Recently I met with twelve brave women and their leader, Dr. Elaine Westerlund. Thirty-seven years ago Elaine co-founded Incest Resources. Think about it – almost four decades ago a group of survivors had the brass ovaries to put the word INCEST in the name of their organization.
Since 1980 IR has been affiliated with the Women’s Center in Cambridge, MA. The IR Group for Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse, based on their own group model, has been running at the Center for 34 years! Meetings take place in the 3rd floor room at the Center, the only room large enough to accommodate the number of survivors who participate in the group and in the arts-based and body-based workshops offered for survivors.
Given that the one room large enough wasn't always available for survivor activities, Helen and Cynthia, two members of the IR survivor community, began investigating possible studio spaces for an additional option. When they expressed their discouragement to Elaine about the inaccessibility and poor condition and high cost of what they had seen, Elaine sarcastically joked, "Well, there's always the Women's Center garage." To her surprise, Helen and Cynthia enthusiastically responded, "There's a garage?!!" And so a dream began.
In fairly short order they got busy. Helen and Cynthia proceeded to start clearing out the garage, which was a cross between a storage unit and a site for a cable show called “Happily Hoarding Since 1970,” while Elaine began the process of working with the Women Center's Board on an agreement and fundraising plans. After construction guys, demolition guys, an architect, and an inspector walked through the back yard and garage, renovation plans evolved by necessity into a plan to tear down the old structure and build a new one.
What’s also going is Elaine – perfect timing for her retirement strategy. At the end of 2020 she’ll walk out the door (at age 75), hand over the shiny new keys to the leaders of the survivor community, and blow kisses from the window of her 1999 Toyota Corolla as she drives off into the sunset.
Where I come into the picture is first as a favor to Elaine – dear friend and sister survivor – second, for a chance to support a group of women as they move along on strategic planning and leadership development. Our first get together I spent part of the time getting them to talk about the prospect of Elaine leaving. After the tears and teeth gnashing had subsided I told them how exciting it is that they are poised to create a space – a safe space – solely for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. This, dear reader, is no small thing. As children we didn’t have safe space – and we grew up believing, since we started out not being safe in the primary place where we lived, there was probably no safe space anywhere. For us, when safety is provided, the possibilities for healing are infinite. And, as far as I know, there is no place in the world that is solely for survivors. I hope I’m wrong about that but it was a real mood lifter for the twelve women in our circle.
Cynthia took a moment to talk about the name of the studio. “We are choosing to call the survivor studio The bIRch House as a way to honor Elaine. She once mentioned that a grove of birch trees was her sanctuary as a child. And when you understand the meaning of a birch tree, it's no wonder. The birch tree symbolizes new beginnings, regeneration and hope. According to the book The Healing Power of Trees, birch is for 'overcoming difficulties; pliability; re-establishing boundaries; purification and renewal; releasing old patterns and shedding unhelpful influences; [and] resolution of conflicts.' One of the first trees to grow after a fire or some other devastation, birch paves the way for the gradual return of life. This is what we want to give survivors - life after devastation. The bIRch House will be the sanctuary for survivors of incest and childhood sexual abuse as we heal and live more fully." The spelling of the name, highlighting IR in the center of the word bIRch, will honor the legacy of Incest Resources as a source of healing and community for survivors and as the predecessor of The bIRch House.
I’m delighted to report that what happened next was the compiling of a formidable list of the next steps the group wants to take to raise the $100K they’ll need for The bIRch House to open its sparkling new door. Should you be so inclined – you can make a donation to this marvelous project by sending a check made payable to Women's Center, with I.R. in the memo section to earmark your gift, to: The Women's Center, 46 Pleasant Street, Cambridge, MA 02139.