By Stephanie Choate
Her heart racing, Carol told her husband—a man with drug problems who had mercilessly abused her for 13 years—that she was going to the bank. Instead, she drove to her neighbor’s house and grabbed her children’s winter coats where she had stashed them earlier in the week. She pulled her five young children out of school, telling them they all had doctor’s appointments.
Once they were piled in the car, she started driving. She didn’t stop until she crossed the state line into Vermont, with nothing but the clothes the family was wearing.
Nineteen years later, she can clearly recall the fear she felt that day.
“I was scared, very scared,” she said. “I underestimated myself. I didn’t think I was strong enough.”
Carol—who asked that her name be changed to protect her and her children’s identities—was one thousands of women assisted by Women Helping Battered Women in Vermont. Last year, 2,052 adults and more than 2,700 children moved through the nonprofit’s system.
“I got a lot of support from the shelter,” Carol said. “I don’t know what I would have done without them.”
Although she now volunteers with Women Helping Battered Women, there is still one program that helps her and her kids—the Holiday Program.
Adopting a child for the holidays
During the holidays, Women Helping Battered Women helps match each child in its system with local sponsors who provide gifts for the child. The program lists 255 children, many of whose lives have been overturned by domestic abuse.
Women who leave abusive situations often leave financial security as well. They don’t have enough money to make ends meet, let alone provide gifts for their children.
Carol’s two youngest children—a 15-year-old girl and 12-year-old boy from a subsequent marriage—are on the adopt-a-child list.
“If I didn’t have it, the kids wouldn’t have Christmas,” she said.
A car accident several years ago left her unable to work, and she supports the family as a single mother on disability payments and the children’s father’s Social Security.
Also on the list in Carol’s 2-year-old grandson, a little blond boy with dark eyes and a big smile. The son of one of her older daughters, he has lived with Carol since the state called and told her she had half an hour to take him—or it would—since his father is what she described as “an untreated sex offender.”
Carol describes her grandson, who lives with her, as a “lovey kid,” always ready to snuggle. On his list is anything with Sesame Street favorite Elmo on it.
“He loves Elmo,” she said. “He’s easy to please.”
Her daughter is a “ very smart, bright kid,” involved with several school clubs, including the debate team. Her youngest son is 12, and has medical needs that send him frequently to the hospital. They both love reading and have asked for books.
“What I hate the most is when my kids ask for something and I know I can’t give it to them,” she said. “It breaks my heart.”
Michelle Hough has been volunteering with Women Helping Battered Women for 10 years, and has also helped out with the holiday program.
“They just add a richness to my life I don’t think I could get anywhere else,” she said of the women she has met through her work.
“Their lives are changing,” she said. “We focus on a model of empowerment. We really want to help people make healthy choices for themselves.”
Hough said the organization focuses on giving options, not advice.
“We want them to be able to be safe and independent with themselves and their children and grow and heal past the trauma they’ve experienced in order to contribute and live happy healthy lives.”
Hough said people can still sign up to adopt a child for the holidays, though she noted that Women Helping Battered Women services are separate, and also need donations and volunteers.
The American Lung Association office in Williston typically adopts one or two children each year, said Rebecca Ryan, director of health education and public policy. This year, they are providing gifts for a 10-year-old boy.
“We usually go shopping as a group,” she said. “It’s fun, and it makes us all feel good …. It reminds us what Christmas is all about. Not so much the gift, it’s the act of giving.”
Carol, who volunteers frequently at WHBW, urged people to get involved any way they can.
“It’s hard to watch kids (in the shelter) over the holidays, I wish I could bring some of those kids home,” she said. “I know they miss home and want to be home but can’t be there. I know what that feels like.”
For more information, visit www.whbw.org.