I’ve been so privileged over the past seven months to have had the joy of meeting and interviewing directors and advocates of organizations that are truly making a difference in the world. For the month of June, I wanted to focus on something that may hit closer to home for a lot of women. I sat down with Billi Lacombe, the director of Faith House right here in Lafayette, to talk about domestic violence and how it affects women.
Billi has been the director for Faith House for sixteen years, working for the organization a total of twenty years now. Such longevity is not common in the non-profit world, so I quickly applauded her faithfulness. She explained that it was no accident that she was drawn to work with Faith House. “I had a childhood history of living in a home with domestic violence, and I had also experienced domestic violence myself in highschool, so I’ve always had a passion for empowering women. I didn’t know, as a child, that women had the right to say no, that they could say it wasn’t okay, that they could pick themselves up and move out of a situation if they needed to. I never saw that.”
Deciding to pursue her dream of empowering women, Billi went to college to become a paralegal. “That’s how I kind of tripped upon this work,” she smiled. “A person I went to school with worked for Faith House, and she said I needed to come work here. So I ‘accidentally’ ended up at Faith House- but it wasn’t an accident! It really was a calling! I think this is what my life is for!”
Statistics say that one in three women will be abused in their lifetime, so I asked Billi how many of those are likely to find help. “It’s so hard to say, and it’s horrifying. About half of the women I’ve spoken to have accessed a shelter or other kinds of services to help them get out, and the other half either just found their way out of it on their own, or they stayed in the situation. There is such a bias against accessing help, especially depending on what your belief system is. It could be contrary to your status in the community to reach out and tell someone that there is a problem in your home. There really is a lot of bias that women have to overcome before they understand that it’s not okay to be abused. No one should have to live that way. What we do is try to fight against that bias. The most effective tool is a woman who has reached out for help and found empowerment and knows that it wasn’t her fault, that it was okay that they got help, and they talk to other women.”
According to Billi, men can be part of the solution, too. “We have some amazing male advocates out there. Activism against domestic violence has traditionally been a women’s movement- and it should be. It’s an issue that is overwhelmingly experienced by our gender. But there are so many male advocates that are supporting, cheerleading, lifting us up and pushing us forward. We have to embrace them. They also help to hold the offenders accountable, and that has helped to bring significant change in our movement over the past ten years.”
Domestic violence is not just a physical assault. “The more we have learned about this issue, the more we understand that it can actually shape the way your brain is formed, which affects your life skills in the future, your ability to make decisions, etc. When you delve into a person’s past and discover that they grew up in a home with abuse, many times their brain has formed differently than others’. This is a scientific fact.”
She continued, “A report called ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study) studied thousands of people who had issues in their childhood homes. When CT scans were compared between those that had grown up with abuse and those that did not, the psychologists found that the decision-making part of the brain in those that grew up with abuse was physically formed differently than those that did not. They had less impulse control, greater probability of substance abuse, and undeveloped coping skills that would manifest as mental illness. Domestic violence dramatically affects a person for their entire life. One of the most devastating facts about this is that for many children, they never have anyone to show them any different. It just becomes a way of life, and they don’t know any other way.”
Faith House is responding to this issue by taking preventative measure for young people who have grown up in an abusive environment. “We do teen dating violence curriculums that teach young people about healthy relationships, but what I have learned over the years is that you cannot teach someone to not be a victim. No one enters into a relationship expecting to be abused. They start dating someone, they care about them, they fall in love with them, and then the abuse starts happening. No abuser sits down on the first date and says, ‘I’m going to hit you and stalk you for the next ten years.’ That’s not how it happens. I think abusers can sense vulnerability and prey on people that are vulnerable. I’ve seen a lot of women who grew up in very healthy homes- strong women, empowered women- be in abusive relationships! So we have to start looking at the other side and begin teaching boys not to be abusers. It’s more than, ‘You don’t hit girls.’ It’s how to be respectful of women and how to treat women equally. And when they do offend, when they do abuse, society has to hold them accountable for that.”
At this point, Billi offered up a challenge that I hope every adult reading this article takes deeply to heart. “I think that adults have way more impact on children’s lives than we realize sometimes. You may encounter a child at church for just a couple of hours every Sunday, but something you say to that child that lets them know you care about them and lets them know that you want something better for them if they are in a bad situation- something sticks with those children. It makes a difference when they grow up. The reality is that there are so many families that don’t have anyone to help kids who have grown up experiencing abuse. You may be their teacher at school, you may work at their school cafeteria, you may just be someone they encounter, but what you say and how you treat them makes such a difference in their lives.”
So how do you help a little girl grow up to be an empowered woman? “I think we need to teach girls to be okay with speaking up for themselves. Often the message we give to girls is that if a boy hits them, ‘Oh, he just likes you!’ or ‘He didn’t mean that!’ or something like that. Instead, we need to tell them, ‘I’m glad you told me. It’s not okay for someone to hit you. You deserve more than that, and if someone ever does this again, you need to tell someone!’ That is the message we have to give to girls, that it’s okay to say no if they are uncomfortable with something. We’ve taught girls for so long to be nice and sweet and ignore things that make them uncomfortable, but we can’t do that anymore. So many girls are afraid of being rude, but you’re allowed to be assertive and direct to protect yourself! We must teach girls that it’s okay to say no, and we must teach boys to respect her ‘No.'”
I asked Billi how someone can help a woman in an abusive relationship. “One of the most important things you can do is not alienate the victim. A victim will often conceal it or take the blame for things, so if you approach it by saying, ‘I know you’re being abused, and you need to get out,’ that is the worst thing you can do. They will push you away because you found them out. The best way you can help is to say, ‘I’ve noticed some changes in you, and I’m worried. I want you to know that I’m here for you, and I won’t judge you. Please stay in contact with me.’ Something as simple as that lets them know that you’re not going to try to tell them what to do, but you’re there to talk to if they want that. If they do come back and say, ‘Yes, I’m being abused,’ that you refer them to us” (or your local domestic violence shelter if you are not from Lafayette) “because she may not be ready to completely get out. We can offer her counseling and support and help her make her own decisions.”
Faith House offers women resources to set them up for life after leaving abuse, such as housing subsidies, career training, counseling, and legal advice. If you are local, they always need volunteers to help by bringing household donations, cooking meals for survivors, teach life skills classes (like couponing), painting and decorating the bedrooms, cleaning the dog kennel, etc. Billi reassured me that every volunteer position is a necessary one. “Sometimes volunteers don’t understand the significance behind a menial task, but it’s part of empowering a woman! If you volunteer to organize clothing donations, you are giving a woman the dignity of being able to choose nice clothing for herself in her size that isn’t smelly or full of holes. That task has significance.”
I asked Billi what she would say to any reader that wants to make a difference. “Be open. Accept people where they are, and love them. No matter what they’ve done, what they’ve been through, you love them and you listen to them and you support them- however they want to be supported, not the way you think they should be supported. When you can do that, you can truly make an impact on their lives.”
A great big thank-you to Billi Lacombe for chatting with me and sharing such incredible insights! To learn more about Faith House, make a donation, or volunteer your time, check out their website.
Chat next week,