A Lesson in Humility: The Importance of Empathy in Volunteer Work

Volunteer Management / Wednesday, April 25th, 2018

A conversation with SAFEHOME operations manager, Desiree Long


“If he beats you, why don’t you just leave?”

That’s the question, stated or implied, that plagues victims of domestic abuse. It can be difficult for people to understand why anyone would choose to stay with an abusive partner. Leslie Morgan Steiner, Harvard graduate, author of Crazy Love and Mommy Wars and abuse survivor offered a succinct and surprisingly simple explanation in her 2012 Ted Talk: She simply didn’t see herself as being abused.

While many of us have trouble understanding this seemingly lack of self-awareness in victims of abuse, it’s important for volunteers, domestic shelter staff, advocates and even family members to recognize that our unconscious bias could have negative consequences for the very people we’re trying to help. In fact, the most dangerous time for a person in an abusive relationship is after they’ve made that difficult decision to leave. Studies show that up to 75% of abused women who are murdered are killed not during the relationship but once they’ve ended it.

Studies show that up to 75% of abused women who are murdered are killed not during the relationship but once they’ve ended it. Click To Tweet

That’s why shelters are such vital (and sometimes one of the only) resources for victims of domestic abuse and their children. Often, these survivors escaping abuse have no money, transportation or housing; they literally leave with little more than the clothes on their back. Providing a safe place, money, counseling and, above all, a judgment-free environment, is crucial to helping them rebuild their lives.

Desiree Long, operations manager for SAFEHOME, a shelter in Kansas that provides emotional and financial support for survivors of domestic abuse, knows firsthand how important these safe havens are for survivors and their families.

Long left a successful corporate career at General Electric to work as a client advocate at Hope House, a domestic abuse shelter in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. She was drawn to the work because of her own family history of domestic violence. Both her brother and brother-in-law currently serve time for domestic abuse crimes.

Even though Long didn’t have a degree in social work or any experiences in social services, she knew people needed help and she needed to be ready to meet them where they were emotionally. Over the years, she’s gained a lot of insight and experience that she shared with VolunteerMark.

Have perceptions of your work and your clients evolved over the years? Was there any moments that stand out in that evolution?

I know the general perception of clients at domestic violence shelters is a negative perception. That negative perception, however, can go both ways. Some people may see our clients as victims, while others see them as using the system. Either way, that is not how I see our clients. Our clients are strong, they are survivors, and they are resilient. They know how to survive and get their needs met.

Some clients come to us with challenging behaviors, and staff and volunteers are often frustrated with these maladaptive behaviors, but we always come back to the understanding that these are the behaviors they have learned in order to survive. If those behaviors become unsafe for our environment, we may have to ask them to relocate and that is always challenging.

When we have to make that tough decision, though, I am often reminded of just how strong, resilient, and resourceful our clients are. When I am feeling particularly frustrated or judgmental about a client or a situation, I come back to a moment I had with a client early in my career.

I had fallen into a place of judgment about how our clients spent their money and didn’t save so they could transition and become independent. I was working with a client that I knew didn’t have many resources, and I saw she had her nails done. I was frustrated, but I complimented her on her nails anyway. She said “I know I shouldn’t spend my money on my nails, but, I do it to feel better about myself. No one ever compliments me on anything except my nails, and I need to have that in my life.” That is a conversation I will never forget and it is a conversation I come back to frequently when I feel frustrated.

A lot has changed in the domestic violence service world in the past seven years. I have experience at three different domestic violence agencies, and in that time I’ve moved from a client advocate role to a manager role. When I started in this field, policies at shelters were far more controlling than they are now. Although social justice advocates Emi Koyama and Lauren Martin published a power and control wheel that represents how agencies can exert power and control over their survivors in 2002, agencies have been slow to respond and adapt.

Often, agencies are reluctant to adapt less controlling practices by grantors. For example, in recent years, some granting agencies have required recipients to accept people of all gender identities in their programs unless the program can demonstrate its facilities would not be able to practically adopt such a policy. Most grants also now require programs to be low barrier, meaning they can’t require residents to participate in case management, therapy or support groups.

I am fortunate to work at SAFEHOME where we have enthusiastically worked toward reducing the power and control we exert over our residents. We want our residents to make their own decisions. We try to evaluate our policies frequently to make sure we are not restricting the agency of our clients. My understanding of my role has changed from that of an active enforcer to one of a passive influencer or facilitator.

How do you train volunteers to be emotionally and intellectually ready for the job?

Our agency has a strong volunteer program, headed by our volunteer manager, Susan Lebovitz. She provides an extensive eight-hour training and orientation to our new volunteers every quarter. We also provide on-the-job training for volunteers in whatever capacity they adopt as their home base (events, childcare, hotline, front desk, donations, etc.). Susan works with the volunteers during the orientation to educate them on domestic violence, trauma and allowing clients to make their own choices.

What traits are particularly well suited to volunteering at a shelter?

  • Flexibility is key. Understand that when you arrive, there may be total chaos or there may be down time, and you need to be open to that.
  • Lack of judgment. You also need to understand that survivors need to be free to make their own choices, and the shelter should be a judgment-free zone. Also important is a strong understanding of secondary trauma and how that can affect both the volunteer and the staff as they can get burned out too.
  • Service oriented. Be able to offer friendly and unconditional service to clients; understand and be open to the idea that sometimes we need to say no.

How do you help your team deal with compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue and secondary trauma are real and experienced by staff and volunteers every day. Sometimes we combat it by using dark humor, which can be confusing to outsiders, but if we can’t laugh, we can’t manage the stress. We also have generous time off for staff and flexibility with volunteers. We take breaks and pass the torch when we realize we are burned out. We do frequent education on secondary trauma and encourage staff and volunteers to identify their triggers and ways to cope with those triggers in the moment.

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned in your role?

The greatest lesson I have learned is a lesson in humility. You can’t know what other people are experiencing, and you can’t compare your experiences to theirs. Our behaviors and decisions are influenced by everything that has come before. We have to learn to meet people where they are, knowing their life experience is different than yours, often without knowing what that experience involves. Don’t make assumptions, don’t make comparisons and don’t assume we are all approaching the situation from the same place.

What’s the best way to help the shelter?

Honestly, money 🙂 Gift cards are super helpful. Our residents often don’t have health insurance or transportation, and that is especially hard for us at SAFEHOME because we are nowhere near a bus line. Gift cards to Quick Trip help our clients find friends and family that can help them with transportation. Gift cards to Hy-Vee help us buy medicine for clients that don’t have insurance (we have a relationship with the Hy-Vee on 95th and Antioch). Apart from money, other donations that are very helpful are earbuds, alarm clocks, pregnancy tests, and beauty products (perfume, makeup, mascara, eyeliner, etc.).

Volunteering is also very helpful. In the shelter, we really love volunteers that come to us with a specific project in mind. For example, making a meal is always a need; Planning a special event such as an Easter Egg hunt, craft night, movie night, game board night, Santa visit. We also always appreciate the more physical house tasks like painting a room. Anything is helpful!

Click here to learn more about SAFEHOME and the services they provide.

Desiree Long has a BA in Sociology and English and an MA in English. She’s worked at General Electric, Hope House, Synergy Services, the University of Missouri, Kansas City and is currently shelter operations manager at SAFEHOME.