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Holiday Guide

Surviving Christmas

Making the most of a holiday spent in a domestic violence shelter

Photo: Daniel Krall, License: N/A

Daniel Krall


Whether your Christmas is totally secular or steeped in questionably hygienic manger births, if you celebrate the holiday you have some family traditions. Some good (watching A Christmas Carol by the fire), maybe some not so good (Dad setting off the fire alarm trying to build said fire) , but the holiday simply doesn’t feel right without these touchstones.

Now imagine having to leave your home days before the holidays, just you and your kids, with little more than the clothes you’re wearing. Instead of family, you will spend this holiday surrounded by strangers. Instead of being home with the decorations you unbox every year, you will be trying to turn a spartan dorm room into a festive place for your children. Instead of giving the presents your kids spent every day since Halloween begging for, your fondest hope is to have something, anything, for them to unwrap on the 25th of December.

At the House of Ruth Maryland, this scenario is all too common. Every year more victims of domestic abuse come to the shelter over the holidays (and at every other time of year) than it has space to house. And the shelter’s staff has to try and make Christmas the most wonderful time of the year during what may feel like the worst time in their clients’ lives.

Director of Client Services Janice Miller has worked at the House of Ruth for 12 years. For roughly eight of them, she was the Residential Clinical Director, watching these scenes unfold with alarming regularity.

“The holidays are a really difficult time for our families,” Miller says. “Starting in November, all of the ads, everything you see, all the messages that you get are about families together.” Abusive husbands and boyfriends will often use this against their partners, claiming that if the family is separated for Christmas, the children will be devastated. But the greeting-card image of domestic holiday bliss rarely comes to fruition in these households.

“There’s a lot of emotional and mental abuse that occurs around the holidays,” Miller says. “There are always stories of abusers who threw the Christmas tree and the presents out the day of Christmas or spent the money that was for the Christmas presents on something else.”

When a woman does find the strength to leave, she must face all the difficulties associated with escaping domestic violence. How will she support herself and her children? Where will they live? How will she keep them all safe? On top of those concerns are ones that may seem trivial but mean the whole world to a small child. Will her children have presents? And how will she answer the inevitable question, “How will Santa know where we are?”

While House of Ruth’s staff members can’t provide answers to that last question, they do try to address as many of the others as possible. In support groups, women work through safety issues and deal with the sense of loss that separating even the most dysfunctional family can cause.

The staff also do their best to make the Yuletide gay. Groups of volunteers help the children create handmade gifts for their mothers, come teach the women how to make Christmas decorations. Donors take the children on a cruise around the Inner Harbor. Church groups host holiday parties.

But the cornerstone of Christmas at the House of Ruth is the Adopt-A-Family program. Community members sign up on the organization’s web site, hruth.org, and get matched with a family in need. Families put together a gift wish list for each family member—though Miller says the mothers rarely ask for anything for themselves—and the adopters buy presents for the family off the list. The presents are delivered over three days in mid-December and volunteers go through the items and get them to the families in time to wrap up for the big day.

And it’s a lot of families. The shelter holds 84 people in emergency, short-term, and long-term housing, but that is just a fraction of the number of families the organization serves. There are also families that have a place to live but need counseling or legal services. The total being served by the Adopt-A-Family program is generally in the 300 range—not 300 individuals, but 300 families, mothers often with a passel of children to care for. Last year more than 1,000 individuals received Christmas gifts through the Adopt-A-Family program. And this year there will be more families than usual, since the House of Ruth added the Adelante Familia program for Latino families dealing with domestic violence, founded by St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore. This adds approximately 80-100 families to the total.

The economic downturn could also add to those numbers. “The recession has been a two-punch problem for us,” says Cheri Parlaman, director of development. Contributions have decreased for the House of Ruth, and Parlaman adds that “as other agencies faced those same issues, they had to cut back services and in some cases closed down completely.” The result is more families knocking on the House of Ruth’s door.

“We’re really nervous about this year,” says Jana Mauro, associate director of development and the organizer of the Adopt-A-Family program. “In previous years we’ve had just enough.”

In the past, adopters have gone above and beyond the call of duty. Parlaman recalls one family that adopted a family with children the same ages as their own and gave the House of Ruth family all the same presents they gave their own children. Last year, all the gifts were dropped off despite a water main break that blocked the road to the shelter and a snowstorm that piled drifts shoulder-high.

After the presents are received, volunteers come to the shelter to help with gift wrapping. Even though the mothers rarely ask for anything, the shelter gives them robes, slippers, and journals to go with the crafts their children make.

Christmas Eve tends to be the most festive day of the holiday season in the shelter. There is generally some sort of fun event, and the kitchen staff and residents turn donated food into an elaborate holiday meal. “The kids get all sugared up,” Miller says. “It’s really fun to see them all excited.”

Everyone goes to bed late that night and, like parents everywhere, House of Ruth residents try unsuccessfully to sleep in on Christmas morning. Miller says the opening of presents tends to be a private experience, shared with only the family in their dorm rooms or one-bedroom apartments. But once the presents are unwrapped, slippered feet pad into the common area looking for batteries to make toy cars go and scissors to cut dolls out of their cardboard prisons. Some people go to church, some go see family, some stay and admire their booty. “It’s a very laid-back kind of day,” Miller says.

The moments that stand out for her are the little ones, like the relief on a mother’s face when she realizes that children don’t really care about the lack of a Christmas tree.

“There’s always someone who will say how peaceful it is,” Miller says. “If they were at home, they’d be being yelled at or being hit or the abuser would be throwing the presents out of the house or trying to pawn the game system the children just got.”

“It’s nice to be able to provide that safe haven. Those are the families I feel get the most out of the holidays at the shelter, the ones that really realize how good it is to be safe,” Miller says. Because the sad truth, she says, is that “living in the shelter is not the worst thing that can happen on the holidays if you’re in an abusive relationship. That’s why we’re here.”

For more information about the Adopt-A-Family program, go to hruth.org. You must register to participate. Adopt-A-Family drop-off days are Dec. 16-18.

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