Back in the spring of 2020 I was filling out the placement forms in order to help my program manager secure a ten month learning experience for me at an agency. I wasn’t set on one agency or area of work, I was open to learning what was out there. When I received word that I had secured an interview at Optimism Place, I was terrified! I had been educated in the area of women’s issues and domestic violence along the way, but had little knowledge of how a shelter operated. After the panic and anxiety subsided, I reminded myself that the places I know the least about, will have the most to teach me. I went forward embracing the unknown and discomfort.
I am a Bachelor of Social Work Student at Renison University College. I started my placement in mid-September, working three days a week. I have been trained as a front line crisis worker, and do a lot of the same duties as the full time staff. When I started my placement I assumed I would be observing for at least the first semester. I was wrong. The team at OP puts their trust in students and values what each of us have to contribute to the shelter. After my initial training was complete, I was interacting with the women in the shelter, making referrals, and answering the crisis line; with shaking hands and sweaty palms I should add.
I was astonished by how close the management team works with the other staff members. Everyone is constantly connecting while working off site, and jumping into front line roles when necessary. This is a type of leadership I have not witnessed before, and I can see how it creates a positive work atmosphere. The colleagues I have been able to learn from amaze me with their ability to be non-judgemental, compassionate, and to genuinely care about each of the women whom they work with. They are always willing to debrief situations with me, and seek ways to enhance my learning.
I have learned a lot from the women who stay at the shelter as well. It amazes me to see these women come from such hardship and yet be able to care for their children, attend meetings with staff and other agencies, and find the silver lining in the toughest of situations. Interacting with them and being able to witness their strength and successes, has to be the best part of the job.
Unfortunately, the global pandemic has had an effect on the shelter, and therefore on my learning experience. I am finding that the masks and shields create a physical barrier that makes it more difficult to build rapport with women. The shelter has also been forced to change many of its policies to ensure everyone’s safety. Working from an anti-oppressive lens is essential in this setting, but some of the necessary policies are creating oppression for women. It is difficult knowing that we have to contribute to their oppression for the time being. I was moved to an online placement during the recent stay at home order. I was still able to attend team meetings and complete some very informative online training. Nothing compares to learning on the job while interacting with the women at the shelter, and having other staff right there to support me
Being at OP has been a great experience so far, I am grateful for this opportunity and everything I have learned. The most eye opening thing I have witnessed is the challenges that women face after they leave an abusive relationship. The hardship continues as they navigate the systems in our society that continue to oppress them. I am beginning to realize just how much work still needs to be done advocating for a more equitable society.