Summer for most children means freedom. Freedom from school, early bedtimes, shoes, and geographic boundaries. My summer memories are filled with bike rides, swimming, helping mom in the garden, and playing with my brother. I’m sure I still had chores to do and books to read but what I remember most is being free. I was a kid being a kid.
Children who witness domestic violence aren’t afforded that same freedom. Life with an abuser puts them on guard, waiting for the next act of violence, and working in some way to prevent it from ever occurring. One friend of mine recalls a summer spent mostly outdoors as her father would lock his kids outside to fend for themselves for the entire day while their mother worked, sometimes even still in their pajamas and with no breakfast. Another friend shared how they were never allowed outdoors or to be away from their father, no hanging out with friends or attending parties. The one emotion that both of these friends had in common – fear. Fear of what could or would happen next.
Now that the first day of summer has passed, schools have closed for summer break and families are starting to settle into their new routines. Many children have started their summer day camps, sports camps, play dates, and swim lessons. At HAVEN, today and throughout the summer months, children from our community will find themselves living in shelter, a safe harbor from the violence they have been witnessing. And although I’m sure many of these kids are grateful they are away from the violence, I am equally sure that not a single one wants to be living in a shelter. Imagine, that first day back to school in the fall and answering the traditional “What did you do on your summer vacation?”
At HAVEN we work, year round, to give the children and teens residing with us, a sense of normalcy and a time to just be a kid. In the summer months, our team, creates opportunities much like a summer camp – outings, play, getting wet, horsing around, reading and crafts. We still work with the children on their concerns of safety and their exposure to trauma but we also want them to be kids. We work on changing the dynamic of their feeling responsibility for mom’s safety and for caring for younger siblings. We want them to learn to be in charge of their own emotions and to discover healthy outlets for feelings such as anger. We give them the opportunity to dig in the dirt in our garden, learn where food comes from, to create something from their own hands, to witness success and achievement.
We also work to help the parent to regain their role as parent and for the child to stay the child. Many abused parents have had their parenting role undermined by their abuser. Their children often don’t respond to their attempts at discipline and instead continue to act out. Some, especially boys, will step in to the role of the abuser, working to control their mother and continuing to undermine their authority. Our staff work to support mom and to create opportunities for there to be times to practice these new roles within the family unit while still in shelter, creating a safe place for practice and necessary support.
Years ago, I heard something I will never forget. A supporter of HAVEN was volunteering in her child’s classroom at school. The kids were out on the playground and she was asked to pass out some completed artwork, placing them on the children’s desks. When she was nearly done, she came to two pieces of art without names on them. She asked the teacher if she could identify who the artist was so she could complete her task. The teacher took the drawings, looked at them, and said something to the effect of “oh those kids are from HAVEN it doesn’t matter, you can throw them out, they didn’t put their name on them.” The supporter was appalled and let the teacher know that the kids, did in fact, matter and she went about locating those student artists.
All kids matter. So as we take our summer vacations, drive our kids to their summer day care program, eat s’mores and ice cream, lets take a moment to consider that not all children have this same privilege. You can help nurture and lift up the children in our community in ways big and small by supporting our work through donations, volunteerism, knowledge, and understanding. Helping a child live a life without fear – sounds like a summer well-spent.