Pathways for Healing: Serving Children Experiencing Trauma

JV AmeriCorps member Cat Cassidy (Missoula, MT ’16-17) serves as the YWCA Children’s Empowerment and Violence Prevention Specialist with the YWCA in Missoula, Montana. In our latest blog, Cat describes the capacity building project she designed and implemented into her program in response to the needs of the children she advocates for as secondary survivors of abuse.

When I officially committed to a year of service with the YWCA of Missoula, I foresaw several opportunities serving as a Children’s Empowerment and Violence Prevention Specialist. The YWCA serves primary and secondary survivors of domestic violence. My role as a children’s advocate is to provide a safe environment for children to heal and develop through therapeutic play activities. Each day I volunteer with the YWCA’s domestic violence shelter, I experience the multifaceted ways in which trauma effects childhood development and behavior. Children within domestic violence circumstances experience a major transition leaving their homes and entering into a shelter. Their worlds are turned upside-down, and my desire is to help their transition go as smoothly as possible.

This year, I designed welcome packets for each child upon their arrival into our shelter. Throughout my experience at the YWCA, I have noticed that in domestic violence situations, the majority of the attention is placed solely on the primary survivors, commonly mothers, who have been the direct receiver of the abuse. Because of this, children as secondary survivors are often set to the side and not given the same attention and care. Witnessing this first-hand, my idea was to create a tangible item to be given to the children upon their arrival into shelter to show them they are thought of and cared for from the moment they arrive. Knowing that their needs vary between ages, I created three templates for three different age groups. Each packet contains an introduction to the children’s advocates at the shelter, guidelines to be followed during the child’s stay, feeling charts in which children can identify their emotions as well as be given tools of how to healthily express them, therapeutic coloring pages, and information about respect and healthy friendships/relationships. In addition to the welcome packet, each child also receives a blanket, a pillow, or a stuffed animal of their choosing to keep with them throughout their stay and take with them after they leave the shelter.

When I first began handing out the welcome packets, the word spread like wildfire. Once one child obtained a welcome packet, mothers began asking me about them even before I had a chance to meet their children. One young girl in the shelter expressed that she was very excited to receive her welcome packet, especially when paired with the little stuffed animal she picked out. Now, the young girl brings the stuffed animal almost everywhere with her. We often engage in therapeutic coloring activities together with the coloring pages in her packet.  Also, we have had incredible success with the feeling chart, which allows the young girl to identify her emotions and allows me to better my advocacy when knowing how she is feeling or what she is thinking about during the time we spend together. The packets are a wonderful resource for getting to know the children I am serving better.

Cat (middle) with her Missoula community mates

I believe these welcome packets have contributed a positive improvement for children entering into shelter. Not only do the packets affirm the children and their experience, they also provide materials for building the bridge of communication between the child and their parent as well as between the child and the children’s advocates. The welcome packets open up discussions about emotions and provide resources for navigating through complicated feelings. The packets will not be a success for every child who enters into shelter given the varying needs of each child. However, the welcome packets are a starting point, a step in the process of better advocating for and empowering children who have witnessed domestic violence.

The children I serve are the most resilient little souls I have ever encountered. I have learned from them, and I have grown from my experiences with them. They hold within them an abundance of hope, an overflowing river of love, and an ocean wide yearning for understanding and connection. These children desire to know that they are validated, that they are important, and that they are cared for. My hope for this project is that it will allow these children to feel valued as well as inspire other avenues of support for children experiencing trauma so that we can eventually break the cycle of abuse altogether.Save

Denim Day: A Fashion Statement to Make a Social Justice Statement

Our latest blog post is written by JV AmeriCorps member Lauren Pusich (Boise, ID ’15-16) who is serving as the Outreach Coordinator with Women’s and Children’s Alliance in Boise, Idaho. Below, Lauren shares her experience serving with survivors of sexual assault and organizing the Denim Day event, which challenges victim blaming and creates spaces for conversation.

A study by the Center for Disease Control shows that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner. Serving as a JV AmeriCorps member at a domestic violence and sexual assault nonprofit, I am keenly aware of how pervasive these issues are. In my placement at Women’s and Children’s Alliance (WCA) in Boise, I am constantly in the community discussing these issues.

Lauren (middle) and her community mates attend a screening of the Hunting Ground

Lauren (middle) and her community mates attend a screening of the Hunting Ground

In Ada County where I serve, law enforcement received 4,447 calls for services related to domestic abuse, sexual assault, and child abuse in 2015. I have not attended a single event where I have not had at least one person come up and identify as a survivor. You likely know someone who is a survivor themselves, even if they haven’t shared their story with you, or maybe you yourself are a survivor. Survivor stories are powerful and need to be heard because they are silenced far too often.

