Most of us are familiar with “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as a song to celebrate the act of giving. The biggest gift we can give ourselves and each other is HOPE -for a better tomorrow, for peace, empowerment, and positive change. “The Twelve Days of HOPE” is not a song but a fictional journey in tribute to survivors of domestic violence and the very real struggles they face. It is also a portrait of how the Alle-Kiski HOPE Center’s vision to foster hope and change is realized in a shelter setting. More pointedly, “The Twelve Days of HOPE” seeks to thank, honor and reassure all advocates, supporters, donors and volunteers that their efforts yield meaningful results each and every day.
The Twelve Days of HOPE
1st Day: She stares into the bathroom mirror for the first time in many years, looking her battered and fearful life directly in the eyes. Her mind begins to race with questions she didn’t have the courage to ask herself before this moment. How did it get like this? Who was I before this relationship? How much longer can I survive this? What will happen to me if I leave? What will happen to me if I stay? The questions kept coming as the snow outside kept falling.
2nd Day: She hardly slept but woke up feeling alert and strangely altered by yesterday’s barrage of introspection. It was time, she had to leave, and this was a daunting realization. Estranged from family and friends, she is pregnant, has a 4 year old son, and only $32.00 in her purse. Where could she go? Without being able to answer that question, she packed a bag of clothes, gathered some important documents, and walked out into the blistering cold with her son in hand. She turned her head up towards the sky and spoke aloud, “I can do this. I am stronger than I think.” She walks to a neighbor’s house, borrows their phone, and calls a domestic violence hotline.
3rd Day: She and her son wake up in a private, fully furnished and beautifully painted bedroom. She used to think a shelter would look like a cramped gymnasium full of cots and flickering fluorescent lights, but this was clearly not the case. It was a very home-like atmosphere with private bedrooms and communal living spaces for cooking and lounging. Inspirational quotes are displayed in every room to help keep residents feeling strong, focused, and worthy of a life without violence.
4th Day: She meets with a warm and friendly shelter advocate who sits down with her to assess her immediate and long-term needs like emotional support, employment, permanent housing, and legal advocacy. At first, she is overwhelmed by the paperwork, the applications, and the prospect of fighting her husband for custody of their son. She kept thinking, how will I find work if I don’t have much of a work history? How will I afford childcare? What if he uses my history of depression against me to gain custody of our son? She attends a group on self-care that evening and discovers that none of the answers to these questions mean anything if she does not stop to breathe, tackle one issue at a time, and start to care for herself, mind, body, and spirit.
5th Day: She makes a new friend who is going through a similar situation. She wasn’t allowed to have friends before, and so she nearly forgot what it was like to laugh and connect with someone like this. They start attending groups together. Multiple groups are held every week on various topics like parenting, nutrition, meditation, healthy relationships, constructive anger, writing cover letters, etc. She always leaves group feeling more informed and encouraged.
6th Day: She wakes up to another slew of questions flooding her mind. Is it wrong to keep my son away from his father on Christmas? Should I go back? How will my son have a good Christmas here in shelter? Her new friend could see she was upset and comforted her.
7th Day: Every day, advocates would ask if she was okay or if she needed anything. Today she opens up about her angst over spending Christmas in a shelter. She had no idea that there was a program in which generous members of the community “adopt” a family in shelter, providing gifts and hope for the holiday. She was so relieved and thankful; her eyes welled up with tears.
8th Day: She completes a lot of job and housing applications. She also begins to think about going to community college. This makes her feel stronger, more positive about the future. Advocates are there every step of the way, answering her questions, and helping her navigate the paperwork and resources. She’s tired of treading water in life; she’s ready to swim now.
9th Day: Spending quality time with her son is the focus of her afternoon. She spent so much time in fear and walking on eggshells with her abuser that she could never relax or be fully present with her son. Together, they are discovering what being safe feels like.
10th Day: While spending more time with her son in the play room, she grows concerned about his behavior and interpersonal skills with other children. She brings this up with an advocate who helps her find the appropriate programs and resources, learning that some counselors, caseworkers, and service providers from other agencies would be able to meet with her and evaluate her son here at shelter. She feels like she has a solid support system here.
11th Day: Most of the children wake up searching for that crafty little “Elf on the Shelf” again who likes hiding in creative places. Volunteers arrive in the afternoon for a holiday party, bringing food, crafts, games, and gifts for all residents and their children. She’s given a little purse filled with scented body lotion and a pretty scarf –and this is a big deal! You should know, dear reader, that here in shelter, donations aren’t just donations; they’re shooting stars of hope and joy.
12th Day: The magic of Christmas can be felt like an electrical current, flowing from the squeals and smiles of surprised children opening their gifts. She sits on the floor by the tree with her boy and thinks, “we’re gonna be okay, we’re gonna be okay.”
~ JMV, Alle-Kiski HOPE Center Advocate ~