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Vickroy: Summer camp more than fun and games for children from violent homes

A child works his pipe-cleaner flag Thursday during summer camp Crisis Center for South Suburbia.  |  DonnVickroy/Sun-Times Media

A child works on his pipe-cleaner flag Thursday during summer camp at the Crisis Center for South Suburbia. | Donna Vickroy/Sun-Times Media

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Want to help?

In addition to its Neat Repeat resale shops in Worth and Orland Park, the Crisis Center for South Suburbia hosts fundraisers. On Aug. 12, it will host its annual Dianne Masters Cup Golf Outing at Silver Lake Country Club. The 4th Annual Bavarian Fest will be Sept. 27 at Marrs-Meyer American Legion in Worth. For more information, call (708) 429-7255. The crisis center also is seeking donations for its summer camp program. Sand art kits, stepping stone kits, water tables, nursery rhyme CDs and DVDs, chalk boards and play parachutes are among the items on its wish list. For more information or to schedule a drop-off time, call (708) 429-7255, Ext. 126.

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Updated: August 7, 2014 6:44AM



You might say the frightening, unplanned pregnancy saved her life, and that of her toddler son.

When she learned she was pregnant again, she made plans to give up the baby for adoption. Determined not to bring another child into the home where she’d been physically and verbally abused for more than two years, she made arrangements with an agency to take the child soon after birth.

But once the baby was born and she’d held her and cuddled her and counted all her fingers and toes, the young South Side mother had a change of heart. So, with the help of several local social service agencies, she made a change of plans.

Because she is still in the throes of starting a new life away from her violent husband, she has asked that we not identify her, so we’ll call her Jane.

Today, Jane and her two children live in temporary shelter at the Crisis Center for South Suburbia. Though she’s only been there a few weeks, already her future has taken a dramatic turn for the better. She has found a job and has plans to get on the center’s list for transitional housing. Equally important, her 2-year-old son is getting the help he needs to learn how to be a toddler again.

“He’s been extremely clingy,” Jane said. “He does not like strangers. He cries all the time. He just wants me to hold him all of the time.”

The behavior, she said, is a direct result of the abuse he’s seen and heard at home.

Through therapy and a summer camp program, Crisis Center for South Suburbia staff are helping him build confidence, develop social skills and broaden his comfort zone. Like they do with all of the children of abuse who come to the shelter, the professionals strive to develop healthy behavior that will not only give these kids a chance at a productive future but break the cycle of abuse.

An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults, the coalition states.

“It’s important to point out that domestic violence is a learned behavior,” crisis center director Edward Vega said. That means it can be unlearned.

The Crisis Center for South Suburbia is marking its 35th year in service, 22 at its current location. In addition to a temporary emergency shelter, the center offers court advocacy, counseling and partner abuse intervention programs.

Last month, the center was awarded a $100,000 grant from Impact 100 Chicago. That will enable the 35-bed facility to renovate its dated sleeping quarters as well as update its kitchen and living room.

“Our goal is to put ourselves out of business,” Vega said. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen in our lifetime.”

In 2013 alone, more than 2,000 women and children received services. Many of the recipients were given shelter at the facility, others received counseling at the center, and still others benefited from one of the nonprofit’s many community outreach programs.

A woman mopping a floor interrupts her chore to tell me her story.

“I’m finally out of an abusive situation,” she said, explaining that she now is back in school, learning computer security. “I’m closing the door on abuse, and this place is why. This place is a godsend for women. People really need to rally around and support this place.”

As disturbing as the adult stories are, it’s the children who’ve been swept up in the madness who really tug at the heartstrings, Vega said.

“At any given time, 50 percent of the occupants here are children,” he said.

A big part of getting the young survivors onto a healthier path involves replacing bad habits with good ones.

Dr. Ieisha Taylor, clinical psychologist at the shelter, said many of the children of domestic violence, like the abusers they fear, have poor conflict-resolution skills. She recalled one little girl who beat her doll with a ruler because, the girl said, it had been bad and wet itself.

“Children mimic what they see,” Taylor said. “So we try to teach them another way.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as teaching them manners,” Taylor said.

Children who are consumed with surviving life tend to not know how to share, take turns or say “please” or “thank you.”

Laura Calkins, licensed children’s therapist, said there’s no set way for kids to react to domestic violence. Some kids will exhibit anxiety, some will act out in school, some will become depressed. Children of abuse may struggle with nightmares, bed-wetting or a fear of trying new things.

But because there is a tendency for a mother to return to an abusive relationship at least seven times before she makes a permanent break, among the first things she teaches children who come into the shelter is how to be safe.

“I don’t know how long I’m going to have them, so right away I tell them that domestic violence is not their fault because a lot of the kids do blame themselves for not being able to help Mom,” Calkins said. “Then I teach them how to call 911 and how to develop a safety plan, whether that’s locking themselves in a room or calling a neighbor.”

Calkins also sits in on the center’s summer camp program at least once a week. On this day, the children were making American flags with red, white and blue pipe cleaners. But, Calkins pointed out, they were also learning how to share glue sticks, how to work together and how to communicate with others. Once their craft was complete, they formed a line and marched in a holiday parade around the facility.

Renee Rogers-Williams, director of clinical and prevention services for the center, said many children who live with abuse also need to learn how to celebrate a holiday free of alcohol abuse, yelling or dangerous behavior.

She said kids who are either bullied or who bully at a young age are likely to become abusers at a later age. Therefore much emphasis is placed on prevention.

The Fresh Start Teen Dating Violence Prevention Program provides early intervention and education to high school and grammar school kids. Counselors talk about violence and safe dating practices. They help teens understand the difference between being caring and being controlling and between love and possessiveness.

“The main reason for abuse is power and control,” Calkins said. “Adult clinicians help the women regain power and confidence. We work with the children.”

Rogers-Williams said the camp program began five years ago because they noticed early on that many kids needed to develop better social skills.

“We thought camp was a good way to do that,” she said. “I wanted something a little more structured and I wanted it clinical-based so we could observe and see what needed to be done.”

The best results come from working closely with both mother and child, she said.

“We have one little boy who falls down and cries when things don’t go his way,” she said, referring to Jane’s son. “We’re trying to teach his mom not to give in to that kind of behavior.”

Using bad behavior now to get his way will only teach him to use bad behavior later to get his way, she said.

On the flip side, learning good social skills now will teach him how to cope when things don’t go his way. It will also set him on a course toward healthier relationships when he gets older.

Already, Jane’s son is showing improvement. He participated in the flag craft as well as the parade. Little by little, Rogers-Williams said, he is gaining confidence and learning how to be independent.



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