5 life lessons I’ve learned from working at a domestic violence shelter

I unlock the office door and set my purse down on the desk. I push the computer power button on and turn to the to-do list the case manager left me for my evening shift.

“Tonight: Ask resident in Room 101 what time her court hearing is on Friday. Vacuum hallway and disinfect door handles. Set clothing donations out for residents in common room. Remind resident in Room 109 of appointment with job and family services tomorrow. Continue online victim advocacy training.”

I check what cars are in the parking lot, taking note of any I don’t recognize. I sit down at the computer and check the evening schedule. I’m just about to start watching overnight surveillance footage when a resident comes in and asks if I can watch her toddler while she gets a load of laundry started.

Welcome to the start of a typical shift at a domestic violence shelter.

This month marks my one year anniversary of working as a case aide at a local domestic violence shelter. Being a case aide has been my first ‘real’ job out of college, one in which I get to live out my passion of helping others every day. (Not exactly sure what “domestic violence” is? Click here to learn more.)

As I’ve reflected back on the past year, I put together a list of five big life lessons I’ve learned from working with survivors of violence. These are important lessons anyone can benefit from implementing, which is why I’m eager to share them with you! 🙂

So here we go—5 life lessons I’ve learned from working at a domestic violence shelter.

1. Expect the unexpected. Expect a resident’s child to pull the fire alarm at 10:30 PM when you’re the only staff working. Expect residents to come to the office asking for very odd things (“Do you happen to have any hair grease?”). Expect a crisis call* to come in five minutes before your midnight shift ends that turns out lasting an hour. Expect to peer out the office window like a ninja trying to figure out who just pulled up in a car you don’t recognize. Learning to expect the unexpected teaches you to adopt an attitude of “However I can serve others today, I will serve.”

*When a person or friend of a person experiencing domestic violence calls seeking shelter and/or information about other local resources.

2. Have patience. Lots and lots of patience. The phone might ring as you’re trying to fax a long document while simultaneously trying to keep an eye on a resident’s rowdy child. Or a resident’s baby throws up on you after you just finished feeding him a bottle. Or someone isn’t back by curfew for the third night in a row. And sometimes residents will make life decisions that you personally don’t agree with. It can be really frustrating, but telling someone what to do and getting angry when they don’t do it doesn’t help anyone. Truly helping someone—whether it’s by sending a fax or simply respecting a decision—is about empowering them, which requires a lot of grace, empathy, and patience.

3. People are amazing. I’ve had opportunities to hear the stories of numerous survivors, and what these women have gone through and survived is incredible to say the least. What is equally amazing is the strength of their children who, in many cases, not only witnessed their parent being abused but were victims of abuse themselves. Further, it’s inspiring to see the journeys families make over the course of their time in shelter. Whether it’s a resident earning their GED, studying to get their temporary driver’s permit, getting up early every day to catch the bus to work, or working a minimum wage job to achieve self-sufficiency for their family, some of the most hardworking people I’ve ever met are survivors of trauma.

4. It takes a special kind of person to work in human services. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a staff that goes above and beyond to serve our residents with personal, compassionate care. Time and time again, I’ve seen my coworkers selflessly give of themselves even on the most challenging of days. Domestic violence shelter residents are not like clients at a typical business. They bring with them long-lasting effects of the trauma they’ve experienced, and as a human services provider, practicing trauma-informed care day in and day out is exhausting—not to mention heart-wrenching at times. Thank those in your life who put making sure people’s basic human needs are met above getting a big paycheck

5. Be more compassionate. When you learn the stories of individuals you otherwise would have never met and see how hard they’re working to rebuild their lives, you start to see people in general differently. You might not think twice about the fast food worker who took your order today, but they could be a trauma survivor living in a shelter trying to juggle working with taking care of five kids. Probably the greatest thing I’ve learned from working at a shelter is this: you literally don’t know what someone else has gone or is currently going through. So be compassionate.

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I never could have foreseen a year ago all that working at a domestic violence shelter was going to teach me, besides the technical aspects of the job. But the lessons I’ve learned from residents and staff have truly been invaluable. Every experience in life has something to teach us, something to grow us in. This has certainly been true of my job.

Even if where you are in life right now isn’t where you want to be or where you thought you’d be, take a moment to reflect. In what ways have you grown from the experiences you’ve had? What advice would you offer to someone in a similar situation? What have you learned about yourself and others through the process?

Because as I discovered, turns out you can learn a lot.

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