Hands-on experience with women and kids

Jessica Smith ‘05
Womancare/Aegis Association

Thanks to my funding from the Dartmouth Partners In Community Service, I was able to do an internship with Womancare this summer. Womancare is a domestic violence prevention project in my hometown, which has served Piscataquis County for more than 20 years. Their staff of nine works together to run a 24-hour Helpline for domestic violence victims who are in crisis, and also to run support groups, provide legal support, run Hannah’s House, and also to work to raise community awareness. In just 9 weeks of working at the office (plus two weeks of training), I got to do a little bit of each of those things, and because of those experiences, I feel that I learned a lot this summer.

It was important for me to do this internship for many reasons. First, unlike most internships, this was not a “pour coffee and fill envelopes” type of an internship. I know that most places that accept interns after only one year of undergraduate study are not offering a lot of hands-on experience. I also know that the chances of me getting an internship in the legal field would be slim, considering most of those are reserved for law school students. So, it seems that in my field of interest, there was little that I could do that would challenge me, and still be helpful.

However, an internship with Womancare seemed like an excellent choice. I had worked with Womancare before, as they attempted to start a program for middle school aged girls who were self-identified victims of abuse. They wanted high school leaders who had experience working with girls in this age group, which is where I came in. I had dedicated over 400 hours to a group called Life Jackets, as a peer leader, and was. After meeting weekly with two women from Womancare, another peer leader, and several middle school girls, the group was forced to disband, as the girls scattered into their own Life Jackets groups. But, I looked forward to being able to work with them again.

So, of course, I jumped at the chance to work with them this summer. When I spoke with Ginger originally, I told her that I was hoping to get a scholarship because I needed to be able to make money during the summer. However, first I wanted to make sure that there would be something that I could do for the summer, and more importantly, something that would be worthwhile for them and for me. When Ginger said that there were lots of things that I would be able to do, I was really excited. It sounded like I would actually get to do something meaningful this summer!

So, after I found out that I would be receiving DPCS funding, I got in touch with Womancare to let them know that I would, for sure, be working with them over the summer, and Ginger let me know that the training that I would be required to do would take place early in June. All volunteers that plan to work in the office must take the Helpline training before being permitted to do direct service, and as an intern, I would be (hopefully) doing a lot of work with domestic violence victims. So, I made plans with my teachers to finish all of my finals and papers before the first of June so that I could go home in time to start the training.

The first morning of training was a little stressful for me…I didn’t know what to expect, and I had a big fear that I wouldn’t belong. I mean, were people going to look at me and wonder why I wanted to work with Womancare? Most of the full time staff had a personal interest in the work, and I had a suspicion that all of the women at the training would be survivors as well, and that intimidated me more than just a little bit. What would I say when they asked me why I was there? Would they write me off because I was so young, as someone who didn’t have enough life experience to possibly comprehend the thoughts and feelings of older people? I just didn’t know…

When I walked into training at 8:00 the next day, I felt really self-conscious. But, when I saw the women that were there, I realized that things were not going to be as difficult as I though. First off, there was another young woman in there who was 19 as well, and she was there because she was pursuing a degree in social services, and had so many friends that were in relationships that were less than ideal, and she was hoping that by educating herself she would be able to not only save herself but maybe help some of her friends. I could relate! That was a big relief, because not only was I not the only one who was young, but also I was not the only one who had never been in an abusive relationship. What a huge sigh of relief!
The other women that were there were great, too. There were three other volunteers there on that first day, all of them older. As we played an introductory game (where someone says something about themselves and everyone who relates changes places in the circle to identify themselves) I learned that all three had been in abusive relationships, and as time went on, I learned more about those situations. Some had been in multiple abusive situations, all had children, and one even had grandchildren. It was basically the same situation that I had expected – all women that were older than me, all with DV experience. But, I was comforted by the fact that they seemed to understand why I was there, and it helped that there was another person there for similar reasons.

As training went on, we learned a lot about the dynamics of domestic violence. We learned how it related to substance abuse, and also to different types of oppression such as racism or sexism. This was really interesting to me, as a probable psychology major and a hopeful judge, to begin to understand how some behaviors are caused, exacerbated, or at least permitted to continue by other factors.

