By: Kitty Knox, DVCCC Volunteer
When I retired in 2002 after 35 years, I was trying to decide what to do. My husband and I had already identified three things we wanted from our post-work lives:
We'd had a reasonably comfortable life due to a combination of hard work and luck and wanted to help others who had not been as fortunate.
Through our church, I heard of DVCCC. Since I had been in an abusive marriage briefly right after college and had fortunately escaped, I thought I might be able to help other victims. I took the training, both the General Volunteer Training and the additional Support Group seminar, and was ready to go to work.
The Support Group
One of the counselors at DVCCC at the time was doing a weekly domestic violence support group at a nearby in-patient drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. I asked to shadow her, and after two weeks, she, unfortunately, became ill, and I was asked to fill in. Fourteen years later, I retired from facilitating that weekly group, which had been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.
Many domestic violence victims turn to alcohol or drugs as an escape from the physical and emotional pain of the abuse. Fortunately, many of them end up in rehab, but few rehab facilities have programs to help them address issues related to domestic violence. Over the years, I met women who identified with every possible socioeconomic group, race, culture, and sexual orientation, and even some who admitted to being the abuser, rather than the victim. Domestic violence does not discriminate. All of them needed and wanted help.
We didn't have an official curriculum for the group, since the weekly attendance fluctuated. Most of the clients were in the facility for 28 days or longer, so they could possibly attend one to four meetings. What could I do with such a short time and with no official curriculum?
We talked. We shared intimate details of their abuse. We cried. One of the counselors had taught them that tears wash your soul. We examined causes, reasons, ways to avoid episodes, anything and everything. For a while, we even had a therapy dog visit from a nearby pet therapy agency. She knew when someone was upset and would sit at their feet while they talked to provide comfort and support. It was wonderful for the whole group.
Many domestic violence victims have never told anyone about what has happened or is currently happening to them, out of fear, shame, and embarrassment. The longer the abuse goes on, the more stressed they become. The first step was to get survivors to share their experiences with the group and let us all help. I continually emphasized that I was a facilitator, not a counselor, and we were all going to try to help one another. Often, once they started talking, and realized that they were not the only woman who had experienced abuse, they were much more open. Frequently, someone else in the group had had a similar experience, and maybe they offered a suggestion to help. We talked about the effects of domestic violence on children, steps to recovery, improving your life, and moving on. Amidst the tears, there would be laughter.
And at the end of each meeting, we would hug and pray - we would stand in a circle and share the Serenity Prayer. It was a tradition at the rehab facility to end every group with that prayer, but our group may have been the only one with hugs.
Our overall goal of the support group was to make sure participants understood what domestic violence is (many did not); be sure they knew they had choices, albeit difficult ones; and be sure they knew about resources like DVCCC and similar organizations that could help them in many ways.
DVCCC has prepared a lot of brochures, covering many different issues like Agency Services, Housing Options, Legal Issues, Effects on Children, Parenting Issues, and more. These were excellent resources for domestic violence victims. I constantly recommended counseling and emphasized all the ways that DVCCC could help. I recommended our support groups and if they weren't physically close to DVCCC, I suggested they look for other ones near where they were going to be or to even start one themselves. The participants weren't always from Chester County, but DVCCC had put together a list of contacts in other counties in PA, so they would be able to have help when they left rehab. I recommended many books, all of which I had personally read, on many different aspects of abuse and the road to recovery.
I was surprised at how many women were unaware that domestic violence didn't just mean "physical violence". Many times someone said, "it's not domestic violence, he's never hit me". Of course, that didn't mean he wouldn't eventually get physical with her, he just hadn't gotten that far yet. We talked about triggers that might cause a person to move from emotional abuse to physical.
Alternatively, several women frequently said, "I wish he'd (she'd) just hit me" - the emotional abuse was so bad that they had no self-esteem left at all. Many experienced both physical and emotional abuse. We tried to examine both aspects of domestic violence and understand the challenges of both.
We would wrestle with the idea of whether or not to forgive their abuser. Some felt they had to, in order to recover and start a new life; some felt they could never forgive. We had a lot of discussions about this. I would often reference this quote:
We had many discussions on forgiveness as it was the major issue for many women. Over the years I found many similar sayings, pictures, and memes that I used to illustrate various points.
Several times, someone would stay after group to tell me how much the group meant to them; they had previously not known that they had choices, options, decisions.
Yes, it had its hard moments. Some of the stories were so horrible, I couldn't believe that such a part of society existed. I prayed for them; each week when I left, I asked God to take the women I had met into His care, watch over them, and guide them in their decisions.
I had many feelings and experiences during my time with the group. It was incredibly moving when someone said she'd never told anyone about her abuse. It made me happy that we'd helped her past this important first step. I often had a hard time concealing my emotions when they talked about horrible events, but it warmed my heart when they started to think about what they wanted in a relationship and that they had choices. Often I was sad because I couldn't really help them - all I could do was help them to understand their options and that they had to be the ones making choices for themselves. Many women told me they were going to seriously evaluate their options before returning to their abuser; I hope they did. Some made arrangements to go to another facility where they would be able to continue their domestic violence recovery.
I really felt the group was very important, and facilitating it meant a lot to me over the 14 years I was able to do it. It was hard to give it up, but fortunately, one of the DVCCC counselors was able to continue it. If DVCCC had sufficient resources, preferably counselors and/or committed volunteers, I would recommend that we offer such a group to all the rehab facilities in Chester County.
Making a Difference
In addition to the support group, since I was retired and available during the day (not all volunteers are), I participated in some outreach activities - lunch events at local corporations, colleges (Immaculata and West Chester), the Fall Autumn Goddess festival, the Strawberry Festival, etc. It was a great pleasure to hand out literature and talk about the wonderful things DVCCC does. After I retired from the group, I did some work with the fundraising department, mostly internet research for upcoming Galas, etc.
On several occasions, I spoke at local churches that support DVCCC and wanted some information for their members. These talks ranged from a very short "Moment for Mission" to longer talks and even an hour-long education program. Again, it is always a pleasure to let others know about our programs, and especially when the church members are financial or other supporters, it's a wonderful experience. They are always pleased to hear what benefits come from their support. In many cases, church members have come to the center to do fix-it projects, things like working on the gardens, and painting and repairing the Phase IV townhomes, etc.
All in all, there are many ways to be a volunteer, and I value the time I have spent (16 years total so far). I enjoyed the work, no matter what it was. No job is too small. I've often likened DVCCC's efforts to the story of the starfish:
Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see.
Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching. As the boy walked, he paused every so often and, as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”
The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish a