Sunday, July 11, 2010

Shelter Smiles, etc.

Lest you think domestic violence shelter kids and women are aliens or something, remember this: they may have been through more trauma than many of us have, but their needs, strengths, weaknesses, and wishes are no different from ours.

One night a week I arrive at the shelter, set up the spaces I use, have supper with the women and kids living there, and provide small groups for kids 3-16 when the women are taking part in their own groups.

I never know what the prevailing mood in the living area will be. Sometimes it's sad. Maybe a new single woman or mom has arrived, which instantly reminds everyone how fragile life and happiness can be. Maybe someone's separated from her child because of the abuser or her own problems. Maybe someone has been badly injured or is extremely anxious or depressed.

Sometimes there's tension or obvious anger among two women or two groups of women. It's hard to move in with strangers; to live with 20 other women, teens and children from different cultures who may not share your values, education, goals, or needs. Some women don't follow the rules for one reason or another; some resent what they consider to be another person's "privileged treatment."
It's great when the women and kids seem relaxed and happy. A mom who's usually solemn suddenly laughs out loud, smiles, or playfully teases someone. Maybe one woman helps another make dinner or clean up; watches another woman's child when there's an emergency or when someone needs to make a brief visit to the office or bathroom.

It's great to see kids who never smiled when they first arrived, who stared or cried a lot, clung to mom, tattled on or bullied other kids, gradually become more relaxed, happier, trusting of other adults, and forming sibling-type relationships with kids who live there. They begin to race upstairs, wander into the hall, and seem comfortable in this new place.

Living in a shelter, though, is not like living at home. There are many rules. There is a curfew. All shelter space, furniture, and equipment, except for what's in the family's bedroom, is shared. Nonetheless, for many, it becomes a safe and nurturing place especially if a woman's stay lasts several weeks. Women often become like sisters in their open sharing, communication, and co-operation. They step up to help someone make dinner, watch others' kids when they're cooking or on the phone, ask for help or info re: court paperwork or job apps. They are especially kind to pregnant women and the newly arrived.

There is a lot to be said and a lot to be learned from women who must live in a new kind of adversity, even if it isn't abusive. I am still learning from them and in awe of their struggles and triumphs. And their smiles.

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