Throughout training, I learned to answer calls, to listen to and support domestic violence victims in crisis, and also what some of the options are for people in that situation. After all of that training, I needed to do only one more thing in order to become a full-fledged volunteer: take a test call.
We had done role plays of Helpline calls during the training, but this was to be one call that we would receive at home at a specified time, and we would be talking to a person from Womancare, but they would be role playing a domestic violence victim in crisis. Mine was from a woman named Carrie who works at Womancare. Her children went to high school with me; her oldest, Nathan, was in many of my classes. But, I didn’t recognize her voice on the phone, so it was easier for me to focus on the call and forget that it wasn’t real. Of course, she chose something difficult: a 14-year-old girl who was in an abusive relationship with her 19-year-old boyfriend. Right off in the phone call, she told me that they were sexually active, which meant that I would be legally mandated to report that to child protective services – that is statutory rape, regardless of consent. So, that threw one hook into the situation. Add to that the fact that there is little we can do for a teen without her parent’s consent, and I was almost at a loss. I tried my best to make sure that she was safe and to encourage her to come in to talk with us in our office, and also to bring her mother along with her. I guess that went okay, so after I processed the call I was ready to go to Womancare the next day!

The learning didn’t stop at training, of course. I remember my calls on the hotline, from people who just wanted someone to talk to about their situation, to others who were looking for transitional housing, or shelter, or anything like that. I spoke with people who were fighting big custody battles to prevent their abusive partners from gaining partial custody of the children, and women who were trying to get protective orders against boyfriends who were stalking and harassing them. It is amazing to see all the similarities in the calls: the feelings of hope amidst hopelessness and the need for someone who can begin to understand what they are going through. However, each one call meant a different woman, with a unique situation and different options and needs. Every call was a new challenge, a new chance to help someone else regain some control over a life that had previously been dictated by someone else.

Beyond calls, in the office, there were many different obstacles, both for me individually and for the staff as a group. One of the biggest challenges for me was that I knew many people that came in. Well, perhaps this wasn’t as much of a challenge for me personally as it was for the individual and the staff, because I think walking in and seeing someone like me makes them wonder who else will find out. Perhaps if I were older, they would have welcomed the familiar face, but I think many times they wondered what I was doing there and whether I would tell someone else that they knew that I had seen them there. But, I was held to the same strict levels of confidentiality as anyone who is involved with Womancare would be, and that in itself seemed to suffice for many of the people there.

Of course, the biggest part of my time with Womancare was the direct service, because I had really wanted to get a feel for what it was like to be right there, one on one with someone, to be able to help them when they needed it, or to just be there to listen if that was all they wanted. However, there were lots more opportunities that I had while working with Womancare, ranging from assisting the Children’s Services Coordinator with Harmony Camp, to going to an Adolescent Resources meeting, to covering court-watches. These presented many different perspectives to me, as well.
Harmony camp was a big part of my work at Womancare. For four different weeks, Kara and I held a camp for children from 9-12, Wednesday through Friday. The goal was to teach children ages 6-9 about self-esteem, relationships, and many other values. Each day had several themes, from “I am Special” to “Compliments are Fun” and we reinforced these with books, games, and activities. For example, one activity that started every day was “Hug Harmony Bear.” This stuffed Panda, who is the mascot for the camp, tells each child something very special that they really want to hear whenever they hug him and listen with their heart and their imagination. He is the basis of the many messages of the camp, and he is also a great tool to help the children understand the concepts that we teach – plus, who can help but liking a soft cuddly teddy bear?

This camp was a lot of fun for me, and I think it was for most of the kids as well! However, I had not realized how much work went into this! There was shopping to be done, calling the parents to remind them about the camps (since they had all signed up while school was still in session) and all that! The most fun part was choosing books, songs, and crafts for the camp – I got to read the greatest children’s books, from “Walter the Wolf” to “A Very Special Critter” to “How Are You Peeling?” Plus, we learned all kinds of silly songs, like “Baby Shark” and “A-Tooey-Tock” that got the kids moving around and singing and dancing, which was great!

