In rural southwest Virginia, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Deaconess Rachel Patman is on a mission to make a better tomorrow. Here, domestic abuse rates are higher than the rest of Virginia, with 10.3 cases of child abuse found per 1,000 children versus 4.8. Many people in this community have experienced violence or know someone who is a survivor of violence, including intimate partner abuse, child abuse or other violence or abuse between non-family members in the home. It is an issue that is difficult to talk about and address. Ms. Patman and the Family Resource Center of Wytheville, Va., hope to change that.
Ms. Patman serves as prevention education specialist at Family Resource Center, using her gifts and talents to develop and implement primary prevention programs for school-age children and youth. The center is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The nonprofit organization began in 1983 when concerned citizens saw a need for victims of domestic violence to have a safe refuge in the community. Serving six communities in southwest Virginia, the organization offers shelter and support to victims as well as education and resources for the prevention of domestic violence.
Primary prevention programs have emerged and grown over the past decade, largely due to a shift in philosophy. Previous prevention programs were reactionary, aimed at teenagers who would need to know what to do if they became a victim of dating violence. Donors who fund the grants necessary to support nonprofits began showing preference for primary prevention programs — those that have a goal of stopping the violence before it starts. To answer this call, the center’s staff wrote and implemented Promoting Peace, a comprehensive prevention education curriculum designed specifically for their community. Promoting Peace is approved by the Virginia Department of Health and is now being used by other prevention education centers across the state.
Instead of beginning with eighth graders, Ms. Patman now starts with preschoolers and leads programs that teach basic values: hands are not for hitting, treat everyone as though they are valuable, respect other’s feelings, respect personal space, cooperation and how to communicate. “We are starting from the beginning with how to have a healthy relationship,” she explains.
The programs for preteens and teenagers have been revamped to include more proactive tools in addition to the safety basics that were offered before. Youth are encouraged to think beyond another’s attractiveness and seriously consider what qualities they are looking for in someone they would want to spend time with. They are also challenged to name the “deal-breaker” qualities or actions that would be cause to end a relationship.
When I caught up with Ms. Patman for an interview, she had just finished delivering food for an elementary school class pizza party, one of many rewards she’s had the pleasure of handing out after piloting a new incentive-based program in elementary schools. She has discovered that pizza and ice cream can persuade even the most reluctant children to participate, and so she applied to the United Methodist Women Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner for a Cutting Edge Ministry Grant to fund incentives for a prevention contest in several local elementary schools. First graders were asked to make posters of the “Get Along Gang” and second graders were asked to make posters for “Respect Detectives.” Third graders made road signs for “Safe Spaces,” while fourth graders designed a “Difference Maker” T-shirt. Fifth graders were asked to create a superhero persona for the “Peace Patrol.” Classes were rewarded based on participation in addition to prizes being awarded to the winners of each grade level.
The contest was an overwhelming success. Pizza and ice cream turned out to be magnificent motivators as 90-95 percent of the students participated by turning in a project. Ms. Patman purchased and delivered food for 25 parties, saying, “The response was a lot better than we hoped for. Parent feedback has been appreciative, and we’ve been seeing parent help on the projects. It means that parent and child had to have a conversation, which is exactly what we wanted to happen.”
There was even enough money left over from the Cutting Edge Ministries Grant to present the guidance counselor with a $40 gift card to purchase supplies for the schools. In a community where 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, this counselor was overwhelmed by the generosity and was astonished that the money came from a grant by the United Methodist Church. “There are so little resources in the community, this was an incredible way to witness and show how we care,” Ms. Patman said.
It is difficult to measure how Promoting Peace has affected this community, but Ms. Patman believes the program is the right approach for addressing the root causes of intimate partner violence and sexual assault. By asking children to work on projects at home, the program creates a space for families to talk about issues that have been ignored. She hopes that families are able to model the values at home so that the children can take them and own them. “The best way to honor victims is to create a better tomorrow,” she said. By investing in the children of her community, she hopes to do just that.
To learn more about this program, visit Deaconess & Home Missioner Ministry.
Myka Kennedy Stephens is a United Methodist deaconess appointed as an independent information professional in the Northern Illinois Annual Conference. She is also founder and developer of Mission: Information, an online resource for library and information ministries.