Thursday, October 29, 2009

Serving Community Members and Former Renewal House Guests

(by guest blogger Ada Guadalupe, Renewal House Shelter Manager)

Renewal House is a special place to me. I have worked here for over 15 years and have enjoyed the opportunities this work and this agency have provided me.

I am most pleased with the work we do in the community and the connections we maintain with former residents. The community work has changed over the years, and is important to the people we serve. It started when I was doing a domestic violence support group at Latinas y Ninos, a substance abuse program for women and children. I lead groups there and people were very engaged and connected. Then, under former Renewal House Director Parisa Parsa, we started Sisters Together Offering Peace (STOP) and many of the women from Latinas y Ninos came to that group as well.

Working in the community is difficult and important work. Difficult because most often the people who participate have little or no resource and often are still in the abusive relationship. And important because so many services have been cut over the years -- and without, us these folks would have no one.

For the last six months I have been offering “office hours” at the UU Urban Ministry’s program and office space at First Church in Roxbury for community residents in need. I provide assistance to those seeking support around homelessness, domestic violence, legal issues and a wide variety of other things. We have publicized this new service with our community partners, and have had a good response.

Another recent outreach effort for both shelter residents and community members is our new ESL class, launched in collaboration with some of our volunteers. This will add to the “traffic” in the UU Urban Ministry and increase our ability to connect with more people.

In addition, our Harvard Divinity School intern, Juliana dos Santos, is leading a yoga group on Wednesdays at the UU Urban Ministry for shelter residents and community members. Yoga provides good exercise and has proven to be helpful in the work of healing.

Renewal House began the practice of working with former residents when I noticed that the residents leaving our program were so sad. Often, we had become their community and they felt that moving on meant they were losing us. I spoke with then-Director Joyce King, who said I was welcome to continue working with former guests if I so desired – so I did. We added a section on the exit interview about ongoing follow-up and asked residents to let us know if they wanted to continue to work with us.

The connection with former residents has been wonderful. For Renewal House staff members, who encounter our guests at the lowest point in their lives, the opportunity to support them beyond their time in shelter provides a reassuring window into post-shelter life -- life does move on, and healing and wholeness can happen. Of course, not all of the people we work with are free of struggle and difficulty, but they do know that they can call on us for resources and support. These days, we have several gatherings throughout the year for current and former residents. Some gatherings are simply social engagements, and some provide education/enrichment for adults and children. It’s a chance for families and individuals to be around others who share their experience of abuse. They learn and gain support from one another.

I was raised Catholic. At times, I have been unhappy with the church and stopped participating. However, I feel as though my faith has driven me throughout my life to do good to those I meet. I believe the church is in me and I take it wherever I go. This is another reason I love working at Renewal House. The opportunity to talk with the residents about their own faith and how it can serve as a resource in their lives is very meaningful to me. Many of the people we serve come to us with nothing. Their abusers have taken everything away from them – except their faith. The opportunity for these folks to see this resource and build on it in a community of support is immensely helpful. We occasionally have residents who are resistant to the faith component in our program. We simply let them know that it is a resource for them to use in whatever way is most helpful to them.

And that is the beauty of the Unitarian Universalist faith – it is inclusive, open to exploration and accepting of all faith traditions. Working in a program that values spirituality is so important to me and, more importantly, to our guests. Furthermore, the ongoing support of Unitarian Universalist congregations helps us make even more of a difference.

From our Holiday party sponsored by First Parish in Kingston, to the prayer shawls from Follen Church, to all the UU individuals who respond to our pleas for Halloween costumes, event tickets, or baby shower items, we try to offer our guests much more than mere shelter. All of these “extras” make Renewal House a program that truly is about renewal for those who come in our doors.

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