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‘Sister to Sister’

Good Shepherd women’s group confronts domestic violence.

Mattie Palmore and Kari Warren hand out mirrors. Two years ago, the two employees of Good Shepherd Housing, a non-profit organization that helps people with poor credit, had a conversation about the many women who came to Good Shepherd for help finding a home but revealed that they were also struggling within abusive relationships. The conversation was more than professional, each woman learned that the other was a survivor of domestic abuse. “It’s hard to look in the mirror when you’re being abused,” said Mattie Palmore. “Because you don’t see a person.”

After that conversation, Palmore and Warren started a women’s group with the idea that through sharing their stories and listening to others’, women could learn to see someone they loved when they looked in the mirror. The group has been a success. This year, Palmore won a $5,000 Project Confidence Award from the singer and Actor Queen Latifah for her efforts. She hopes to seed similar groups throughout the state and has already traveled to Virginia Beach to advise a group that will open this year.

“It’s to empower women to love themselves,” Palmore said. “That’s the whole purpose.”

ON A RECENT SATURDAY MORNING, about 50 women gathered in the South County Center for Women’ Day 2006, the Good Shepherd group’s second annual effort to open itself to all women in the community. Early in the event, Palmore presented the group’s purple hand-mirrors to State Sen. Linda Toddy Pulle (D-36)r and State. Del. Kristen Amundsen (D-44).

“All you have to do is look in the mirror and say ‘I love myself, I know I’m grand,” Palmore told them. “Believe me, those are powerful words.”

Later in the program, Warren spoke to the women as a survivor. She made clear that the effects of abuse seep deep into a woman’s understanding of herself, and the poison does not drain quickly. As a child, she said, her ability to trust was destroyed. As an adult, abuse continued to undermine her self-confidence even after she extricated herself from another abusive relationship. “You almost feel ridiculous, [asking yourself,] ‘How did I do that? How did I put up with that?’”

Warren vividly described the sleeplessness and unpredictable anger created by post-traumatic stress disorder. But when she talked about making Dean’s List every year at George Mason University while raising her children as a single mother, she was able to express the outcome of her story succinctly and definitively. “I made it.”

Counseling was an important part of Warren’s recovery. She said she could not trust others until she found something within herself to rely on absolutely.

“Identify a piece of you they can’t take,” she told the women. “Whatever it is, find a piece of you you can hold on to.”

After she had nurtured this part of her identity long enough, Warren said, “I was ready to love myself. I was ready to accept love from a good person.”

Warren conceptualizes her strength as a place in herself. The next person to address the women, Jackie Betts, said her strength is a story. After joining the women’s group a few months ago, Betts said, “I began to tell my story. Prior to that I didn’t know I had a story.”

She described how abuse beginning at a young age transformed the person she would become. She learned to define herself through her sexual relationships. And the only relationships she had ever known were devastatingly unhealthy. “When you’re hungry for love, you hold on to what you think it is as long as you can,” she said.

She had little else to hang onto. “They change who you are,” Betts said in a stunned whisper, as if no matter how many times she told her story, its crux would always come as a shock. But when her identity finally warped one degree too far, it revealed something inside that had held steady.

A “good man” convinced Betts to marry him. He insisted on loving her when she couldn’t love herself. They had children. Then she destroyed the relationship and she tried to destroy him. “I tried to hurt him, and I knew then that this was not me.”

Betts lost her husband, but she found the path that would eventually lead her to a new understanding of love, and from there, back to herself. “The love of God,” she said, is “the thing that has really gotten me over.”

AFTER WARREN AND BETTS SPOKE, Palmore thanked neighborhood activist Mildred Corbin for the wisdom she’s shared with the group. Standing in front of her sisters, Corbin beamed. She cited a hymn verse that she said has guided her life, “If I can help someone along the way then my living will not be in vain.” Many in the audience knew the song and responded enthusiastically. “Giving back is a blessing,” Corbin told them.

Before moving on to a day of group discussions, individual counseling, massage therapy and makeovers, the women paired off to recite the “Sister to Sister” pledge, a commitment to listen to one another and work together.

“I’m hoping that they will leave with the sense that they are not alone,” Palmore said later said. “There is help. There is help.”