I’ve been missing my girl a lot. More to the point, I’ve been missing the 11 year-old she was seven years ago. So I decided to do a bit of time-traveling last week and hang out with Girl Scout Troop 73037 based at the Ward Elementary School in Newton. My friend Joanne’s daughter is in the troop and Joanne sensed that as the days got shorter I needed some girl energy the way some people need sunshine. She invited me on one of the troop’s field trips; it involved food so I was keen to go.
The girls and their indomitable troop leader Karine are on a mission to observe how things work. One way they do that is to peek behind the scenes at various businesses. I accompanied the girls to Jonathan’s Bar & Grill in Newton, and was so in awe of the complicated choreography of getting a meal to a table, I didn’t check my cellphone once.
I had a new appreciation for the salad and seared ahi tuna that I ordered that afternoon. I think the girls looked at their food differently too. But what I was most taken with was the way these girls were literally on the verge of young adulthood. I could see the changes coming. In not so many years they would be entangled in crushes, maybe first love. They’d be grappling even more deeply with body image and sexual identity. As young women of the 21st century there would be times they would be at risk and other times they would feel empowered.
An hour after I left those sweet Girl Scouts I sat in Elizabeth Schön Vainer’s office at Jewish Family & Children’s Services. Schön Vainer is the director of the agency’s To Safety Program and it’s well worth reprinting Journey’s poignant mission statement.
Journey to Safety’s mission is to prevent domestic abuse in the Jewish community, while helping those who have been abused find a way to safety, regardless of their background or beliefs. We offer culturally competent, religiously sensitive services to survivors of domestic abuse, with specialized services for the Jewish and Russian-speaking communities. Information, support, referrals, and other resources are available for all domestic abuse survivors, including teens, seniors, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBT community.
I met Schön Vainer a couple of years ago when I was invited to learn more about the work of Journey to Safety. One of the distinct memories I have of that meeting was the eclectic group of women who came together. We were social workers, attorneys, nonprofit executives or just concerned women. Some of us were survivors of domestic abuse. The meeting happened in the wake of a tragedy—a relationship between two Wayland teens that had ended in murder. The young woman’s boyfriend had harassed her for months both physically and emotionally. And one night, after they had broken up, he stabbed her to death. Post- break up, particularly for teens, is a proven time of great risk for dating/domestic violence victims. The abuser wants ultimate control by keeping them in the relationship. Sadly, this young woman agreed to meet with her abusive ex-boyfriend in a remote place
That story exemplifies one of the critical reasons that Journey to Safety has recently piloted a peer-led program called TeenSafe. The program bears out research showing that over 80% of teens would sooner tell a peer than an adult about an abusive situation. That statistic has spurred Schön Vainer and her team to recruit a girls leadership group that has been trained to help other teens see their way out of dangerous, controlling or violent relationships.
Training teenagers to identify the inner workings of a healthy relationship is a natural outgrowth of Journey to Safety’s mandate. But the work to educate and prevent domestic violence begins even earlier. Journey to Safety has begun reaching out to girls and boys in middle school through a specialized curriculum. Schön Vainer explains that
For young teenagers we introduce the concept of relationships. What are they? What are the expectations in a relationship? We help them tease apart what makes them feel comfortable and uncomfortable in a relationship. The discussion inevitably leads to talk about establishing boundaries.
The curriculum is also unique for the way it brings together Jewish values and pop culture. A Katy Perry song in which the singer finds the strength to leave an abusive situation is offered alongside two powerful texts that frame a context for looking at relationships:
In the image of God, God created them; male and female [God] created them.
Whoever destroys soul, it is considered as if he or she destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if she or he saved an entire world.
“Abuse,” adds Schön Vainer, “is also about taking someone’s choices away. With younger teens that’s a nuanced conversation.” As she said this, I scribbled in my notebook that I hoped and prayed that the Girl Scouts of Troop 73037 and their peers would know when and how to save a life. And that they would always have choices and delight in those choices the same way they did on an early winter afternoon at Jonathan’s Bar & Grill.