One way we can break the silence is through awareness days. In April, the WCA participated in one of the biggest awareness days in its history. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) and Wednesday, April 27 was Denim Day. On this day, individuals were encouraged to wear denim to demonstrate the prevalence and detrimental effects of victim blaming in our society. Denim shows solidarity with an Italian survivor whose rapist’s conviction was overturned when the court ruled that the victim’s jeans were too tight. You can learn more about the history of the case and how Denim Day was established as a global awareness day here.

My service year has shown how often we place the blame on the survivor of an assault or abuse, rather than where the blame lies—with the perpetrator. There are countless cases of victim blaming; mentioning how if that person had just not drank, had not stayed in the relationship, not led someone on, or not worn that outfit, then they would not have been assaulted. With these thoughts, we end up re-traumatizing victims and do not hold perpetrators accountable.

Proclamation by the mayor proclaiming April 27 as Denim Day in Boise

Proclamation by the mayor proclaiming April 27 as Denim Day in Boise

Denim Day helps challenge victim blaming and creates spaces for conversation. One such space was at The College of Western Idaho (CWI). CWI’s Psychology Club hosted an open forum on sexual assault and victim blaming in partnership with the WCA for Denim Day. Attendees heard how victim blaming leads to under-reporting of sexual assault and unlike any other crime, sexual assault victims are more likely to be perceived as lying when they report. Two survivors in the audience shared their stories and how meaningful it was to see the community coming together to talk about these issues. Each time a survivor shares their story, I am reminded of why I choose to serve at the WCA and why I am so passionate about advocating for change. These stories need to be heard. 

We need to create a culture where survivors feel supported when they decide to speak up and eventually prevent the need for WCA services. We need to challenge each other to end the cycle of silence around these issues and how we perpetuate victim blaming attitudes. We need to be there for survivors when they have the courage to speak up and share their stories. We need to have these uncomfortable, but necessary, conversations.

CWI Clothesline Denim Day Two

Former WCA clients who are survivors of domestic abuse or sexual assault participated in the Clothesline Project Display at CWI.

Overall, Denim Day was a huge success with 100 different businesses and organizations participating at 115 different locations not only locally, but across Idaho and even state lines. The JVC Northwest office even participated! Seeing the whole JVC Northwest team wear denim put a huge smile on my face. You can learn more about Denim Day 2016 at the WCA by checking out this newsletter article.

I look forward to participating in Denim Day each year until we no longer blame victims for something that is never their fault. Thank you to those survivors who have shared their stories with me not only on Denim Day, but throughout my year of service. You deserve to be heard, to be believed in, to be supported, and you are never asking for it. Serving as a Jesuit Volunteer continually reminds me how communities can come together to create change and how we can all challenge ourselves to live out social justice in our everyday life.

Normal Days, Extraordinary Women

Former Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) Northwest AmeriCorps member Claire Shepak (Anchorage, ’12-’13) shared an example of how resources, support, and presence made an impact during her time serving survivors of domestic violence in Alaska. Claire is now in a Master’s of Social Work program at Washington University in St. Louis.

AWAIC on Thanksgiving

AWAIC on Thanksgiving

It was a normal day just after 11:00AM when a tiny woman, filled with courage and uncertainty stepped into the office. As she began to talk I realized her story was unlike many of the people I served. She owned a home, she was attending graduate school, and had very supportive parents; all privileges she stated were things she had taken for granted. What her story had in common with all the people I served each day is that she had been in an abusive, controlling and manipulative marriage for the past two decades and this was the first time she was reaching out for help.

During our first meeting I spent several hours explaining all the options she had and helping to process the emotions she was feeling. As I walked home from AWAIC (Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis) that afternoon I remember thinking that would be the first and last time I would work with her. I had given her all the support she needed for the time and I was content with that. Three months later a familiar voice came over the AWAIC crisis line. Her voice was shaky yet filled with conviction. She said, “I’m ready to leave. What do I do Claire, What do I do?” And with that we started formulating a plan.

As I started pulling resources I realized I would have to reframe everything I was teaching her. Although she was a very savvy woman, her life of privilege had shielded her from many of the realities that people with half her education and no support navigate every day. I was introducing her into a whole new world of ATAP, SNAP benefits and public housing, something she had never realized were options for her to access in order to leave an abusive relationship. For the first time I felt empowered to help a participant on my own navigate this foreign and complex system. Step by step we worked together gathering the information and resources she and her children would need to finally leave her abusive husband. As I supported her through the highs of being approved for public assistance and the lows of calling the police to report assault, we foraged on to the end goal. Weekly check-ins turned into daily conversations over the crisis line as her heartache and fear of what the next hours and days would hold mounted. Amidst all the chaos she slowly but surely continued to check off the necessary steps in order to leave.

