By Linda Oberhaus
Naples CEO, Shelter for Abused Women & Children
* Second of two parts
The dedicated staff, volunteers and supporters of The Shelter are enormously proud of all that The Shelter has become in its first 25 years of existence. Each is as committed as ever to providing a full continuum of services to abused women, men and children in our community — services aimed to help heal their wounds and create a pathway to a strong and peaceful future. But those who comprise The Shelter will never be content to let their work end there. Instead, each of us works tirelessly to make ourselves obsolete. We envision a future that is free from domestic violence, where every home is a safe haven for families, so that emergency shelters are a thing of the past.
This is indeed a lofty goal, but one to which we must all be committed. No matter how comforting The Shelter’s residences and staff may be, no one would ever prefer these to their own home, if their safety could be assured there just as strongly. For this reason, we must pursue the end of all violence in our homes. This means focusing on the root causes of domestic violence in our community, and addressing the social and cultural norms that allow violence to exist in our homes.
Just because this cannot happen overnight does not mean we should back down. Just because we cannot fix this problem with a capital campaign and a ribbon cutting, does not mean we should shy away. This fundamental transformation is within our grasp, and it is ultimately The Shelter’s very reason for being.
True transformation, by definition, cannot be done half way. For this reason, we cannot hope to achieve the transformation we seek so long as we focus only on one gender or the other. Anyone can be a perpetrator of violence, and anyone can be a victim. The Shelter enjoys the commitment of men as equal partners with women, all serving the mission to end domestic violence once and for all. Gender stereotypes are part of the problem, not part of the solution, and the promotion of nonviolence as a desirable and ultimately masculine trait lies at the core of the Gentle’men Against Domestic Violence Program, one of the Shelter’s most forward-thinking and inclusive programs. When violence is about power and control, the antidotes are equality and respect.
Social science teaches us that violence is a learned behavior. It also teaches us that children absorb enormous amounts of information — language, mannerisms, traditions, beliefs — from those who surround them, most especially in their early years. If those early “teachers” demonstrate peaceful and healthy relationships, we can expect the child to internalize that, and perpetuate it for themselves. Thus, Step One in achieving a truly peaceful community involves holding those who commit violence in their homes accountable, lest they be allowed to go right back into those homes and repeat the violent cycle.
You do not have to be a social scientist to guess Steps Two, Three and Four: education, education, education. The best way to prevent violence is to reach children at their earliest ages, and stay with them as they grow, all the while teaching them that violence is never ok, and it is always avoidable. The Shelter enjoys a highly effective partnership with the School District, and is active in educating our children at all levels. From elementary school through high school, The Shelter offers age-appropriate lessons for all school kids on healthy relationships (“Hands Are for Helping”), bullying, teen dating violence and overall violence prevention. We are also extremely pleased to embark upon a new partnership with FGCU where we will help to present a new course designed to help students understand the dynamics of interpersonal violence in the home, school, legal system and community.
Simply put, we’ve long known that children are our future. If we can minimize their exposure to violence, all the while teaching them to engage each other in a peaceful way, we can realize our goal of eliminating domestic violence from this community in their lifetimes. It’s a lofty goal, but a realistic one, and one to which we are proud to recommit, as we celebrate our past achievements at The Shelter, and embrace the challenges of the years to come.