When five-year-old Joey* made a paper flower and gave it to his sister as a way of apologizing for breaking something she had made, PeaceWorks educators Nancy Ochoa and Maura Recabo silently cheered. They were equally elated at the response of eight-year-old Bobby* after he watched a puppet show about hurting someone's feelings. He had bullied his little sister for two days, ever since they had arrived at the Norwalk SafeHouse with their mother. As the puppet show ended, he got up, walked over to his sister and gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
"His behavior completely changed after the puppet show," Nancy said.
Maura and Nancy have spent a good deal of the summer working with children residing in the DVCC SafeHouses, surprising them each day with a new game, art project or activity designed with a purpose beyond mere amusement. During a Treasure Hunt, they not only happily ran around wearing pirate bandanas and filling treasure boxes; they also had to listen carefully and work in teams. A community-building activity encouraged the children to talk about what communities needed and looked like - and then they had to work together to design one. In an activity called "stress balls" they talked about different kinds of stress and coping skills. All the children were intently engaged in handling various pre-made balls before creating their own, when one youngster noticed his baby brother sitting by himself in his stroller. He carefully picked out one of the smaller balls and gave it to the toddler to play with so that he could be part of the group.
The activities are an extension of the PeaceWorkSHOPS afterschool programs, which are, in turn, an extension of the PeaceWorks in-school programs provided to K - 12 students throughout the seven communities served by DVCC. The SafeHouse program, which is supported in part by a grant from Ronald McDonald House Charities, focuses directly on addressing the needs of children exposed to domestic violence.
While PeaceWorks educators also work throughout the year with children whose parents take part in DVCC counseling programs, the young SafeHouse residents are a very special and distinct group that presents both challenges and advantages for the following reason. The children and their mothers suddenly have been thrust into a strange environment where they live in close quarters with other strangers, all of whom have been traumatized by violence in their intimate relationships - and they have to try to get along.
Anywhere from six to ten children, ranging in age from two to 14, have called the Norwalk SafeHouse home over the course of the summer. While the difference in ages and in cultural backgrounds can pose challenges, they can also create advantages or, in the words of Nancy Ochoa, "teachable moments".
"The SafeHouse is actually a really good learning environment," she said. "We talk about boundaries and personal space, we talk about cultural differences and the expectations of their parents, we talk about feelings and about relationships within families, and we read stories and talk about what they say to us. Some really good topics have come up, and the kids are able to discuss things amongst themselves. Plus, whatever they are able to learn here, they can take to their classrooms, the playground or back to their homes."
And because talking goes just so far with kids, Nancy and Maura include plenty of physical activities in the SafeHouse backyard and playroom. Outlets for youthful energy each day might be stretching exercises or soccer, relay races or a rousing game of "Simon Says".
Although the evidence at this point is empirical, there are signs the summer SafeHouse program is doing something right: the small acts of kindness between siblings; the eager young faces that greet Maura and Nancy at the door each day; and the fact that one youngster kept "accidentally" missing her bus to camp. It turned out she was missing her bus so that she didn't have to miss out on whatever was happening at the SafeHouse that day.
*Names have been changed for privacy