Claire releases a lantern in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month

Claire releases a lantern in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month

In my final weeks at AWAIC she received the news that she was approved for a housing voucher that would greatly subsidize the cost of renting an apartment; one of the last steps in her big puzzle. While I’m sad that I may never find out if she found an apartment and successfully transitioned into a safe place, I feel content knowing that I, along with the support of many AWAIC staff members, have empowered her to leave an abusive marriage that spanned over twenty years and equipped her to flourish and be successful on her own.

Finding Reasons to Sing

JV AmeriCorps member Miranda served as the children’s advocate at the YWCA Women’s Shelter in Missoula, MT, in the 2012-13 service year.

Missoula YWCA CraftNight

Miranda and a participant enjoying craft time.

I have spent a lot of time this year witnessing trauma. In my position as a children’s advocate in a domestic violence shelter, I serve children who’ve survived and witnessed a staggering range of violence, abuse, and anger.

Trauma looks different in each child. It can speak through blank stares and distant gazes. Or, it can lash out as confrontation, defiance, and anger. It can trigger refusals to eat, sleep, listen, share, use the toilet, go to school, or respect authority figures. One thirteen-year old boy closed himself in the closet, screamed at the top of his lungs, and threatened to harm himself.  Trauma means crisis. It often means daily emergencies.

It’s been hard, but I have had the privilege of bearing witness to and befriending children surviving violence.

A nine-year old girl who stayed with us wet her pants every time she heard her father’s voice. A five-year old boy would scream “I hate you! I’ll mess you up!” when he disagreed with your suggestions. One four-year old boy stopped talking altogether, opting instead to spend his day rocking back and forth in a ball on the carpet.

What children develop as coping mechanisms to survive and process violence can damage the rest of their lives. The attachment disorders, mental illness, and violent behaviors that can develop in response to trauma often pose life-long obstacles to the children – and later, adults – who endure them. Often, the women in our shelter who grapple with complex, multiple diagnoses (on top of the trauma of their current situations) cite the violent homes they grew up in as the root cause of their struggles.

So what can we do about it? We can’t erase memories, nor should we. We can’t “fix” families, nor should we. We can’t heal every wound – we can’t even perceive them all.

Missoula YWCA ChristmasPresents

Miranda and fellow JV AmeriCorps member Katie sorting Christmas gifts.

But we can keep showing up.

As a children’s advocate, my role is to be a peaceful, safe, fun adult that the kids in shelter can trust to keep being there for them. I’m the one they can play with, talk to, goof around with, earn stickers from, and accompany on outings. Sometimes I’m the one to cook their meals, tie their shoes, and help them with their homework. We talk about Spongebob and coloring books, boogers and fairies, dinosaurs, pancakes, calm bodies, and feeling angry. We talk about their friends, their pets, their stuffed animals, and their superpowers. We talk about what it’s like to move to a new place, to leave your grandma behind, and how a reservation is different from a city. There are giggles and high fives and temper tantrums and a lot of messy dishes.

Sometimes it’s hard to understand the impact of service. It can be hard to see families return to abusive situations, or to see kids leave the shelter only to continue being homeless. But the greatest joy in my position is to witness the change – however small – that comes over children during their stay in shelter. Perhaps it’s as small as understanding the difference between gentle and violent hands, or sharing your toys rather than hitting people with them. It can be that kids feel allowed to be kids again – to choose their favorite clothes to wear, belt their favorite tunes, blow bubbles in their milk, smile when they say hello, or shake their tail feathers when you turn on the radio. When a child who’s played a protective role can leave mom’s side, knowing she’s safe, I know that what we do matters.

Earlier this year I was pushing a four year old girl and her brother on the swings in the backyard. She started singing and laughing. “Felicity, I love to hear you sing!” I exclaimed. “Oh, I know!” she shouted. “Everybody does!” When I asked her why I hadn’t heard her sing before, she replied, “we only sing when we’re happy!”

And I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of our time together finding reasons for her to sing.

Missoula YWCA SortingDiapers

Miranda and AmeriCorps VISTA member Hattie bring laughter to the sorting of diapers.

A domestic violence shelter can change a child’s life. Sometimes, it even saves it. And whether not I ever understand the full impact of my relationships with the children I meet there, I’ll know that it’s a privilege and a joy to keep showing up for them.

Struggles and Joys of Service in Spokane

Heather Hanson is a JV AmeriCorps member in Spokane, WA. She serves as a resident coordinator for St. Margaret’s Shelter in Spokane.

Spokane’s Riverfront Park







“Oh, that’s the kind of work that wears you out.”

I have gotten this response multiple times after describing my agency to people interested in my year as an AmeriCorps member. I’m still sifting through what that statement means to me, because in a lot of ways it rings pretty true. When forty hours of your week is spent in direct service, it becomes part of you in a way that a few hours a week cannot; I can’t sidestep the parts of this service that make me feel uncomfortable. I have to wake up every morning and sit at this desk and look these women in the eyes. I get to know their children, their addictions, and their stories. Every day I am in a position that forces me to address misconceptions I held about homelessness, poverty, domestic violence, and substance abuse.

