Upon my return to Nashville, TN to support my family during a time of crisis, I worked for several months at the YWCA of Nashville’s Domestic Violence Shelter. Since I needed to be available during the day to take my mom to her chemotherapy treatments or provide any other type of support, I chose to work at the shelter as an Overnight Counselor.
One of my weekly duties was to fill supply request orders for the shelter guests. I must admit that I fully enjoyed stocking bags full of supplies. It gave me a sense of power, that I could do something in the present moment to help. Even though women were navigating their survival and safety, at least I could fill an immediate need in a matter of moments.
Our facility was organized brilliantly. It was obvious that many women had put their love into making this process as easy and organized as possible. There were staff members before me, some that I would meet, others long gone, who had been thinking well about the guests that would need the shelter’s resources well into the future. Residents were escorted to a space to pick out their own clothing items, chance decided if a person could find their size, let alone their taste in clothing. Plus size clothing and shoes over a size 8, maybe 9 were always in high demand, but low supply.
We used a request list, that named the toiletries and grooming items on hand. Single women, as well as women with children communicated to me on this small sheet of paper, the necessities that might make this temporary dwelling a bit more like home. It was my job to fill this particular supply request overnight, so that the items would be available by morning. Shampoo, diapers, wet wipes, lotion, lipstick, acne cream, face wash, curling irons, blow dryers, hair color were just some of the things that could be requested, and supplied…when we had the items. Items specifically for Black women were always low in supply. I took some time while I was there, to make a list of the types of items Black women needed in particular, and shared that with the interim donations coordinator. My suggestions were heard, but I was made to understand that those supplies were donations, and we could only give what we were given. I can’t tell you how many times a woman wanted a relaxer or some hair gel, and I had to let her know we didn’t have those items. It was hard to explain to my staff mates, that shampoo and conditioner, didn’t fully satisfy Black women’s needs for hair care. The small combs designed to fit discreetly in a purse, were not meant for our hair.
I am writing this so that we may all shift our perspective about the needs of women in shelter. We often think of our donations, as a way to do something that makes us feel good, but mostly as a way to clean out items we no longer have use for. Certainly, in the age of reuse and recycle, it is good to pass along the gently used items that might be a tremendous blessing to someone else. But if you had to run off from everything you know and love, all your stuff, what would you want waiting for you when you finally reach your oasis? What things, would make you feel relief, and ease the terror that has been at your neck from the moment you decided to make a run for your life?
Women in shelter need everything, the exact same things women need outside of shelter. We group all vulnerable people together, and have a general sense that they should be grateful for what they get, and make the best of it. But, your brand and style of tampons are not about preference, it is your need. Your particular type of body lotion, the shea and cocoa butter infused variety, isn’t an extra – that is what you need to take care of your skin.
Women in shelter, women dealing with intimate violence are expected to have their lives interrupted, and to just adapt to that interruption. Part of our hope of services for survivors of domestic violence, is to allow them to put a life back together -a life that includes building new relationships, locating housing, and finding new jobs or maintaining the ones they have. Isn’t it best if these tasks can be negotiated with confidence, in a manner that maintains dignity? So then what can we do as friends, family members, coworkers, employers of women who may need shelter services, to make sure that the experience of violence has the least impact? What can we do to make a Black woman’s shelter stay as easy as possible? What can we do to communicate that her safety is important, and that she deserves the best help, services, care and love?
Click here to view the Nashville YWCA’s wish list and contact information. Please contact your local shelter, for a list of their individual needs.