No more filing and copying!

Meredith Eilers ‘03
Women’s Information Services

When I first walked through the doors of WISE, I knew it was a place after my own heart. The old yellow Victorian-style house on Hanover Street in Lebanon is filled with warmth and energy, from little offices brimming with papers and information to a library filled with nearly as many leafy plants as books. The converted home now houses the offices of three advocates, one youth outreach program coordinator, one development coordinator, one part-time bookkeeper, one assistant director, one executive director, one office manager, and – during this summer- one fascinated intern.

Truth be told, the first few moments of my first day at WISE were a little scary. Starting a new job is always difficult, but starting this one seemed near impossible! As I drove to work from Hanover, along 120 and into Lebanon, I watched the buzzing, waking world around me and thought about why I was doing this. I had worked with organizations similar to this before, but never in such a capacity. From my last conversation with Regina, the assistant director, I knew I was going to be doing direct service. This both excited and frightened me. In past experiences with women’s organizations, I’ve watched things from the sidelines while filing or photocopying. Now I was going to work with real people. Just me! I couldn’t believe I’d ever feel confident. But as I passed the yellow house and drove into the driveway, I took my last sip of tea, a deep breath, and went to the door.

No sooner had I approached the front door than Regina yanked it open and gave me a bright hello. She was the first one in, and had just started making some coffee. I grabbed another cup of tea and we wandered into her office to talk about what the day- and the rest of the summer- had in store. I settled into the cozy couch on her office while she checked voicemail and called Headrest to have our 24-hour hotline switched back to the office.

As I sat, the rest of the office wandered in and out. I soon learned that Regina’s office acts as almost an employee lounge with people popping in and out all day to discuss the days events, clients, fundraisers, and the usual morning chatter. Everyone tries to stay informed about clients, and other happenings, so that the organization can work as a unit for change, rather than as a group of case managers. However, confidentiality is highly respected and nothing is ever discussed outside the office. This morning, I was introduced to everyone and briefly told what he or she does. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but WISE is quite small, so the names and faces were manageable and I caught on quickly. I even learned that I would have my own office and computer for the summer! They really seemed to be making an effort to make me feel a part of the family. No more filing and photocopying for me!

My time at WISE flew by. During the first week, I spent a lot of time training and shadowing the advocates. To work as a direct service advocate, the state of New Hampshire requires over 30 hours of training. Initially I was supposed to be trained during the spring, before my internship began, but that plan fell through. WISE didn’t get enough volunteers to justify a full-blown training session this time around, so we decided I’d be trained when I started, and other volunteers would be trained at a different time. This meant that I couldn’t dive right into work, but I felt quite comfortable with that. I was nervous about working alone with clients. By training during my first week, I not only learned the important skills I would need, but I had a change to feel comfortable with the office, know the staff, and shadow as much as I wanted before I worked with anyone alone. That made me feel much better about the whole thing. My first week was spent setting up my office, reading training manuals, meeting with staff to discuss various aspects of direct service, as well as how WISE runs things, and shadowing advocates to court and the hospital.

Eager to get me trained and out in the field WISE didn’t waste any time. I met my first client (while shadowing) on my second day. I had spent the morning working with Claire (an advocate) and learning about the shelter. Part of my summer work included acting as “shelter manager,” a sort of contact person, and would include regularly checking in and working with women staying there. WISE recently began a shelter in the Lebanon area to provide emergency housing for women fleeing a domestic violence situation. There are various rules for the shelter, including no alcohol, no drugs, no smoking inside the building, a 10pm curfew, no pets and no children (though compromises are sometimes made). “Guests” must sign an agreement to all these rules and more, as well as a promise to keep the location of the shelter confidential, even after they’ve left. Living in our shelter is not for everyone, and over the summer I certainly learned that the hard way. But for those women who can make the sacrifices and live by the rules, it’s a terrific opportunity, and I’ve also seen the extreme benefits. I had just arrived back at the office, and Lisa (another advocate) was headed out the door to court. She asked me if I wanted to go, so I jumped in the car and headed to Lebanon Family Court.

Lebanon Family Court is located in a new building in the Centerra Office Park, on the way to Hanover. On the way over, Lisa gave me a brief rundown of what we were going for. It was a restraining order, which is what we are most commonly called in to assist with, but other than that, all we knew was the woman’s name. I had learned about restraining orders in detail the day before with Jon (the third, and only male, advocate) so I knew what to expect on the legal side of things, but I was incredibly curious to hear this woman’s story. As we entered the building, I had to pass through the metal detector. For some reason it always makes me nervous, but by the end of the summer, not only was I a pro, but I knew the names of all the security personnel. We headed towards a conference room to meet with the client.

