For several years, Michelle at Burgh Baby has organized a holiday gift project called “Christmas Crazy.” In this indeavor, she’s enlisted folks as diverse as Solstice Cafe and Scarehouse. Michelle divides the gifts between local domestic violence programs to provide holiday gifts for women who often flee into the night with little in hand save their children.
This project resonates with me because of my own volunteer and professional work with women leaving abusive relationships.
In 2011, Michelle added Womansplace as a beneficiary of her program. Womansplace is in the Mon Valley. I worked their from 1998 – 2000 as a counselor. I did some volunteer work in the mid-2000’s and have remained a cheerleader ever since.
Since then, the organization has grown tremendously under the leadership of Laurie McDonald. The organization was on the verge of collapse due to some ne’re do well activity by those in power. Laurie has brought it roaring back to serve the community in a critical array of services.
When I saw Michelle’s expansion to Womansplace, it brought back a flood of memories. Stories, eyes looking at me over the dutch door into the staff office, phone calls, interactions with the police, chasing children down the street, interpreting for women who barely spoke English or use ASL to communicate, and the underling ever present vibe of desperation that permeated adult and child alike. I learned the imperfections of the shelter system – older male children shuttled off to whomever would take them in b/c they couldn’t come into shelter, time limits, lack of resources for transitional housing, struggling to understand the dynamics of leaving an abusive relationship.
C turned up one evening when I was co-facilitating a support group for clients who were not residents. C and I locked eyes and I knew her instantly – we had attended high school together. Rather, a few years until she disappeared (I learned later she had dropped out.) As she shared her story, I realized in a deeply profound way how it could have been me.
C disappeared and I wondered and worried. And I moved on to a new job. I had occasional contact with some of my former colleagues.
Then I learned that C had died a brutal death. She was around 30. She was murdered. She didn’t break free of the cycle of drug use, poverty, and abuse that claims so many women’s lives each year.
It was in honor of C that I made my donation to Christmas Crazy, modest as it was. I remember the additional strain the holidays brought to many of the families we served – economic, but also emotional and conflicting feelings about how to include the man who abused them, but was the father of their children in to their own holiday plan. It rarely played at well.
The gifts that Christmas Crazy contributed make a big difference. It shows that someone cares. It allows parents the dignity of choosing gifts and stretching their dollars a bit further. It really does prove that Santa visits all children. Loves all children.
I don’t know why Michelle chose Womansplace, but I am glad to have the prompt to think of C and remember her life, both as a young girl and an adult woman reaching out to try to break free.
Merry Christmas, C.