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A Summer of Empowerment

1 in 3 women in the United States are raped at some point in their life. It’s a frightening fact. This past summer, I went on the Yahel’s Repair the World Onward Israel Service-Learning Initiative program, based in Be’er Sheba, Israel. Over the course of my 6-week stay, I traveled the country meeting with different non-profits and volunteering at a local women’s shelter. I know it sounds typical to say that a service program was life changing, but I have very few other ways to describe my experience. For the first time in my life, I left for a trip not knowing what I would be doing every day, I went in with no expectations, but, I am happy it happened that way because the program helped me to grow and mature more than I ever thought possible.

Over the course of the trip, we volunteered with our assigned local organizations every Sunday through Wednesday. I volunteered at a Woman’s Shelter where my days were filled with mentoring a 14 and 15-year-old girl in the morning and programming for 6-9 year olds in the afternoon. It sounds like a rather easy job, but when you don’t speak the same language as the children, have not experienced the same emotional abuse and stress, and were raised in a very different culture, nothing comes easily. Every morning I had no idea what families would still be at the shelter or what emotional state the children would be in. I never knew what to expect, so I simply knew to figure it out when I got there each day. This shelter was for abused women and their children. In Israel, only 12 families are allowed in a shelter at a time, and they must be approved and placed by social workers. All the women living the shelter were subject to physical, sexual, financial, emotional, or immigrational abuse by the men in their life. A typical stay at the shelter is between 6 to 8 months, but the women can leave whenever they decide they no longer want to be there. There were days when I would walk into the shelter and find that mothers and their children had left. One day, a social worker even came into my classroom and took a brother and sister upstairs to leave. Their older siblings who had stayed behind had pressured their mother into going home. The older siblings stayed behind because the shelters rarely allow kids over 10 to come to the shelter. Boys over 13 are rarely allowed in because they typically side with the father or could be potential risks for the younger female children.

On the first day of working in the shelter, we had a 4-hour lecture about abuse in Israel. Its challenging to describe how I felt after this first session. The majority of me felt numb, but I also felt rejuvenated and ready to provide the kids with positive memories of their summer in the shelter. While I loved working with my 6-9 year-olds, the most impactful part of my volunteering was the mentoring. Every morning I switched off mentoring two teenage girls. Luckily, both spoke good English. When I first met with them, I told them several things. First, the summer was theirs, so anything they wanted to do, we would try to figure out a way to do it. In shelters, there is a lot of focus on the mother and the younger children. Teenagers are in an awkward middle place and get very little time and attention. I felt it was important to provide each girl with her own time where all the attention was on her. The second thing I told the girls was that I would answer any question they had, from favorite musicians and TV shows, to boys and family problems; I wanted to show them that sometimes it is okay to discuss tough subjects with others and that its okay to open up. I worked to create programs and lessons teaching the girls to be empowered and to not let their past restrict them. All three teenage girls in the shelter absolutely loved Beyonce, so we utilized her as an empowerment tool. The girls analyzed her personal qualities and compared them to the kind of woman, mothers, and wives they one day want to be. The girls analyzed song lyrics, wrote journal entries, and by the end of the summer were opening up to me and treating me like a friend. Towards the end of the trip, the girls were asking for specific activities. For example, one of the girls I worked with loves The Vampire Diaries. She began giving me homework assignments to watch the show and would remind me throughout the day so that the next day we could discuss the episode in full detail.

One of the most important ideas of my program was to learn how to create sustainable service initiatives. After all, it makes no sense to go into a place, stay for a couple of weeks, and then forget about the people and the project. I took this goal and translated it into my work at the shelter. I worked with each girl on creating a scrapbook about her favorite things and what we did together. I created Pinterest boards for each of them and let use my computer searching for recipes, pictures, and quotes for hours. Then, the weekend before we left I compiled all the pictures into books that each girl and I had designed. For one girl, I included a list of all the things she wants to do before she dies. I thought it was important for her to know that this tragic upbringing shouldn’t hold her back. She was only 14, spoke perfect English, and wants to become a doctor. She had no reason to be kept from that dream. For the fifteen year old, I created a book of mainly recipes. Before leaving her home for the shelter she had loved baking with her friends whom she could no longer speak to. I didn’t want that passion to end, so she now has about fifty recipes to test out and share with all of her new friends.

The day we left the shelter was difficult. Over the course of the six weeks we spent there we had bonded not only with the children, but with the mothers and staff as well. The mothers initially wanted nothing to do with us. By our last week, they wanted to learn the Beyonce dances we were teaching. When we said goodbye, they told me I was going to accomplish great things. You truly would have never known these women had been abused. To me, they always seemed strong. Their children were the same way. The kids asked for us to stay, wanted to hug for minutes, and were challenging to say good-bye to. I of course waited for the last minute to say bye to my metnees. And when I went to say bye one of them presented me with a letter. She had asked to borrow a computer and on her own accord typed up an entire letter in English thanking me for teaching her that it was okay to be herself and for empowering her and showing her strength. I broke down in tears. I am not a person who has very high self-confidence. I was bullied and have had to rebuild myself several times. But to hear that I had the power to influence someone else’s life in such an impactful manner was truly the greatest gift I will ever receive.  

I am still in contact with the shelter and the girls I mentored. Most of the kids I worked with this summer and their mothers have left the shelter to start their lives over again. When they have going away parties at the shelter, all the kids go around giving good wishes to those leaving. They hope that those leaving move to big houses full of toys and animals. They wish them a good life and hope they stay safe. I too can only hope that all of my kids are safe from harm, grow up to be strong, sensible individuals, and that their smiles never fade. As for me, I hope I can keep my promise to my mentees and stay in contact with them. I want to watch them both go to medical school, travel the world, and become amazing mothers. The most important thing I learned is that it only takes a simple act to change someone’s life. All I did was be myself and make a few friends. It doesn’t take much to empower those around us. You just have to have an idea that you strongly believe in. From there you can do anything your heart desires.

As of November 14, As of Friday, my cohort partner and I finally found an organization to work with for our post program project. We are very happy to be starting our Mentoring program with Higher Achievement here in Pittsburgh.

Rachel is a student attending Carnegie Mellon University. She is majoring in Social and Decision Science, minoring in Biology, and is in the Health Professions Program. She is an active member of the CMU Greek community as a sister of Kappa Kappa Gamma and is also very active in Jewish life on campus. This past summer she volunteered at a Women's Shelter in Israel and since completing the program has been working with a local Pittsburgh Organization to establish a mentoring program. You can read more about her summer experience here: http://rachelrtw.blogspot.com/
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