What was most interesting about the camp, though, was watching the children interact. There were many sibling groups, and some of them surprised me. For example, there was a set with an older sister and a younger brother, and they were like night and day. The sister was loud, talkative, outgoing, very comfortable around adults, and in general, a very dominant personality. Her brother, on the other hand, was quiet, shy, reserved, and they type that talked quietly with one of the other boys and did exactly as he was told. It was very interesting to see them behaving so differently. At another camp, though, we had siblings who were very similar – creative, friendly, but quiet. It interested me to see that many times, even though children are raised with similar values and in that respect are the same, they still could be as different as night and day with their personalities.

Another child that comes to mind when I think of this camp is a boy named JP from the last camp. His mother warned us that he was very boisterous, and that he had many disorders such as ADHD and Oppositional Defiance Disorder, as well as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This seemed to be a disastrous combination. However, Kara remembered him from when she teaches in schools, and while he was one of the more active children, she didn’t remember him being a particularly difficult child. When he came to camp, however, he was not the child she remembered. Due to his conditions, he had been heavily medicated, and was very quiet. He participated in the activities and did his projects in art, but he lacked the enthusiasm of the other kids, and did as he was told as if he were a mindless zombie. He had no childlike excitement, and was not like a little kid enjoying life, but a person just going through the paces. For us, it was sad, because Kara could remember him as being a fun, creative kid who was very enthusiastic in class. It made me wonder, at what point does medication begin doing more harm than good for a child, and how do doctors decide what behaviors need to be medicated, and what is just a creative and energetic child?

For the most part, it was great to see how the children interacted, how quickly they made friends and how well they worked together. They seemed to enjoy everything we did, from the “Compliments Pass” game to the paper bag puppets. It was great to spend three days in a row just finger painting and reading children’s books, and remembering what it was like to be a little kid whose only worry was how to fit a chalk outline of myself in between my hopscotch board and all the games of tic-tac-toe that I had played with my friends.

Back at the office during these weeks, I also had other projects going on. One of my biggest goals was to finish a brochure that the staff could give to all those who wanted to apply to work as volunteers. It was great to do the research on the history, and also to work with the women to decide what they wanted to list as their official policies on choosing and training volunteers. It was a significant amount of work, just to get together all the info and then to type it out, get it approved by the entire staff, and then to rework it, and finally make it into a brochure that was concise and clear, and at the same time still aesthetically pleasing, and enticing for someone who might read it. In the end, it came out well, and the staff seemed to like it, as well as the other volunteers, who were my litmus test as far as its effectiveness.

Another project that I tackled in my free time was some Internet research. I looked through sites on DV in other states, including national sites. I checked out information on work-place DV programs, and even found a wonderful website by a well-known cosmetics company (Liz Claiborne, if you were wondering!) that spends a significant portion of its proceeds to educate about DV, and even offered free brochures on multiple topics, ranging from getting help for yourself to discussing teen dating violence with your daughters. It amazes me how much information there is out there for people, if they knew where to look for it. Of course, there was a large part of the information that was dedicated to training people that work directly with DV survivors, as legal advocates or staffing safe homes and shelters. This type of site was of grate interest to the staff, because the legal resources and training information could supplement the resources that the office already uses. After reviewing all of the sites, I rated them, and organized them by the categories they would be most helpful for (for example, all the children’s sites were together, and all the general information sites were together.) Hopefully, all this research will be useful to the staff when they need more information for the women that they help.
I hope, and I believe, that my time at Womancare helped them out at least a little bit. I know that my presence at Harmony Camp helped the children’s services coordinator, and that my shifts covering the phone freed up the staff to work on projects that could not be completed while they were staffing the phone line. However, because of my work at Womancare, I had lots of opportunities to grow as well.

In my first week, I was able to go with Cindy Freeman-Cyr to the Community Resource Exchange, a meeting of all the non-profit organizations in the area. The general idea is that these groups update each other on the services and trainings that they are offering, and try to help each other out as best as possible. A great example of this came when a group called Rape Response Services announced that they had an immediate opening for a position within their organization, and Cindy was able to say to them “I know someone who would be perfect for that position.” By the end of my time with Womancare, we discovered that the woman Cindy recommended was interviewed and hired for the position! It was great to see how all of these groups worked together to know what was going on when, and to make sure that they didn’t waste time and money on duplicate projects when they could work together to host speakers or to run trainings.

