A Witness and Volunteer with a Story to Tell

This piece was written by guest blogger Alessandra Jimenez*. Aly is a child witness and volunteer here at CORA. We’re proud to be part of the complex, healing and powerful process of telling her story. 
*All names have been changed for this piece.

 

Alessandra “Aly” Jimenez, recently graduated from Skyline College with an Associate of Arts degree in English. Alessandra, an aspiring writer, unsure of her next step in life, heard about CORA’s volunteer program through a family member. After learning about CORA, the sole domestic violence agency in San Mateo, Aly began volunteering in August 2015. She felt apprehensive, yet extremely excited to start because she had never submitted her written work to an agency. Aly volunteers for the Development department and continues to learn new writing techniques each week.

As nervous as she was, Aly never fully realized how CORA would help her in her own healing process. Aly was born four and a half months premature as the result of a domestic violence conflict. Sometimes her childhood felt anything but normal. The lack of normal experiences started from the very moment Aly was born. Her mother Jade started to feel labor pains after getting into a physical argument with her husband. Forced to leave her home with no shoes or help, Jade eventually made it to the hospital. For three days, Jade struggled to keep Alessandra in the womb. By the third day, Jade had no other choice but to deliver the baby. Alessandra was born in 1992, barely weighing a pound. Aly was so tiny she could fit in the palm of her mother’s hand. Miraculously, Aly was more physically developed than most premature babies at her stage. She had a full head of hair, fingernails and strong lungs. However, this did not mean Alessandra’s birth was free of complications.

Aly was only a newborn when she endured her first surgery in a string of many. The first procedure she had done was to shut an underdeveloped heart valve. Although her surgery was successful, doctors still needed to monitor her health and growth rate. Aly spent the first five months of her life in an incubator. After reaching the weight of six pounds, her parents were finally permitted to take her home.

At the age of two, Aly was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy (CP). Doctors claimed she would most likely never be able to walk, speak or do much of anything in terms of mental capacity. As a result of CP, Aly remains wheelchair bound to this day. However, with help from her mother and her grandmother Ellie, she made several developmental strides throughout her youth. Aly consistently learned new objectives and grew stronger every day. She began Early Childhood Education as a toddler, where she made friends. At the time, Aly was happy, but she quickly realized how different she was from her peers. Although she was in a special education program, she felt different because there were not many other students in wheelchairs. When she turned six years old she began attending a mainstream public elementary school in 1998.

Throughout her youth, she experienced a multitude of surgeries that became a blur over the years. It was one corrective surgery after another as a result of her Cerebral Palsy and, later, her scoliosis. The exact years and specific procedures are difficult for her to remember, but her visible scars remind her every day of the pain she endured. Thirteen scars mark her body, stemming from six major surgeries. For a time, as difficult as some aspects of her childhood were, parts of her childhood were great. She looked back fondly at times she had with her family when they went to Nevada every year to see the snow. She also remembered a time she and her family went to Disneyland for the first time in the winter of 2000. Despite the fact that it poured sheets of rain for a week, she still had a lot of fun.

Aly’s happy childhood shattered in 2003. Her parents began the processes of separation, divorce and custody. Aly, Jade, her sister Rose and Ellie were forced to leave the home they had lived in for over a decade to move away from her father, Matthew. Unfortunately, it was not simply just the divorce or the move that caused Ally to feel like her entire life was forever changed. It was the reason behind the divorce. The custody issue was quick and easy since Matthew wanted to have as little time as possible with his daughters, but the persistent arguments between Jade and Matthew only complicated the situation. Aly did not understand why her parents were both so angry at each other. They fought and yelled loudly at one another. But Aly and her sister Rose never saw it as anything more than verbal anger spewed back and forth throughout their thirteen years of marriage. Occasionally Aly was curious about the state of her being. Questions about why she was in a wheelchair or why she had CP would pop up every so often when they were driving in the car. During those times, Jade would explain that she had the flu or that she fell over a vacuum cleaner. It was not until the following year, in 2004, that Aly finally learned the actual truth about her father and her parents’ marriage.

Aly’s father, Matthew, a child of domestic violence himself, pushed Jade over a vacuum cleaner for not wanting to do housework at his request. That single event caused Jade to not only have a fractured rib, but also caused her to give birth to her premature daughter. Aly’s disability was set in that moment. Her first reaction was utter disbelief, but then she thought back to previous years when Matthew would curse Jade out, cursing at her in every way possible. Aly also learned that her father was a serial cheater and liar. Anger bubbled up inside her like puss in an infected wound. She was furious at what her father not only did to her mother, but to her as well. Aly had to live every single day in a wheelchair because of Matthew, who also continued the cycle of generational and familial abuse. By 2005, Aly and Matthew’s relationship was mostly severed. Matthew was absent from her life for several years with the exception of texts on her birthday every year.

Life seemed easier for a time up until 2007, when Aly’s scoliosis became so severe that she needed major surgery – a spinal fusion. Before Aly could even get the surgery she needed to regain the weight she had lost months prior. The exact number did not matter, but the reasons behind her actions did. She could not control her own body at times. As much as she grew to hate her father, there was this negative little voice in her head which was not her father’s. It was her voice and it influenced many of the decisions she made. Her weight felt like the only aspect of her life she could control, so she adopted some unhealthy eating habits. Part of the reason behind her decision was because she hated her body as a teenager. However, with some help from her doctor, mother and her mother’s boyfriend, Adam, she got the help and treatment she needed to become strong enough for surgery. While she did not blame everything on her father, his abandonment weighed on her heavily.

