, each of whom received a few presents he provided. He and two teammates who joined him, fellow defensive backs Will Allen and Cortez Allen, stayed to sign autographs.

Sure, Gay would have been OK without the NFL. But he knows it gave him this opportunity.

“Maybe it was for this reason,” he said. “I was never the guy to want to stand in front of the camera and get all the praise for coming up in domestic violence because I didn’t live it. My mom did. So that’s what I’m using that platform for, to keep her voice alive.”