By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
A young mom who survived domestic violence needed to leave town with her two young children.
Kimberly Birdsong served as their chauffeur. She’d met the family at the shelter where she volunteered for Family Resources and had become captivated by one of the children, a girl of 5 or 6 years old.
“She reminded me of myself at that age,” recalled Kimberly, 43, who as a child had to flee from home with her mother because of domestic violence.
When Kimberly took the family to the bus station, the little girl was distraught. “She didn’t want to leave the only place she knew. She was pleading …. I tried to explain that her mother was doing the best she could to try to get them out of the situation they had been living in,” Kimberly added. After the family had gotten safely onto the bus, Kimberly cried. “I was at that age when I lived in a shelter. I could imagine myself asking my mother, ‘Why do we have to be here? Why did we have to leave our home?’”
Kimberly, a human resources specialist for the Rock Island (Ill.) Arsenal, said her childhood experience gave her a desire to give back to the community. The opportunity presented itself in 2011, after she participated in a sexual harassment workshop organized by her employer. The workshop presenter, from Family Resources, emphasized the social service agency’s need for volunteers. Kimberly underwent 64 hours of training to be certified in Iowa and Illinois to respond to domestic violence and sexual assault crises. She also is a mandatory reporter of abuse, and volunteers at the shelter for survivors of domestic violence.
Like other volunteers, she shadowed (several times), a more experienced volunteer responding to domestic violence and sexual assault crises before going solo.
Kimberly agreed to share her volunteer experiences to help spread the word about Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which concludes Oct. 31.
As she and other advocates point out, awareness must continue beyond October. At the root of domestic violence is a sense of “power and control over another individual (female or male),” said Mary Macumber-Schmidt, president of Family Resources, which is based in Davenport. “That control can take the form of words, or the demeaning of someone by making them feel less valued.”
“The issue of women, rape culture, and violence towards women (in particular sexual violence) are hot topics right now. I think the important thing that is happening is we are talking about it,” said Nicole Cisne Durbin, program officer for Family Resources. “There are discussions happening, and my hope is that with those discussions comes education. I also hope it sheds light that there are people who care and believe that no one deserves to be sexually abused or abused in any way — which in turn may help more survivors feel comfortable seeking services.”
Domestic violence and abuse affect the whole family, including any children, according to Catholics for Family Peace. Faith communities are called to offer hope, and healing to all harmed by domestic abuse and violence. (www.catholicsforfamilypeace.org).
Providing a sense of hope is what motivates Kimberly in her volunteer work for Family Resources, which serves the Quad-Cities area. “My primary job is going on calls. If there’s a domestic violence or sexual assault, we get called to the hospital,” she said. “I’m on call tonight for 24 hours.” Her role is to offer advocacy, compassion, information and transportation as needed. “We go to the hospital and take extra clothing. We coordinate with the nurse and get background. We go into the hospital room and explain to the survivor who we are and the services we can help them with,” Kimberly said. “Every interaction the survivor has with police, doctors, with anybody who comes into the room – we want to make sure the interaction is pleasant and non-accusatory. Our job is to advocate as thoroughly as possible for the victim. We’re always trying to make sure we’re never judgmental toward the victim. We try to empower them, to let them know what services are available.”
When Kimberly volunteers at the shelter on a Saturday or Sunday, her duties vary from tidying up rooms to teaching someone how to read a bus schedule to helping children with math and reading homework. When she’s answering the crisis line, “We try to talk with them (the callers) and work with their situation and to come up with other options. We listen to their story.” She fills out paperwork and completes other tasks so that when counselors arrive they are able to concentrate on counseling.
In the beginning, responding to crises was an emotional experience. “I spent many a night crying, wondering, ‘Wow,’ what’s going to happen to that person?’ After a while, you learn to take the emotionalism out of it, but not to the point that you don’t care. You learn to cope.” Kimberly relieves stress by going to the gym, walking or biking. Most importantly, “I pray about it. Even before I go into the hospital, I have to do that…. I pray to God for wisdom to give me the words to say so that the healing process can begin.”
She remembers one survivor of domestic violence who had walked for hours from her home to the Quad Cities on a cold day. The woman suffered from fractured ribs and a broken hand. Kimberly was amazed by the woman’s resilience. Another time, Kimberly responded to a call involving a 2-year-old girl who had been sexually abused. “I think I thought about her more than anyone else. She was so vulnerable and she didn’t have anywhere to go.” But Kimberly also remembers a male survivor of domestic violence who made a deep impression on her. “He was so broken.”
What keeps her committed to this volunteer work, Kimberly says, is the hope she strives to instill in survivors. “I hope that something I say or do can help them; can help pull them out of where they are. I’ve seen people, including myself, who have been in a situation of no hope. But little by little, step by step, they are able to bring themselves to a place where they realize they are free and they can do all things. They can rediscover who they are.”
Resources on domestic violence and awareness
Family Resources (https://famres.org/);
24-hour free crisis line (for domestic violence, sexual assault and other violent crimes)
Iowa Quad Cities (563) 326-9191; Illinois (309) 797-17777; Toll Free (866) 921-3354
Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Domestic violence programs in Iowa: http://www.icadv.org/
Domestic violence crisis line: (800) 400-4884
Sexual assault crisis line: (800) 550-0004