Becoming a volunteer can be an impactful and fulfilling experience. There are a large number of volunteer opportunities at local domestic violence programs and in the communities they serve. Often there is a lot of work to do, but not enough staff to complete it all. Sorting donations, answering phones, cleaning, landscaping, and leading support groups are just a few of the volunteer options that might be available at your local program.
If you are considering becoming a volunteer there are a few things you should keep in mind:
- Training on the basics of domestic violence as well as background checks can seem overwhelming, but is important and necessary before you start to volunteer. Domestic violence shelters have rules and guidelines that are easy to follow that can reduce the likelihood that a victim will be found by her abuser.
- Because confidentiality is extremely important, you might not be able to work directly with clients.
- Your job as a volunteer may not seem like much, but it can provide a valuable opportunity for staff to sit down for lunch or dinner, complete a report, or have an uninterrupted talk with a shelter resident.
What roles can a program volunteer play?
1. Administrative Support
Many domestic violence programs lack sufficient clerical support. In most cases the available staff has to focus on making sure the crisis line or phone lines are answered and that the front desk is staffed at all times. Because of this, non-emergency clerical tasks may often be put aside. As an administrative support volunteer, you could assist your local program by performing numerous administrative tasks such as filing, copying, data entry, record keeping, stuffing envelopes, article & photo archiving and other general daily office duties.
2. Group Counselor/Facilitator
Domestic violence is a traumatizing experience. Having the opportunity to speak to a counselor helps survivors process feelings, thoughts and fears. Many local domestic violence programs are fortunate to have licensed counselors on staff that can provide individual or group therapy to help survivors process traumatic memories or experiences on their journey towards healing. However, many programs lack the necessary funding to hire counselors to meet all the program participants' needs.
A volunteer shelter counselor can provide support to staff, help facilitate/co-facilitate group or individual counseling, lead art therapy sessions, and provide support and advocacy to women and their children residing in the shelter. These individuals may be licensed counselors, clinical social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists or other active or retired mental health professionals that have a passion for the cause. They possess much needed skills that include: talking with survivors in crisis, performing suicide risk assessments, offering individual or group therapy, addiction counseling, life transition support, mental health assessments, and developing treatment plans.
The National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma and Mental Health has developed many materials that provide tools and information for mental health providers on how to be responsive to domestic violence. The Special Collection, Trauma-Informed Domestic Violence Services offers guidance on this practice.
3. Hotline Operator
Most domestic violence programs manage a 24-hour hotline. Hotlines are the primary means of contact for victims of abuse and others in crisis needing information and support. Volunteers are trained to answer hotline calls, assist callers with safety planning, accessing shelter, or other services, and making community referrals. Some agencies may offer hotline volunteers the ability to work from home and shifts may be as short as one hour.
If you would like to learn more about the experience of being a hotline operator, read A Day in the Life of a Domestic Violence Hotline Operator from Verizon Wireless. This interview highlights the experiences of the Director of Hotline Services for the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
4. Translator or Interpreter
Translators and interpreters help break language barriers that prevent many from accessing much needed services. Interpreters and translators are an integral part of any organization that provides services to diverse populations. An interpreter in a domestic violence program can enable effective communication not necessarily by translating every word, but by conveying the ideas that are expressed in a way that is socio-culturally accurate. Translators can help enhance the accessibility of documentation and outreach materials by offering culturally appropriate translations. Some of the responsibilities of a translator or interpreter include acting as a liaison between non-English speaking, Deaf, or hard of hearing clients and advocates during intakes, counseling sessions, or court hearings or translating forms, documents, and outreach or training materials.
5. Event Planner
Volunteer event planners can organize special events for women and children receiving services from the local domestic violence program or for the communities they serve. Examples may include pizza parties, talent shows, job fairs, and health fairs. An event planner can also help with fundraisers and commemorative events to raise community awareness about sexual and domestic violence.
For guidance on how to organize awareness events visit the Domestic Violence Awareness Project (DVAP). The page includes a section about key considerations, a searchable events database, and instructional handouts for event replication.
