For 25 years, girls and women have been coming to me for help: the young intern who was touched inappropriately by a professor; the student who was sexually abused by two male relatives; the elderly woman who escaped from her physically-abusive common-law partner while he was at the barber; and the young mother who was emotionally, physically, and verbally abused by her husband and members of his family.
The latter, a 30-year-old, came into my office to make a difference to women escaping violence. But a few probing questions led to a flood of tears. It turned out that after a decade of abuse, she had mustered the courage to leave a horrific and impossible situation.
She was crying because she was now being forced out of the shelter, and she had no job, no food, and did not know how she was going to support her children. The reason she had to leave is because she had been there for some time, and a shortage of violence against women beds and a lack of affordable housing means women are sometimes moved into transitional housing before they are ready.
Her son sat beside her, rolling his eyes, and repeatedly suggesting she should do her duty, and go back to her husband, who did not work and did not contribute child support. I bit my tongue and bided my time.
Over the next hours, we got in touch with the shelter, the transitional housing, the Salvation Army for a weekly food program, a job placement program, and then we took her shopping. We filled the car with whatever supplies she needed, from blankets to cutlery to pillows to pots and pans. And when it was time for her to leave, I asked if she would be alright until the next week when we saw her again. She said simply, "Yes, because we have toilet paper now."
Her son then spoke to me impatiently and rudely: "Lady, you need to let me volunteer here for school."
I, in turn, explained that I did not, in fact, have to do anything, and that if he wanted to volunteer for me, he would have to show me that he was ready, and that he was capable of serving the community. He glowered, and said, "What?"
I explained that he would have to write me an essay on "Why Mommy Is a Superhero".
"Lady, I don't get it. Are you serious?"
"Oh, I absolutely am. I can only have people here who take the time to understand others, hear and listen to them. I need you to spend some time on figuring out why your mother is so special, and how you can best help girls who are your age, and how you can better support your Mom at home."
I never expected to see him again, and I certainly never expected an essay. But a while later he was back, with an apology and the assigned homework. He hung his head, and said: "I learned something writing this."
I lifted his chin, said I was proud of him, and asked him if he would read it to me. The essay explained that his mother had always kept him and his siblings safe no matter what she had endured, that she always had food ready and that they never went hungry even when she did, and that his mother was stronger than his father because she took them away from a really bad place.
He continued that it was not easy for his mother, that she had to go to many classes at the shelter, and it was at these classes that he overheard her cry for the first time. The essay finished with his saying that when he got married he would treat his wife like a superhero.
That extraordinary boy did volunteer for us, and I think of him particularly during Canada's sixteen days of activism against gender violence. He worked hard to learn about violence against women and girls, its warning signs, how to help victims, and really wanted to help in prevention.
I always liked his idea of a national art or story contest for elementary students on "Why My Mommy, Sister, Aunt is a Superhero" to teach children to respect women and girls.
Tonight and throughout the next two weeks, as I light a candle in my window in memory of those women and girls we have lost to violence, I also remember all the superheroes in my life, and make a wish for a better tomorrow for all women and girls.
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