The Beauty of Giving Back: Peer Support Organization Helps Survivors Become Thrivers

 

If you were to complete the phrase “She is…” with one word to describe yourself, what would it be?

That question was the inspiration for the name of the nonprofit Because She Is, founded last year by Maureen Spataro. The Brooklyn, NY native and current New Jersey resident works to help survivors of physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse – and is herself a survivor of all three, starting at the age of six and continuing through her teen and adult years by different abusers.

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Despite leading a full and busy life, she eventually succumbed to the weight of her trauma, suffered a nervous breakdown, and sought outpatient counseling. After successfully completing the program, Maureen realized there were no ongoing services or groups offering a social network or day-to-day peer support when needed to deal with the lingering memories, unexpected triggers, or lasting impact of trauma.

Recalling a day when the outpatients tried to complete the phrase “She is…” with a positive word about themselves, she would eventually create Because She Is, an organization that provides peer support for survivors, led by a team of survivors. In September 2018, Maureen fulfilled her childhood dream of creating a haven where those who had been victims could feel safe, secure, and surrounded by support.

Located in central New Jersey, Marilyn’s Place honors a generous benefactor whose legacy helped fund Maureen’s startup. It is not a shelter, but rather a warm and welcoming home that hosts monthly support groups and other activities, all completely free.

“They have to know we’re always here. There is no boundary as far as when they’re ready to come. Once they do, it’s so healing,” Maureen explains. “I can’t describe the feeling of sitting around the table with people who are nodding their heads in agreement – and you know you’re not going crazy.”

In addition to weekly support meetings, Maureen’s organization offers workshops with clinicians, art therapists, and other professionals, providing options to connect with the support that resonates best with each participant. There are social events as well, because Maureen realizes the importance of getting survivors to start socializing again.

“One of the hardest things when you’ve been through trauma is being comfortable in social settings,” she says. “In an abusive relationship, you start withdrawing because you begin to believe you have no value anyway, so why bother going out? It’s important to bring back the joy of being with other people.”

Another important initiative, she notes, is “speaking to more families of those who have been abused to give them a perspective of what it’s like to be that person; an idea of what we think, what we’re afraid of, why we won’t talk about it in the beginning, exactly what’s going on physically and mentally. A survivor needs relief not only from how she feels about herself, but also from the burden of trying to protect loved ones from knowing what happened and dealing with the guilt, shame, or anger.” Many people think it’s better not to talk about the abuse, Maureen notes, but silence is deafening. Reactions are key, too.

“I want survivors to understand the reaction they’re getting from others should be embraced. The minute we see that teardrop or hear that first gasp, it’s pure love,” she says. “When you see that sadness and they want to hug you or cry, it’s all the love that you need to start to heal. That person is grieving for you and the part of you that died – your innocence, your trust, your smiling, or just walking without fear. And when that part of you dies, you have to find new place within you for happiness to live.”

Maureen is surprised that “what made me think I was the weakest person alive was what everyone else saw as my strength,” she explains. “I had to get comfortable with that and talking about it. When the positive reactions started coming and I began getting private messages, then I knew, ‘Okay, I’m onto something, so just keep going.’”

Through speaking engagements, a benefit concert held this past May, a fundraiser planned for September, and more in the works, Maureen is moving forward with her mission of helping transform survivors into thrivers.

By Joanne Colella

Photo Credit: Mary Foti/ Nautical Media Group

 

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