The Power of Support Groups
“It’s about being a better version of yourself and figuring out how to do that,” says Andrea Jenkins, LCSW, who works with two support groups at Coburn Place. Andrea is part of a team of three licensed clinical social workers who have been working together with domestic violence survivors for 13 years.
Coburn Place has three weekly support groups and one monthly family group, which are now held over Zoom. Domestic Violence 101, run by Kimberly Rusununguko, LCSW, is the first stop for survivors, where they learn about the cycle of violence and work on their mind, body and spirit. “Often, they don’t even know how they got here,” says Kimberly. “They often make the connection that they’ve seen ‘this’ all their lives – somewhere in their families, in their communities – and they got here because they thought it was normal. That is quite a revelation for many of them.”
Often, survivors come to the Domestic Violence 101 group still in the throes of their situations. Many have children or intimate emotional relationships with their abusers they are struggling to curtail or end.
“We also address the other ‘addictions’ that come with abusive relationships and look at the whole picture,” says Kimberly. “Because if people don’t account for their part in what happened, they will keep going round and round in the circle. We really try to move them from being victims and survivors to being victors.”
Andrea runs the New Beginnings support group, which tackles next steps and adjusting being independent for the first time. “One thing I try to do is give them tools and address things that might come up along the way. Health is a good example,” she says. “Most of these women get out of these relationships and have health issues because they never took care of themselves – they are often excellent caregivers but not self-care givers. We are helping them build new skills.”
The Kidz Club, run by Jamie Rogers, LCSW, is fun with a purpose. “We provide a lot of education because many of the kids have experienced trauma because of parents’ decisions and choices,” she says. “We talk about how to cope with some of the effects – like anger. They learn to handle it and how to pick out the feelings they’re feeling. We talk about peer pressure and bullying. We focus on hygiene because self-esteem is helped when they care of their bodies and are watchful of how they look.”
It’s a form of therapy that doesn’t necessarily look like traditional therapy, but they’re involved in a group with other children that have some of the same experiences. “It helps them to bounce around ideas and thoughts,” says Jamie. “Sometimes kids give each other ideas on how to cope. And the kids at Coburn Place become their own little support system. They look out for each other.” She says many children are conflicted. “Kids know when someone is being treated right or wrong, but it’s hard,” says Jamie. “They see the abuser not being very nice to their loved one, but it’s still someone they love who possibly does things for them and takes care of them. We help them figure out how to process those emotions.”
Jamie and Andrea team up to host a monthly Family Night group. “Family Night is a chance for moms and their children to practice skills together,” says Jamie. “In our first group of the year, we talked about healthy behaviors. They learn about their bodies and how to cope with stress and anxiety. Andrea taught them some yoga poses. It’s an opportunity to bond and learn new things together. It’s also good for parents to hear what we’re telling the kids so they can continue the teaching at home. And the child can see that mom is trying to get better and do better as well.”
“It gives them the opportunity to make new memories and intentionally spend time together,” says Andrea. “We show them fun activities that cost very little – things mom will be able to afford and be proud of and continue to do after they move on from Coburn Place. It’s about the bond between parent and child.”
Support groups at Coburn Place, like all our programs, are voluntary. Since they went virtual during the pandemic, attendance is down, and Kimberly, Andrea and Jamie want more survivors to attend and take the opportunity to gain skills and learn from each other. “They can let their hair down and be authentically who they are,” says Kimberly. “Part of the problem is many survivors don’t know how to receive support. They have literally been beaten down – physically or emotionally – and they are like ‘Wait, you’re here because of me? For me?’ That’s a whole different level of fear, and they wonder what we want.”
“Whether they’re adults or children, part of why people go to therapy is to figure out how to cope with situations they’re in,” says Andrea. “It also helps to recognize their experience isn’t just happening to them, that other people who have had similar experiences are OK.”
Many exciting moments happen in Coburn Place support groups. “Sometimes you can literally see the lightbulb going off,” says Kimberly. “This is a unique opportunity for women who, for many reasons, have shied away from other women. It’s an opportunity for them to develop those healthy relationships. We know all personalities don’t always mix, but they learn to navigate those differences. And we hold them accountable. We don’t sugarcoat things. The point of therapy is growth.”
Since Kimberly, Andrea and Jamie all focus on domestic violence work and understand the dynamics, the emotional support they can give as a team is rare. They’ve heard it all. “We can pull from that to give real-life support and, because we’re all clinical social workers, we are a wealth of resources in addition to our therapeutic knowledge,” says Andrea.
The team agrees the biggest challenge of going virtual has been the loss of the connections they made when they were in the building several times a week. “All three of us have very different personalities, and they don’t get to see that and learn to trust us,” says Andrea. “We aren’t in the hallways or in the parking lot reminding them to come to group.” She encourages survivors to attend support groups regularly. “Part of life is showing up for yourself, so take this opportunity to show up for yourself. Whether you participate or not, you will always walk away with something.”
“I would encourage them to just give it a try,” says Kimberly. “I can absolutely see why it would be daunting for them to click a link not necessarily knowing who’s on the other end. But we’re supportive and nonjudgmental, and we’re there for them. We don’t want anything. We just want you to come, to heal, to be a part of this.”