My job at the domestic violence shelter has been to help families who have fled a violent home, gather tools and support to stand on their own. Violence free. To support mamas in their role as parent and to help the kids work through their journey in a physically and emotionally safe environment. I gave advice and hands on help with discipline problems and ideas for everyday challanges that kids throw our way. I attended custody hearings. I was there when one mama gave up, feeling like she couldn't turn her life around and gave her children over to the state believing they were better for it. That was heartbreaking. I've held hands and carried babies at the emergency rooms and at police departments. I've taken families to the airport to flee the danger in their life. I've hosted countless birthday parties, played Santa and the Easter Bunny and baked a bajillion cookies. I've encouraged mamas as they left our shelter on their own that they COULD do it and they were not alone. That they were strong enough and that they had what it takes to live the life they dreamed of. I have spoken to thousands of middle and high school students about staying safe inside relationships. I have listened to the stories of children and helped them to work through fear and sadness over the violence they had witnessed and suffered. I helped them create safety plans and we made art to express their feelings. Some of that art proudly displayed on the walls of my office. I have met so many amazing women. Women that made me laugh, cry, get pissed off and jittery with excitement. Strong women. I have hugged hundreds of children and even cried with a few (sometimes it happens, even when you know you aren't supposed to). I have also hugged and cried with a few moms. In my time here I have seen seven babies be born and three kids become adults.
I have heard some of the best one liners out there too. After a mama told me that she left the abuse in her home because he'd started in on the kids, she said to me "You'd rather jack off a tiger with a fist full of tacks, then mess with one of my babies". I totally believed her too. Another time, while standing on the back deck, there was an awkward silence one afternoon and a client piped up, "Well, that's about as awkward as a three legged prostitute in front of a pants factory on a Sunday". Brilliant. But my favorite of all time came at the end of a crisis. After an incident that had the potential to blow up, once again I found myself outside with a client. After about five minutes of nervous silence as she chiefed her smoke, she turned to me and said, "Colleen, someone once said, 'I give to the needy and not the greedy'". I paused. Looked her straight in the eye and said "You mean the poet En Vogue?" and we both laughed. Tension broken. Crisis averted.
During my first week on the job in 2002, I was reintroduced to Bo. He had recently retired from the Postal Service and was looking to give back. He had survived lung cancer but it cost him his labor heavy job. We became great friends. I watched as he changed lives and hugged kids for years. Showing kids that most men are not scary, but instead they are kind and loving. Bo's cancer returned in early 2009 and he died in the spring of 2010. Breaking all of our hearts. My heart ached and I sought comfort within the walls of the shelter. I remembered him best there. Laughing there. He is still there. It's hard to leave a place when it holds within it's walls the best memories you have of your friend.
In my second year I watched as my aunt battled cancer. Needing round the clock care, twice a week I stayed overnight with her when she came home and knew the end was near. I would stay up all night talking with her about her life and caring for her then head to work in the morning. Tired. Sad. The kids at the shelter waiting to play. I happily obliged, grateful that I worked in a place that allowed life to happen and not in a cubical somewhere making phone calls.
When I faced cervical cancer in 2006 while living on my own, I learned that it was ok to open up my heart and live. Something that I encouraged and supported women in doing for years but had yet to do myself. I remember taking solace in my job. Letting myself forget while I was there about all of the scary possabilities and focus instead on the shelter families and what they were struggling with. Something that I could affect. Something I could try and change. It was such a gift.
Year four I spent downtime at work excitedly talking to my coworkers about this new dude I had met. They coached me on how to be safe when meeting a strange man from the internet and they all anxiously awaited the details of our first date. Giggling and laughing and blushing became the day to day around the shelter as I fell deeply in love with my man. I remember Bo, sitting in my office and grilling me on how this new guy was treating me. Just like a dad would. He wanted to know how he treated his mother. Bo believed a lot could be discovered about a man by watching him interact with his mom. Cleaning up my computer documents, I found the wedding vows I made to that guy. I typed and retyped and deleted and typed again over many lunch breaks. Working on them over my Subway sub until they were just perfect. It felt strange to delete that file but I guess the next advocate doesn't need it.
Then in the spring on 2009 I became a mother. Suddenly my job was harder in a way I hadn't expected. My heart was tugged easier. Even wounded at times. The experiences of the families I served were suddenly more difficult to hear. It was harder to seperate. Harder to remain within my work boundary. I now had insight into the feelings these mamas were having. It made me better at hearing their stories and better at exploring options with them. But there was a price. And I was beginning to burn out. I have always believed that social workers should bow out when we become less effective. For me, it's the right thing to do. The people we serve deserve our best and if we can not give them that, then it's time to pack it in. And here I was, burning out. There was this other job that I desperately wanted. I wanted to be at home with my baby. And now I need to be home with both of my babies. So I'm saying goodbye.
But I need to say thank you to my job. Thank you for introducing me to myself. Thank you for bringing me friends that I will have for a lifetime. Thank you for being a safe haven to women and children seeking freedom from domestic violence. Thank you for offering a hand and a shoulder to them. The walls are filled with their stories and their hopes. The work being done there is changing lives and restoring souls. It's making the world a better place. I am so lucky and honored to have been a part of that. When I was in high school, the local newspaper did a write up on one student a month. In that article I was asked what I wanted to do with my life. My reply was that I wanted to help children who had been abused or to see my name in lights on Broadway. I am pretty damn lucky to have fullfilled the first part of my dream. Maybe when the kids get bigger I can work on that second part.