Volunteering: A Place To Start

Patty Barney is completing a semester-long Women’s Studies practicum at Oasis Women’s Shelter.  As the adviser for her project, I’ve been following her expereince closely through the journal she has kept documenting the 200+ hours she has dedicated to victims of domestic abuse, and I’ve been impressed by the meaningful service she has been able to provide and by her own growing awareness of women’s issues.  Patty captures these parallels perfectly in her title, “A Place to Start”: for many women, Oasis serves as a crucial beginning for a new life.  As Patty notes here, Oasis has also served as a starting point her her own commitment to activism.

Picking up Issues in Feminism to merely fill a hole in my summer schedule was a turning point in my life.  In fact, it has been one of the most personally rewarding, yet unintentional moves I’ve ever made.  For the past two years Women’s Studies has challenged me to learn widely and to build knowledge through interdisciplinary study.  Examining women’s issues through a variety of academic perspectives has been both fascinating and valuable, but I found myself particularly drawn to the topic of violence against women.

For my senior assignment and capstone academic experience I chose to volunteer at Oasis, a domestic violence shelter for women and children.  To be honest, I found it difficult to study on-going oppression and violence against women and not want to become an activist; for me it seemed to be the next natural step.  Choosing to become an advocate for women living in crisis cut straight to the heart of the matter: what kind of a difference could I make?

For someone who was so sure of herself, I was apprehensive about walking into that shelter and seeing what there was to see.  As it turns out, it was finding that these women were broken from the inside out that saddened me the most.  By the time a woman comes to the shelter she has used up almost all of her hope that things will get better and she has no place to go.  I went through a period where I wanted to fix all of their problems, but I didn’t take me long to realize that feeling sad wasn’t going to help anyone.

Over the past several months I have become a Jane of all trades; I document services, process donations, answer the crisis hotline, and dispense medication.  But my favorite duty is transporting clients to job interviews or wherever they may need to go.  It gives me a chance to get to know the women by listening to them and hearing whatever it is they have to say.

I am always astounded by how resilient and strong these women are.  They aren’t looking for my sympathy when they tell me that DCFS is going to let them see their kids not once, but twice this week, or how lucky they are that being sexually abused at 8 years old didn’t completely ruin their lives, or even that the food pantry had their son’s favorite cereal last week.  They are joyous over things that would surely crush me to smithereens.

After a day at the shelter all of my petty, little bothers float away and I have a very clear vision of what is important to me.  Volunteering has strengthened me as a person, as a woman, and as a feminist.  My time at Oasis has not only bridged my academic and real-life experiences, but has empowered me in regards to making decisions about my career.  Some people wonder how I can work in a shelter, but they just don’t realize how lucky I am.

Note: Students interested in learning more about Women’s Studies practicums should contact Prof. Catherine Seltzer: cseltze@siue.edu

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