Sometimes this does “wear me out,” but when so much time in your day is spent so embedded in another person’s struggles, the rewards can be immense. A young mother being reunited with her children, a long-time addict’s first full year of sobriety, a well-paying job offer for a chronically homeless young mom: these are celebrations I have had the privilege of participating in already this year, and they would not have been possible without the work that is being done at St. Margaret’s.

A 22-year-old resident and mother of two recently had her ability to care for her children brought into question. Her two young sons were taken from her care, and she had to convince a judge that she was the best person to care for them. She has been homeless since her teens and wants to be in control of her life, and has been on that path since arriving at St. Margaret’s. This morning she came into the office in tears: “I get them back,” she said. “I get my boys back.” The whole office cheered, and a couple of anxious hours later, someone from Child Protective Services brought her sons to the shelter. She wept as she hugged them for the first time in days, and the whole staff wept with her.

Heather joyfully serving her fellow JV AmeriCorps members during an enrichment day.

I have questioned my effectiveness in this service: my fortitude, my capacity for strength in the face of hardship, my ability to balance empathy with holding someone accountable. But I have never once questioned the necessity of the service itself. My doubts about myself will fade with time and experience – I know that my voice is steady and trustworthy. I will continue to show up, worn out or not. I will weep with these women, celebrate with them, and learn from them, because so far in my life, this kind of service is the only thing that makes sense.

Sexual Assault Awareness at El Programa Hispano

Many of the JV AmeriCorps placements across the Northwest focus on sexual assault prevention and education. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and in order to focus on some of the issues surrounding sexual assault, we’re presenting a special blog by Gresham, Oregon JV AmeriCorps member Lauren Waski. For her placement at El Programa Hispano’s Project UNICA, Lauren created a video to increase awareness of sexual assault prevention techniques. Here, she shares  her perspective on her service and links us to the video she made with her students. 

Sexual violence is firmly rooted in learned attitudes and behaviors. From a young age we are taught many fallacies, including the idea that women are of less value than men, that rapes only occur in dark alleys, and that it is a woman’s responsibility to protect herself from being sexually assaulted.

However, seeing sexual violence as a force of learned attitudes and behaviors suggests that we can work to learn differently, right? Right.

While it is impossible to prevent all cases of sexual violence,* it is possible to talk, think, and act on changing our perceptions of gender roles, healthy communication, consent, oppression, abuse, victim blaming, date rape drugs, bystander intervention, and the influence of the media. In reframing our understanding of the many puzzle pieces that contribute to sexual violence, perhaps we can be empowered to never sexually assault or violate others, to be informed and proactive allies, and to seek, foster, and prioritize healthy relationships.

That is exactly what I’m doing at my placement, El Programa Hispano’s Project UNICA. I spend about half of my time serving with our PAS Program (Prevención del Asalto Sexual), which seeks to provide culturally-specific sexual violence prevention services to the Latin@ community by addressing the complex socio-cultural, economic, educational, and religious factors that contribute to sexual violence in an age-appropriate and culturally competent manner.** As such, we have been working hard toward to create and implement a Latin@-specific (and thus bicultural and bilingual) sexual violence prevention curriculum and program for youth.

Our society perpetually objectifies women and glorifies and normalizes sexual violence, the ramifications of which surround us each and every day. It is programs like PAS that inspire me to feel hopeful about change, safety, and empowerment for women and youth everywhere, especially those in the Latin@ community. Each week we work with Latin@ students to deconstruct much of what society has taught them about what it means to be a man/woman, what it means to be Latin@, what it means to be in a relationship, etc. Each week I have the opportunity to be with youth and to explain that being a man does not mean that you can’t cry, that wearing a short skirt does not give someone the right to assault you, that you have the right to say “No” just as you have the right to say “Yes,” that everyone deserves to feel safe and respected, and that together we can work to prevent sexual violence.

If you’d like to see what we do in our classes, check out the video below! The video highlights just one of the many ways that we are equipping Latin@ youth with sexual assault prevention tools. Do you know the Three Ds of bystander intervention? Watch and learn more!

That which surrounds sexual violence affects us all. If you want to become more informed, now is the perfect time. Maybe start by watching this video. Maybe start by attending a Sexual Assault Awareness Month event in April. Be an ally. Re-learn what society has taught you, re-learn so that you, too, can prevent sexual assault.

* In saying that we can prevent some cases of sexual violence, I am not suggesting that sexual assault is ever the victim/survivor’s fault. In each and every case the fault lies solely with the aggressor.

** The “@” is used as a gender neutral form of “a/o” in Spanish.