It's been a time of growth at the Women's Freedom Center, and some of the bigger shifts are benefiting our smallest guests. While support of resident kids has always been our collective work, the addition of a children's advocate last fall has dramatically enhanced what we can offer kids during their stay in our shelter.

When kids flee domestic violence with their moms, some of their first needs are similar to hers: a sense of safety, clearly, and a chance just to get their bearings in a new place, often without most of their familiar belongings. Then begins the gradual process of healing, sorting through feelings about what's happened, and trying to achieve a slow return of normalcy.

Our children's advocate makes it her colorful mission to help shape first impressions, and the whole shelter experience, from a kid's eye view. For starters, her office is right beside the shelter coordinator's, and when moms have their initial conversations with staff, kids too get some one-on-one time: they're invited to have their own 'appointment' just next door, where they can cozy up in a bean bag, chat if they'd like to, and receive an age-appropriate welcome kit, which may include a stuffed animal and a night light, or perhaps a journal for older kids to decorate and then use to write or draw in. Each child can also choose some new toys and special items which will be theirs to keep.


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There's another nice surprise in the play room next door. In one corner, there is now a comfy and decorated alone-time nook (a big refurbished box, magically outfitted with curtained windows, a cushioned floor, plus books and some fun solo activities). Young kids can choose to crawl into it whenever they feel overwhelmed, or would just like some space in the midst of all the activity. It helps them learn to identify how they're feeling, and creates an acceptable way to ask for some privacy. There's even a cheery sign they can just place outside the box if they want, which says "I need alone time, please."

Downstairs is another favorite hang-out for kids — in fact one of them just created the paint-and-glitter sign outside: "It's the art room! Anything can happen!" Plus just opening the door, kids know it's a zone for some serious fun. There's a wall-sized fabric mural of a forest scene, lots of kid-made masterpieces, and all around, a multi-color assortment of supplies that invite young artists to experiment. Although there's always an adult present, the floor is allowed to stay "wild and free" (i.e. messy in this particular room), and kids love it.

It's against this whole vibrant backdrop that our children's advocate helps foster a sense of safety, self-worth, and learning among the kids. Over time she's seen the positive impact of their life in shelter. Where play may be tentative and subdued at first, there's a welcome shift to animation and silliness, as well as more inventive games among siblings. For instance, one 2 year old recently just crashed toys into each other over and over when he first arrived. After a few weeks though, he and his older sister became more cooperative and created storylines together in elaborate games.

People sometimes have the wrong impression of what it's like here, our children's advocate says. "This is not a doom and gloom place, for kids or their moms either!" Kids are resilient, and they laugh here, have fun —a s do the adults. Ideally, some really good lifelong memories are made right here in our shelter.

The Women's Freedom Center is the local organization in Windham and Southern Windsor County working to end domestic and sexual violence. Follow us on Facebook at Women's Freedom Center and at www.womensfreedomcenter.net. You can reach an advocate on our 24-hour crisis line at 802-254-6954.