When you think of a women’s shelter, you don’t automatically think of the young boys and blossoming men that accompany a guardian to a shelter or come seeking out help of their own. Luckily, Kathleen O’Gorman, a rep from Ernestine’s Women shelter, helps us understand that isn’t the case at all. Women’s shelters play a huge role in dismantling the cycle of domestic violence and accessing boys and male youth to help change the familial narrative and end that violence.
While Ernestine’s doesn’t have men on staff, they invite and encourage male volunteers from community agencies and counselling services to facilitate programming. “While this usually takes place outside the shelter, we can accommodate counselling sessions within the shelter itself. Further, at Ernestine’s we also have men from corporate groups visit the shelter to assist us on-site, as part of our volunteer Corporate Giving program. This allows the boys at the shelter to be exposed to positive male role models.”
“Our focus is on creating positive supports and security,” Kathleen discloses. As individuals transition out of the shelter, they link clients to longer-term support within the community.
Dealing with male youth coming from a volatile environment is dealt with in a hands-on way and supportive by Ernestine’s. “Our shelter programs are structured to create a sense of safety and trust in children. In this supportive environment, boys are usually able to discuss their experiences. We help them establish routines, get them settled into school, and try to create an environment of “home”. Of normalcy.”
The most important aspect in breaking that cycle of abuse is creating a routine and interrupting the violence since kids can’t establish a healthy self-esteem and positive relationships when they feel like they or their families are in danger. Safety, trust, and normalcy (since a survivor’s lens of “normal” is skewed) are primary.
“Children wake up, brush their teeth, have breakfast, head off to school, return and start homework, have dinner, participate in programs or one-one time with a child and youth counsellor, go on the computer for some fun, have an evening snack, brush their teeth and go to sleep. This routine plays out in most homes, but for children experiencing and exposed to violence that routine and safety does not exist. They have likely missed a lot of school are not doing well in school. Home is a war zone and often not knowing what is going to happen next.”
This aforementioned cycle of abuse is also an integral aspect that Ernestine’s helps put a stop to but wants people to be more aware of. “Children in abusive families often attempt to redirect the abuse or intervene on their mothers’ behalf. They sometimes take on the role of “dad” and can imitate the abuse towards their mothers and siblings. We must first repair the family dynamic within an environment of safety and security, re-establish trust between the children and their mothers and interrupt the effects of violence in their lives.”
This is the shelter’s first priority, and it’s often accomplished within the 8-12 months that families spend in the shelter. By addressing immediate impacts of violence, “we can help boys develop positive self-images and respectful relationships with those around them.”
It’s not uncommon for boys to be reluctant in voicing their emotional responses and needs because they have grown up in a society that discourages them from doing this. “Our programs are designed to take the blame and shame off of their shoulders so that they can learn to relate to others in a healthy and positive manner. Boys are often very aware of the cultural narrative and are determined to never let those things play out in their lives. When they come to us we interrupt the violence and help them build from there.”
One of Ernestine’s male youth won the Natalie Novak Award during their 2017 annual gala, and spoke of how his win wouldn’t have been possible without the inspiration he received from his youth counsellor at Ernestine’s Women Shelter, further expanding, “Living at Ernestine’s gave me new perspective on how to respect women and to live in a non-abusive relationship, which will make me a better man in my community.”
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and Kathleen has another enlightening success story to help us persevere in that hope.
“14 years ago, we had a young man who was a huge raptors fan. For his birthday, I reached out to a friend and asked for tickets. On the day of, we had a beautiful basketball-shaped cake in Raptor colours, and at the end of the celebration, told him he was going to a game. He started crying tears of joys and was so overwhelmed. The contact had gone a step further and seated him in the front, and even received a tour in the changing room. This experience will stay with him forever and it makes us so happy. Living in a shelter isn’t easy, and these positive experiences carry a huge impact. After moving out, he recently came back to participate in the making of our first PSA. He’s doing very well and there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll be a leader in his community.”
While discouraging toxic narratives around masculine culture is paramount, paying attention to the smaller details and reaching out to your own community is the best way to get a hands-on understanding and make a difference is to volunteer. St Ernestine’s shelter volunteers participate in their music program, homework club, and holiday celebrations.
“We cannot do the work we do without the support of men, we are very fortunate to have many men supporting Ernestine’s Women’s Shelter, they are volunteers, they are donors, educators and friends.”
Kathleen encourages volunteers and donors to help out, and why not, in the holiday spirit? You can do your part by checking out their website at http://ernestines.ca/.