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Normal Days, Extraordinary Women

Former Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) Northwest AmeriCorps member Claire Shepak (Anchorage, ’12-’13) shared an example of how resources, support, and presence made an impact during her time serving survivors of domestic violence in Alaska. Claire is now in a Master’s of Social Work program at Washington University in St. Louis.

AWAIC on Thanksgiving
AWAIC on Thanksgiving

It was a normal day just after 11:00AM when a tiny woman, filled with courage and uncertainty stepped into the office. As she began to talk I realized her story was unlike many of the people I served. She owned a home, she was attending graduate school, and had very supportive parents; all privileges she stated were things she had taken for granted. What her story had in common with all the people I served each day is that she had been in an abusive, controlling and manipulative marriage for the past two decades and this was the first time she was reaching out for help.

During our first meeting I spent several hours explaining all the options she had and helping to process the emotions she was feeling. As I walked home from AWAIC (Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis) that afternoon I remember thinking that would be the first and last time I would work with her. I had given her all the support she needed for the time and I was content with that. Three months later a familiar voice came over the AWAIC crisis line. Her voice was shaky yet filled with conviction. She said, “I’m ready to leave. What do I do Claire, What do I do?” And with that we started formulating a plan.

As I started pulling resources I realized I would have to reframe everything I was teaching her. Although she was a very savvy woman, her life of privilege had shielded her from many of the realities that people with half her education and no support navigate every day. I was introducing her into a whole new world of ATAP, SNAP benefits and public housing, something she had never realized were options for her to access in order to leave an abusive relationship. For the first time I felt empowered to help a participant on my own navigate this foreign and complex system. Step by step we worked together gathering the information and resources she and her children would need to finally leave her abusive husband. As I supported her through the highs of being approved for public assistance and the lows of calling the police to report assault, we foraged on to the end goal. Weekly check-ins turned into daily conversations over the crisis line as her heartache and fear of what the next hours and days would hold mounted. Amidst all the chaos she slowly but surely continued to check off the necessary steps in order to leave.

Claire releases a lantern in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month
Claire releases a lantern in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month

In my final weeks at AWAIC she received the news that she was approved for a housing voucher that would greatly subsidize the cost of renting an apartment; one of the last steps in her big puzzle. While I’m sad that I may never find out if she found an apartment and successfully transitioned into a safe place, I feel content knowing that I, along with the support of many AWAIC staff members, have empowered her to leave an abusive marriage that spanned over twenty years and equipped her to flourish and be successful on her own.

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