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.