October 15, 2015
One of the first times Neely McGinnis volunteered with the YWCA Central Alabama’s Children in Crisis program, she was shocked to hear a child talk about her father holding a gun to her mother’s head.
McGinnis expected to hear some unsettling things during the support group for children who have witnessed domestic violence, so it wasn’t what the child said that surprised her. Instead, it was the way the 8-year-old spoke so matter-of-factly that broke her heart.
“I was very naïve coming into this, but she just said it so nonchalantly,” McGinnis said. “I realized that for a lot of children, that is their normal.”
McGinnis is one of 27 members of the Junior League of Birmingham who volunteer with Children in Crisis each year. The weekly sessions give the children a safe place to talk about their anger and their feelings while their mothers attend a support group for victims.
“We want to break the cycle of violence,” said Mary Jane Gibson, coordinator of the program. “A child who is exposed to domestic violence is more likely to either become an abuser or be in an abusive relationship as an adult. We provide them with tools to deal with the emotions that go along with domestic violence and help them find healthy ways to express those emotions.”
Children in Crisis, which started in 1994, serves children and teens ages 5-17. The focus is on helping the participants feel better about themselves and helping them to understand that family violence is not their fault. The volunteers help the children develop safety plans and discuss choices and consequences, feelings and emotions, the difference between good and bad touches and how to deal with family changes.
The children often use art to help express themselves. During a recent session on anger and how to manage it, they decorated cut-outs of hands. They discussed how hands can be used for bad things, like hitting, or for good things, like drawing a picture, making a pizza or writing “I love you” notes. “Sometimes I get angry at people,” one child said.”But I only get angry at them. I never hit them.”
Gibson said she is grateful for the Junior League’s support because she has seen the difference it has made for the children. “I’ve seen them really grow and open up about their feelings,” she said. “The volunteers are amazing. They provide so much love and attention, and they give the children a safe environment to heal.”
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