If you are a savvy shopper you can volunteer as a weekly shopper for your local safe house. Since the majority of shelter residents are in an undisclosed location for their safety, the staff usually does all the household shopping. As a volunteer shopper you can help alleviate some of the workload for the safe house staff.
A volunteer shopper may collect grocery lists and grocery gift cards from the safe house staff, research where to find the best prices for the needed items, and then purchase them. The volunteer shopper must be able to make independent decisions regarding the cost and brands of food items. For example, selecting an alternative brand or close substitute of a food request if there is a sale option available, or substituting an item when a requested item is unavailable. For more information on the food-related needs of survivors in shelter, access the NRCDV TA Guidance, Domestic Violence and the Holidays: What's Cooking?
7. Child Advocate
Childcare is among some of the most important needs of survivors of domestic violence. In one study conducted in Kansas at the Docking Institute of Public Affairs, a significant correlation was found between not getting services and not having access to childcare (Zollinger et al., 2007). Research suggests that early childhood intervention can help to prevent or reverse early harm to young children from exposure to domestic violence (Cohen & Knitzer, 2004). Volunteer child advocates can support and reinforce the parenting role of the survivor, and promote effective coping that might reduce the need for child placement or for more formal mental health interventions.
Individuals with an interest or background in working with children can consider donating their time and services by volunteering as a child advocate at a domestic violence organization or appropriate childcare center in their area. Activities may include leading storytime or playtime, facilitating support groups, coordinating field trips or outings, producing a talent or art show, or helping to organize a summer camp program for children exposed to domestic violence. Before working or volunteering, individuals who have little to no experience in the domestic violence arena are strongly encouraged to connect with their local domestic violence programs to learn more about this kind of work.
8. Pet Care
Many domestic violence programs are unable to provide shelter for pets. Because of this, survivors may delay their decision to leave their abuser or return to their abuser in fear for the welfare of their pets or livestock (Ascione, 2007). Pet sitters can provide support for those programs that are not equipped to handle pets. Volunteer sitters can provide alternatives to giving up a beloved pet, leaving a pet behind in a potentially dangerous environment. Some shelters are equipped to accept families along with their pets through the SAF-T™ program, Sheltering Animals and Families Together. Volunteers at these programs can help with meeting pets' basic needs and by keeping the living facilities clean and comfortable for pets.
Sheltering Animals and Families Together (SAF-T)™
Sheltering Animals & Families Together (SAF-T)™ is the first and only initiative guiding domestic violence shelters on how to house families together with their pets. The SAF-T™ Start-Up Manual sets forth three housing styles and answers questions about how to safely house pets on-site at a domestic violence shelter.
Safe Havens, a Project of the Animal Welfare Institute
View the Safe Havens Mapping Project for Pets of Domestic Violence Victims. The entities included in this listing either provide sheltering services for the companion animals of domestic violence victims, have a relationship with an entity that does, or provide referrals to such facilities.
9. Public Speaker
Public speakers can help educate the community and normalize the conversation about domestic violence by presenting information on the issue and services provided by local programs. Local programs may invite speakers to present at various community outreach events including health fairs, local seminars or conferences, and other community-wide events.
Speakers who identify as survivors can offer a unique perspective that can be particulary impactful. With guidance and support from a local domestic violence program, survivor speakers can gain the tools needed to deliver a powerful and hopeful message to the community.
NO MORE is a national campaign and unifying symbol designed to galvanize greater awareness and action to end domestic violence and sexual assault. NO MORE encourages people to speak out against violence and harassment in families, communities, workplaces, and schools by saying "No More." The NO MORE website provides access to an activist toolkit.
It's Time to Talk Day
Hosted by Break the Cycle's Love Is Not Abuse Campaign, It’s Time To Talk Day is an annual awareness day that aims to generate conversations about healthy relationships and prevent teen dating violence and abuse. Resources and tools to faciltiate discussion include a Conversation Guide and Talk-a-Thon Guide.