YWCA Board spends a morning ‘In Her Shoes’

YWCA Advocate Letitia Castillo applies makeup to board member Andrea Unck to simulate bruising.

“What can I do to help?”

In a perfect world, this would be the first question that comes to mind after a story about domestic abuse. Instead, questions like “Why doesn’t she just leave?” are often more common. And the answers are as varied as are the women and men experiencing the abuse.

That’s why YWCA board members devoted the morning of their spring retreat to walking “In Her Shoes”–a role-playing program developed by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV) designed to give participants a glimpse into the life of a battered person.

web group
Board members Brianne Bridgeland, Ann Schmitt, and Anne Moore ponder the next step on a journey they hope will lead to safety.

Empathizing with the “ups and downs”
The scenarios for “In Her Shoes” are based on real-life case histories. Depending on the cards drawn, choices made, or even a random coin toss, participants experience something like the ups and downs faced by a domestic violence survivor.

A coin toss, for example, might mean the difference between reaching a crisis worker by phone immediately or waiting three minutes before getting an answer—three minutes of increasing stress and frustration during an already-stressful time. The place you choose to go for help after abuse—perhaps to the Friends and Family, Clergy, or Shelter stations—might make the difference between finding someone who blames you for the situation you are in, and finding a knowledgeable ally with resources to help.

If that choice sends you to the Back Home station to work things out, you may end up at Abuse Happens, where YWCA Advocate Leticia Castillo applied bandages or used makeup to simulate bruises. And sometimes, you get the run-around. “We went so many places,” said Linda Woolley Tam, a YWCA board member. “I was surprised to have had such a visceral physical reaction to it all.”

It can happen to anyone
Board member Terri Lyford, a participant who drew the card of a woman with a good job, remarked, “Even if you have money, the decisions are hard.” Having money, after all, doesn’t make it any easier to take children away from a parent or admit to family and friends that your relationship isn’t “happily ever after.”

Progress in Walla Walla
Several participants struggled with various agencies in the scenarios because they lacked education about domestic violence and the unique challenges survivors face. YWCA Walla Walla Executive Director Anne-Marie Zell Schwerin was happy to share progress our community has made in this area.

“Every month, our Advocates, law enforcement, prosecutors, and representatives from other agencies that may work with DV and SA survivors  get together as the Domestic Violence Coalition to share information and resources,” she said. “And thanks to Chuck Fulton’s efforts back in the 1990s, we were one of the first communities in the state to have a police-based victim’s advocate,” a position first (and still) by Chalese Rabidue, Domestic Violence Advocate for the Walla Walla Police Department. Strong partnerships systemwide  help everyone find better solutions.

One important lesson board member Brianne Bridgeland took from the role-playing experience: “You never know where you might find an ally. We need to be tuned in to the people around us so we will be ready to fill that role.”

Domestic Violence Housing First gives stability, hope
After the In Her Shoes activity, guest speaker Linda Olson of WSCADV discussed the work of the coalition, focusing especially on a program called Domestic Violence Housing First (DVHF).

A partnership with the Gates Foundation, the coalition piloted DVHF with DV programs across the state, providing flexible funding to help survivors find and stay in stable housing.  Participating pilot sites developed barrier assessment criteria and protocols for helping clients with low, medium and high barriers to housing.  They also participated in rigorous data collection and analysis.

Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women and children, and without a safe place to live, it’s extremely difficult to be self-sufficient and build a life free from violence.

DVHF program funds are flexible enough to use in any way that supports stable housing. So if you need a job to pay rent—and you can’t keep your job without transportation, a required work uniform and childcare—meeting those needs is part of DVHF.  Flexible funding is just one of the ways this program is seeing success rates like 96% of survivors retaining housing 18 months after entering DVHF. Housing no longer has to be a reason to stay in an abusive relationship.

Learn more about Domestic Violence Housing First at wscadv.org.