Another opportunity that I had, which I would not have been able to do otherwise, was to accompany Gretchen to a presentation for the Charlotte White Center. The Charlotte White Center provides services to those with special needs, either physical or mental handicaps. They have a support group set up for adults with, for example, Down’s Syndrome, mental retardation, or other mental illnesses, and Gretchen was asked to make a presentation to the women of this group about healthy relationships. It was great to work with these women to discuss their relationships (they seemed to be a close group, supporting each other in talking about dating and relationships within the larger coed group, because it seems that they do a lot of dating amongst members). We worked in teams of two or three to make a tower out of large Legos labeled with attributes of a strong relationship, such as honesty, trust, or shared interests. It was interesting to hear how they prioritized these qualities, with some listing shared interests as the primary foundation, and others listing communication, while still others placed the greatest importance on caring or honesty. Each person had a different prioritization, and different reasons for doing so. That one activity opened itself into a discussion of how to maintain open communications, how to build trust, and how to compromise while still maintaining personal needs and values. We could see how eagerly these women absorbed the information, and that was exciting for us, because it was one more link to the community, and 8 more women that were now more aware than before.
Another event that I had the privilege of attending because of my involvement with Womancare was an exchange of Adolescent Resources Information. When a person in charge of the juvenile judicial system in town realized how many problems there were with kids and their families, he called together all of the organizations in the area that might be able to help, and people shared what could be done for children in certain situations. The local school shared info about a program for kids who were at risk of dropping out, another group (Life Jackets, which I have worked with as a Peer Leader) discussed the services they provided to kids who were from a background that placed them at risk for later social and educational troubles. There were people who talked about programs for assisting in continuing education, and groups that helped meet the needs of those adolescents who had special needs. Together, they shared information about programs and referrals, and for many of them, it was the first time they had heard about many of the other programs offered in our community. Over all, the meeting was a success, and of great personal interest to me simply because of my aspirations to be a legal advocate for children, and I was glad to be able to attend and to contribute.

Lastly, and most importantly to my future aspirations, because of my experiences with Womancare, I was able to job-shadow the District Attorney, Chris Almy, who is on one of Womancare’s many boards and committees. He allowed me to come in and sit with him at the prosecutor’s bench during two days in court. I was able to actually sit in on a closed juvenile hearing for several juvenile offenders, which allowed me to learn a great deal about children’s sentencing: how it differs from adult sentencing, what the rules and guidelines are, who controls the cases and the probation, and what the long-term effects are for someone who is adjudicated guilty when he or she is a juvenile. After keeping up with Chris for two days, I can say that the life of the DA in Piscataquis County, Maine is very busy. I got to hear about cases, how the information is gathered, what the rules are for a person who wishes to represent himself, and many other facets of the legal system. For me, this was very interesting, and I considered myself very lucky to have had this opportunity. In fact, that experience helped me get into an upper-level law class here, which I otherwise might not have had the opportunity to attend!

I guess it is really hard to summarize this experience in ten pages – I think I could talk about it for weeks on end. Overall, I don’t know how to say what I really learned. I think a better way to describe it is that I grew as a person, as a result of all the experiences that I had. I learned that some people are going to not respect me because I am young or because I am a woman, but I also learned that many more people will, and some may even admire me more for that. (Just as an example – when I worked with the DA, before people were certain about who I was and what I was doing there, there was speculation that I was there because I was going to be a new Assistant DA, and some reactions were, “Great, we need some women in this court system,” while others reacted with, “Oh, no, just what we don’t need, a woman in there.”) I also got to see how the human spirit can triumph over adversity, can survive living every day in fear and isolation and still allow itself to grow to a point where it can be freed to make a better world. I think that inspiration will stay with me – the women that I met this summer have survived trials worse than I can imagine, and that gives me the hope, determination, and faith: Hope that increasing numbers of survivors will educate those and help end Domestic Violence; Determination to continue to work in any way that I can to better the odds for women and children in these types of situations; and Faith that if they can survive that, then I too can survive the trials in my life, and move on to make the world a better place for others.