When a woman (or man) comes to Lebanon Family Court for a restraining order, the court clerk immediately calls WISE. It’s a system that’s been set up for several years for the benefit of both organizations. WISE gets to see more clients, and the court clerks don’t have to deal with explaining all the paperwork in-depth. Unfortunately, the other court with which WISE deals frequently, White River Junction’s District Court, is not quite so helpful. For unknown reasons, they won’t agree to the same system. Instead, WISE advocates only work with clients who’ve gone to the WRJ court during Friday morning educational sessions. These have been set up for people who have been granted temporary orders, and are now preparing for their trial for a permanent order. It’s terrific to have the opportunity to talk with plaintiffs, but the educational session is only the morning of their trial, often right before they go into court, so it’s often difficult to give individual support and/or even answer individual questions. Of course, if someone going to the WRJ court contacts us before his or her trial, we can help him or her, but that is often difficult for someone in this situation. Taking that step to call WISE, essentially admitting that you need help, is often hard for someone struggling to regain control of his or her life. At Lebanon Family Court, we go to the courthouse before they even apply for the temporary order, so explanation of the process can begin immediately, and there’s also the chance for planned meetings before the final hearing or at the very least a follow-up phone call for support.

One of the more interesting things about working with WISE was learning about legal processes that pertain to domestic violence and sexual assault for both Vermont and New Hampshire. When I began my internship, I held the idea (stereotype?) that Vermont was one of the most liberal states in the union, while New Hampshire was one of the most conservative. I soon learned that in some cases, this is true, but when it comes to victims of domestic violence, the New Hampshire legal system is a much more welcoming place. It’s very difficult to get a restraining order in Vermont, and in Orange County, it’s near impossible. I had a rough experience with a judge there who is notorious for almost never granting temporary protective orders, even when physical abuse, and/or children are involved. On the other hand, New Hampshire has various programs in place that help women seeking refuge from abuse find legal representation (often free of charge), housing and other help. It was very interesting to watch my stereotypes of these two states change, as I dealt with the legal resources in each. I suppose I could summarize what I learned like this: the average New Hampshire-ite is probably moderate to slightly conservative, but on average they are more middle of the road, whereas Vermont appears to be filled with extreme liberals, and equally as many extreme conservatives. I realized that there are battles going on everyday. This revelation shattered my image of the idyllic liberal oasis of Vermont, with civil unions and cooperative farms. Instead I realized that for every civil union, there are probably 5 or 6 “Take Back Vermont” placards.

While my revelations about the different states definitely informed my feelings about this area, and helped me to accomplish one of my goals with this internship, which was to learn more about the Upper Valley, beyond the “Hanover Bubble,” I also found myself fascinated with the legal process. I had never before wanted to have anything to do with law, but I found myself incredibly interested in the ins and outs of the system. From the first moment I walked into that courthouse, I sensed the immense control we as citizens have over our lives in the judicial system, and how that control hangs in a precarious balance, and knowing one’s rights is essential to a fair trial and outcome. As an advocate, it often became my duty to let clients know their rights, and to fight for them. WISE believes in empowering clients to make their own decisions, as abuse often robs victims of their sense of power and control over their own lives. But often we find that clients need support and sometimes a little nudge in the right direction. We never tell anyone what to do. We try to make all the information we have available for her to make the final choices. We never tell someone that they must leave a dangerous situation, and we offer support regardless of what they decide. It takes the average abused woman seven tries before she leaves an abuser, and 75% of women who are killed by an intimate partner are killed after they leave the relationship. We trust women to know what is best (and often, safest) for them, and to act accordingly.

Through that first meeting with a client at the Lebanon Family Court, I learned just how to get information from a client and offer support without being too intrusive or judgmental. I learned that you can often sense that they want to tell more, but can’t, and it’s important to respect those boundaries. It prepared me for my own future meetings with clients, where I often found myself completely shocked by what I was hearing, yet needed to keep my cool while they unloaded often years worth of information and emotional pain. Sometimes I couldn’t believe they were telling me this and felt that there was no way this 21-year-old college student could know what to do. I often found myself looking to the other advocates for support and information. They were so helpful, and successful at making me feel at ease. I learned from them that feeling helpless like this if often the nature of the job because every case is different, and every person reacts differently to support and information. But learning to do what you can, and realizing that you can’t save people, but only provide them with the tools to save themselves makes the job that much easier. Claire once told me: “When I had worked here for six months, I thought I had seen everything, but was amazed. Then after a year I thought I had seen everything, but was amazed again. Now, after several years, I know I’ll never see everything.” These words stayed with me throughout my work and gave me the confidence I needed to work hard for clients, and to not be afraid to ask questions of the other advocates. I soon learned that we all learned from each other, and that sharing information and stories is what makes WISE the successful organization it is.

