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An Online Resource Library on Gender-Based Violence.

How can I incorporate experiential or alternative activities into summer programming with domestic violence survivors?

Friday, July 01, 2011

by Patty Branco, Senior Technical Assistance & Resource Specialist for the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence

It’s summertime and the weather is getting warmer. You may be thinking about reasons to be outdoors or ways to shake things up by adding more physical activities to your routine. As a domestic violence advocate, you may be thinking of introducing some fun activities and programming to engage shelter residents. Recently, the NRCDV was contacted by an advocate seeking creative ideas for shelter programs. Another advocate called requesting information about any domestic violence program in the country that may be working with non-offending parents and their children by using experiential activities such as camping outdoors. The NRCDV also received an inquiry specifically about existing programs that use sports to help survivors heal from trauma and abuse.

The garden gives me air. I breathe fresh air. It relaxes me. I return to life. I stop now and notice the flowers.” ~ Survivor’s reflection on her gardening experience at a domestic violence shelter, excerpted from Growing Food, Healing Lives: Linking Community Food Security and Domestic Violence.

Although the sky is the limit when it comes to advocates’ creativity and resourcefulness, advocates seem eager to learn from each other and gain new ideas about innovative approaches to provide a more holistic, engaging and comprehensive set of services to victims and survivors. In response to these requests, the NRCDV identified several program ideas that advocates can adapt or replicate in their agencies. These examples are provided as a source of information that advocates can evaluate on their own terms and for their own needs.


For many, exercising may be a helpful tool for releasing stress and coping with trauma. Some programs offer yoga and horseback riding as tools to assist survivors in their healing process. For example, Project Ponytails in Michigan, a non-profit charitable corporation, uses equine assisted therapy to help “heal the hearts and minds of abused women and children.” According to the program’s description, “Equine assisted therapy breaks through emotional obstacles and empowers victims, giving back hope and purpose.” Similarly, yoga has also been employed in work with trauma survivors. The New York City-based Mandala House provides self-directed healing programs to post-conflict populations, with a focus on survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. “Working with a trauma-sensitive yoga and breath awareness model in a group dynamic,” Mandala House teaches mind/body awareness tools which “practitioners can take into their lives, healing themselves and others.” For domestic violence programs interested in bringing yoga classes to their shelters, yogaG may be a useful resource. yogaG is a non-profit organization mobilizing yoga instruction exclusively in domestic violence shelters. The organization was established to be a “matchmaker” for yoga instructors interested in donating their time and domestic violence shelters wishing to offer yoga to shelter residents.

For advocates wishing to develop programs that offer survivors the benefits of physical activities while continuing to work towards public awareness and fundraising goals, Cycle the WAVE (Women Against Violence Everywhere) may be an idea to get your wheels turning. Cycle the WAVE is a non-competitive, women’s cycling experience initiated as a means for women of all ages and fitness levels to experience camaraderie and increase awareness of domestic violence while raising funds for domestic violence services. This project was initiated by “women passionate about cycling, friendship, fitness, and the desire to ‘brake the cycle’ of domestic violence and make a difference in their community.”

For other ideas about experience-based outdoor programs for youngsters and adults alike, the website of Outward Bound may be a helpful source of information. Outward Bound is a non-profit educational organization and expedition school that specializes in the delivery of programs using unfamiliar settings. Participants across the country experience adventure and challenge in a way that helps them “realize they can do more than they thought possible.” An example of a course offered by Outward Bound is a backpacking expedition in the Rocky Mountains that includes rock climbing, solo and a peak attempt. The organization describes this course as being “ideal for a parent and child (or other familial two-some or three-some) who seek to renew and enhance their relationship in a physically dynamic and supportive environment.”

Finally, gardening can also be a positive experience for victims/survivors, with a potential impact on the wellbeing of an entire domestic violence shelter. Through a two-year pilot project known as Project GROW, nine domestic violence shelters across California established edible and decorative gardens and other food and nutrition programs. This pilot project showed that “gardening and food activities can be therapeutic and educational for clients and staff and also provide esthetic, economic, social and cultural benefits to domestic violence programs” (Stuart, 2002, p. 20).

Has your program been successful at implementing any innovative, experiential programs involving exercises and/or outdoor activities? Please share with us any other creative ideas you may have!

Note: The organizations and programs highlighted in this TAQ were current as of July 2011. While some of these programs might no longer be operation, the ideas are still relevant and can be replicated by advocates in partnership with community members.