Shelley’s story

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By Jennifer Towell

From the DisAbled Women’s Network Canada

“Shelley has told me and written letters to us about how DAWN has saved her life. When I am tired or overwhelmed with all the work we have to do, I call Shelley for inspiration and she reminds me of why we do this.” 

- Bonnie Brayton, Executive Director of DAWN-RAFH Canada

Shelley is a volunteer who has an unusually personal understanding of the needs of vulnerable women.

At the age of nine, she was raped three times by a 16-year-old neighbour and her childhood came crashing to an end. When she was 13, she succumbed to a rare illness that robbed her of her adolescence. As an adult, Shelley has continued to experience major losses and deals with disability and poverty—and the often-related disregard—on a daily basis. Yet through her faith and by reaching out, she has found support and personal awareness, prompting her to help other women. “I do have my bad days, but they do pass,” says Shelley, who will turn 40 next year. “There is light at the end of the tunnel.”

From the imaginary photo album – “Shelley and women’s shelters” – The first picture shows Shelley, her mother and older sister at Anderson House, PEI’s provincial shelter for abused women and children, in the early ‘80s. Shelley is a pre-teen. Her mother has left her father, but will later move back with her girls.

Shelley speaks evenly and displays a prodigious memory as she recounts her story. Though she admits to ongoing nightmares, she has obviously gained much perspective on her past. When she was raped as a child, she never told anyone because her abuser threatened to kill her beloved dog, who was her closest companion at a time of major life changes and resulting isolation. Until her late 20s, she suffered further incidents of sexual abuse by neighbours, relatives and men she dated, and each time found herself frozen by the fear instilled during the first incidents. She also realized early on that her mother had also experienced sexual abuse and either would or could not help her.

Photo album – Second picture: 1988, Anderson House. Shelley is feeling threatened following abuse. She turns to a familiar resource.

Her health issues prevented her from earning her high school education and a full sense of independence. Shelley suffers from a disorder of the parathyroid glands, which are responsible for maintaining the body's calcium at the level required by the nervous and muscular systems. From age 13 to 17, Shelley was tired, depressed and unable to keep down food, and spent more time at hospital than at home. Doctors removed three of her parathyroid glands but a fourth has eluded them to this day. In addition to the effects of the disorder, Shelley battles with arthritis and the cumulative effects on her health of injuries from two car accidents in the last 10 years. She needs walking aids and has to carefully manage her strength and energy.

Photo album – Picture three: 2007, Anderson House. Worn out from the stress of dealing with a difficult tenant, Shelley has had to temporarily leave her marital home. In the years since her last stay here, she has lost considerable mobility and is grateful that the shelter, while located in an older building, has a ground floor room to accommodate her.

In September 2007, Shelley left her husband of 10 years because he had repeatedly cheated on her and let her down in times of need. She first stayed with friends, but they were also experiencing major problems. Shelley broke down and spent some time in the hospital. Then she moved to an apartment building where, in January 2008, a man was brutally beaten outside her door. When the perpetrator of that incident set a fire in the building, Shelley had to find a new place to live.

Photo album  – Picture four: 2008, Grandmother’s House, a smaller shelter in Charlottetown. The name likely had particular meaning for Shelley, whose first and most fondly remembered home was with her grandparents in New Brunswick. While Shelley found good emotional support at the shelter, the lack of ground floor rooms posed a serious problem as she had to navigate the stairs on crutches.

Since April, Shelley has been living comfortably in a one-bedroom ground-floor apartment with her beloved cat Princess. She is unable to hold a regular job, but when not sidelined by illness or depression, she is far from idle. In addition to studying towards the completion of her high school education, she works hard on behalf of others. She is a DAWN Board member and the Coordinator for PEI. She is also active with her church and with other groups including PEI People First, which advocates for the intellectually disabled. Her volunteer work is not only satisfying; it also provides her with an important social network.

Photo album  – Two recent photos depict Shelley not as a shelter resident but as a DAWN coordinator. In one, she is visiting Anderson House to help develop an honest assessment of its accessibility to women with disabilities. In the other, she is receiving a speaker from the shelter at a monthly meeting of the DAWN PEI chapter.

Shelley is not living happily ever after. She will never outgrow her past horrors nor be cured of her present disabilities. But her experience and insight allow her to speak up, for her own benefit and that of others facing similar challenges. And she speaks of the possibility of making a living cooking for others, in their homes.

Last photo – It’s taken at the 1st World Conference of Women Shelters in Edmonton, September, 2008. Watching a poignant play about abuse, DAWN representatives introduce themselves to their table-mates… and learn that they hail from Anderson House in PEI. The scene is filled with tears, hugs, recognition—and hope. Even when she’s not in the picture, Shelley is, at last, being heard.

Jennifer Towell is a freelance writer and works as a Senior Administrator at McGill University