Sometimes I wonder what I thought about domestic violence before I worked at WISE. I remember my first visit to the building, back in April, when I was interviewing for the internship. They were busy as usual, so I had to wait in the library. I sat there reading my latest copy of Ms Magazine, and casually looking around, when three women entered the room. I can still see their faces and hear their words, and I remember being so shocked at what I heard. I heard the daughter tell her mother, whose face was bruised and swollen, that she has a record of her father’s attacks in her diary. I remember my nose buried in my magazine, not wanting to look up, but fascinated by the story. I remember feeling shocked by the information and worried that I could never confront this day after day. Now, several months later, I know I’ve seen and heard so many stories like that, I’m shocked at how frightened I once was. I’m not saying I ever felt jaded by the experience. That feeling of awe that went with hearing what women have endured remained with me throughout my internship and remains today. Yet somehow I now know that I can handle it. As is often the case with college students on summer “vacation,” friends and family frequently asked me what I was doing, or had done, over the summer. When I told them that I worked as an advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault I found myself faced with blank stares and open mouths. The first question everyone asked was: “Don’t you (didn’t you) find that depressing?” Nearly everyone was amazed I could bring myself to go to work each day, without falling into a massive depression about the state of the world. Yet I felt that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Yes, I heard stories that would shock the average person who has never been close to domestic violence. I worked with a woman whose husband of 50 years threw her against furniture and down stairs since day one of her marriage, and refused to call an ambulance when she has a stroke (at the age of 72) because she had not yet made him the rhubarb pie he asked for. I worked with a woman whose husband had abused her physically and emotionally for years, and the one day she fought back by slapping him to escape from the corner he had boxed her into while screaming at her, he goes straight to court and has her arrested for assault. Then there was the woman whose husband, a member of an Irish terrorist organization, wrestled with her 4-year-old son until he cried (in an effort to make him a “man”), and held a watergun to her head, telling her to imagine that it was a real gun. I could go on for pages and pages. While each story is far more complex than I’ve mentioned, and there are many more who won’t fit on these pages one can, I think, get a sense of the terror and horror of domestic abuse. But I feel privileged to have known and worked with these women. I was fortunate to work with clients at that frightening moment when they have realized what has happened to them and to their children, and they have decided that it isn’t right. I see them when they know something’s wrong, and want to get out. Or they’re at least thinking about the possibilities. Each woman is so beautiful and so wonderful. And so strong. I gained so much strength from learning through them what it takes to make that first step to take back your life. To start over. Clients may have thought they were learning from me, as I handed over names of lawyers or explained a helpful community resource, but I know that things were often the other way around. Over the summer, we had two shelter guests at different times. Oddly enough they were both artists. As the shelter contact person, I developed fairly close relationships with both women as I talked with them nearly every day. When they first arrived, each woman was very frightened and depressed. I had long talks with both of them about their abuse and their hopes for the future. We worked on small goals together, and each woman soon changed dramatically. Each woman was remarkably talented artistically, yet had never been able to work on that art during the abusive relationship. Abusers nearly always try to isolate their victims and through their need to control, often forbid anything that they are envious of, or know makes their victim happy. Now, in the shelter, away from their abusers, each woman was able to practice her craft. During each woman’s stay, I soon saw the shelter fill with art, and the women fill with light. They began to talk less and less about the abuse, and more and more about their plans for the future. When each woman finally left, she was almost irrecognizable. Much remained to be done, as the process of healing from an abusive relationship is a long and painful one, but both were one step closer to becoming the whole people they deserved to be. I feel blessed to have known them. And I cannot say it was a depressing experience.

There is so much to be said about an experience as amazing as mine with WISE, but I don’t have to chance to write that novel just yet. Instead I must content myself with what little I’ve been able to communicate here about my summer. This internship was one of those life-changing experiences in which you learn just as much about yourself as you do about the work. I gained skills I will have with me for the rest of my life, and memories that will fill my heart as well as some that will pain it. But learning what the human life can endure, and how those who have suffered injustices and pain I can never fully comprehend can rise from those ashes, was the greatest lesson of all. Thank you for giving me this opportunity.