ST. PAUL — Actress Ashley Judd surprised residents at the Union Gospel Mission’s women’s shelter in St. Paul on Saturday morning, Feb. 29.

“I feel starstruck,” said Antoinette Phillips, 33, who was watching cartoons with her 9-month-old son, Zechariah, when Judd walked in and introduced herself.

Judd is campaigning with Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who had events in Minneapolis. Judd was in the Twin Cities through Sunday attending various political events.

Along the trail, she has been making side trips to women’s shelters to bring awareness to domestic violence.

Judd, the first actress to publicly accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct, has used her celebrity to speak out for women who have been victims of violence.

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She met with mission officials at the Naomi Family Residence on Ninth Street and made it clear that her visit was not political but rather to draw attention to the work done by advocates.

“It is my life’s work,” she said of helping women. “It’s what I do. It’s the air that I breathe.”

Judd joined hands with the mission board while someone prayed and then listened to one resident tell her story of transformation from a shattered addict to a confident woman who recently graduated from high school and has set her sights on college.

“By the time I was able to break free from my abusers, I had lost so many things,” said the woman, whose identity is being protected by the mission. “I had lost hope in everything and everyone because I had no one to rely on, and I felt so unwanted.”

She read from a prepared statement, and Judd stood next to her, listening silently for over 10 minutes. When the woman finished, Judd hugged her and spoke into her ear as the woman wiped away tears.

“I appreciate you sharing your journey with us,” Judd said to the woman. “Although the details are different, I think our feelings are often very similar.”

Chuck Semrow, Union Gospel Mission’s vice president of development, teased Judd, saying she should come work for the mission. Judd said that had her life been different, she probably would be working in some sort of outreach program for women.

“If I hadn’t made a little movie in 1993 that won the Sundance Film Festival that catapulted me to fame and made me a working actor, I would be here. This would be my life,” she said.

She feels like her political activism has given her a chance to still be involved in helping women.

Judd then toured the Naomi Family Residence and the child care center, which is in a separate building just down the street.

The faith-based program offers shelter for women and children escaping abuse, battling addiction and struggling with homelessness and poverty. Its aim is to give the woman and her children stability and then work toward self-sufficiency.

Phillips, who also received a long hug and an earful of encouragement, said meeting Judd was eye-opening.

“You watch movies and you don’t really know the people in them,” she said. “Her story sounds a lot like my story.”