Like many children of domestic violence, she felt like it was her fault. She believed she could have done something more to help her family. Aly also wondered why she felt like her father never really loved her. Matthew gave her the answer to that question after she spent seven years wondering. A couple of months after her eighteenth birthday, Matthew sent her an e-mail. In that e-mail he spoke of an ultimatum as to whether or not she really wanted a father in her life. Similar to the incidents she’d seen with her mother, Matthew cursed Aly out while he also explained his extreme desire for wanting sons rather than daughters. He also mentioned that he did not want a daughter like her, someone who was disabled.

Aly was instantaneously crushed. Instead of delving back into a dark place in her mind, she decided to apply for college. There she found her passion for writing. Aly formed new friendships and after a year and a half she found her first love, Josh. It took a while for Aly to open up her heart to him, because she did not trust people easily. She was very aware of the warning signs of an unhealthy relationship. Aly was nervous and her father’s words broke her spirit. There were many times when she did not feel confident enough in herself or her abilities. Fortunately, Josh and her mother were both really positive influences in her life. Writing not only became her passion, it served as therapy. After hearing about CORA and completing the necessary training needed to volunteer, she hoped to use her skills to help others at CORA. Little did she know, through her volunteering, CORA would help her heal too.

After completing the forty-hour DV training, she was grateful to understand more about domestic violence. From the lessons learned at the DV training, Aly realized she was not the one at fault. Although she still carries the pain of abandonment and verbal abuse from her father, she realizes she was never responsible for her father’s actions or emotions. Those scars are the only ones that are not visible but, like all her other scars, the pain remains. Nevertheless, her past turmoil and scars give her strength to keep going.

As of today, she is happy and proud of how far she has come. Aly admires her mother for her strength and for simply being there for her every single day. Jade’s journey ties directly in with Aly’s journey of life. The next step in Aly’s path is to write down her story – no matter how uncomfortable it may feel to her. Aly hopes her work and her story will someday aid in the fight against domestic violence.

The Importance of Volunteering

Like many volunteers, my motivation for volunteering was hard to pin down. To others, it seemed wild that I would willingly spend weeks on end learning about issues like sexual assault, domestic violence, and human trafficking. But when I found out about the opportunity to volunteer with Monarch Services in Santa Cruz, CA while I was in college, I jumped at the chance. These issues had always been important to me, and I was thrilled at the chance to be there on the front lines to support people who have experienced these issues, educate the community and turn my passion into action. I worked on their 24 Hour Hotline and did community outreach on my campus and in the community. It was such a rewarding experience, I knew I wanted to stay in this line of work. Of course these are intense topics, but I knew the only way to change the world and end issues like domestic violence and sexual assault was to step up and participate in the fight. Volunteers are motivated by their desire to be the change they wish to see in the world, and I was no exception.

Volunteers-Tabling

When I joined AmeriCorps VISTA and became the Volunteer Coordinator with CORA, I was excited to work with people who felt that same passion and to help turn their passion into action. Volunteering is rewarding for so many reasons, but it really does take a special kind of person to sit through dozens of hours of training (40 hours to be exact), and then spend more hours each week working to end domestic violence. Vicarious trauma is real, and while we do our best to emphasize self-care, this work isn’t for everyone. It can be disheartening to see the ugliest parts of our society up close – but it can also be immensely rewarding to be surrounded by talented, passionate people who are working to support survivors and victims. Our volunteers work on the Crisis Hotline, accompany clients to court, work with the children of our clients, give presentations to the community, and more! Each one combines their passion for this issue and their unique skills to support CORA in our mission to end domestic violence.

Volunteering takes a lot of time, commitment, and strength, but it has a lot of perks too! Many of our volunteers go on to graduate school in areas like social work, marriage and family therapy, and law, and their time with CORA undoubtedly gave them the skills and knowledge to turn their passion into a career. Volunteering also benefits CORA as an organization. Our staff are all wonderful, talented people, but like all people, they need support. Volunteers help answer the Crisis Line when staff are in a meeting, they go to resource tables and spread the word about CORA in the community and bring fresh and new ideas to the staff. Best of all, sometimes our volunteers eventually join CORA as staff.

Volunteers-Completing

We appreciate everything our volunteers do, and try to show that appreciation in various ways. Staff and volunteers work closely together, and those close relationships are essential to the work we do. From thank you cards to just a simple, “Thank you” now and again, sometimes the smallest gestures mean the most. We also honor our volunteers in a formal way every spring with our Volunteer Appreciation Event. We award three special volunteers with either the Wolfklain Commitment Award, Skill Based Award or Impact Award, and honor all of our volunteers with certificates of appreciation. It’s a unique chance to show our volunteers how deeply we appreciate the work they do, and a fun chance for volunteers and staff to socialize outside of work.

CORA is always happy to have more volunteers, and most of our volunteers get started in our 40 Hour Domestic Violence Training, which takes place in February and August of every year. We are always happy to spread knowledge about this important and help individuals become agents of change in our community. Volunteering is a great way to support CORA and your community, while joining the fight to end domestic violence.


 

Erica
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Erica West is an AmeriCorps VISTA and Volunteer Coordinator with CORA. She graduated UC Santa Cruz in 2014 with a degree in Psychology. She is passionate about domestic violence and sexual assault, and enjoys traveling and going to brunch.