How women’s refuges in NZ operate – and why your local refuge needs your support.

I’ve been doing this work for around 4 1/2 years and I’ve learned a few things about women’s refuges.  One of those things is how women’s refuges in NZ actually operate – the structure of that, and what it looks like. I do not work for any women’s refuges or for the National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuge (most people refer to it as Women’s Refuge). Everything written here is what I have pieced together through my work, my conversations with people who runs women’s refuges, who live and have lived in womens refuges for varying amounts of time in differing locations,  and with social workers and professionals in the field of domestic violence. I’m writing it because people assume that all refuges are  fully funded. People are also a bit scared and stand offish about womens refuges, because they fear that them knowing even that a safe house exists poses some danger to the women that live in these refuges. It does not. So here we go, let’s see if we can do a bit of safe demystification…..

In NZ, based in Wellington, is the National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges. This is an umbrella organisation, This organisation is focused on advocacy, training and development of policy around domestic violence in NZ.  They run a crisis line for people wanting help with their living situations, have an extensive and helpful website and work in conjunction with sponsors, and other organisations such as the Warehouse. They also run a home security service called Whanau Protect. NCIWR do not actually run any women’s refuges, themselves.

There are 37 refuges who are affiliated with them. There are also 20 or so women’s refuges in NZ that are not affiliated members of the Collective. The reasons for this are many and varied.

Whether refuges are affiliated members of the National Collective or not, each refuge is run independently by a trust board. All are registered charities, and have to apply for their own funding from the MSD. The funding rules around womens refuges are arcane, and complex. Some are fully funded by the MSD, some are funded partially, and some are not funded at all.  The NCIWR is itself only funded around 60 % by the government. They are a non profit organisation, just like all women’s refuges are.

Now. Women’s refuges themselves. What are they? They are primarily safe houses. Places cis women – primarily – and their kids can go and live for a while away from the violence they’ve been living in. I can’t speak for all women’s refuges, but the ones I have encountered have all been rented from Housing New Zealand. Some are on street fronts, some are down long driveways. They aren’t cottages in a remote area somewhere. They’re just houses where people live.

So why can donating stuff  to your local women’s refuge be a bit hard?

Well. Most refuges don’t have their offices at the actual safe house. Most will have a separate office somewhere else. Most refuges will allow you to drop off donations to their offices. If you aren’t allowed to do that, you can assume that the office of that refuge is not separate. It may also be that the donations they have been getting are really crappy. This is often the case. And so making it hard can weed out people who just want to get rid of their rubbish. Nobody wants your rubbish because 1) it’s insulting and 2) it takes time and effort to get rid of it.    It may also be hard to donate to your local refuge because they just don’t have the time to come and collect, or any volunteers available. Some refuges don’t have volunteers at all. There may be just one person running it during the day, and they have other pretty important stuff to do. Very few refuges, if any,  will have somebody who is a dedicated donations coordinator. Just something to bear in mind. Most have their staff, and that’s it. And staff of refuges are very wary of do gooders, in my experience. They have come, in general, to expect nothing because that’s what they usually get. They get all sorts of people wanting to help who aren’t reliable, and it’s incredibly disruptive for anyone if somebody wants to help, doesn’t turn up, or doesn’t deliver. In my experience, that’s why people aren’t allowed into refuges to help. It’s just plain disruptive. Remember, the staff are dealing with women who have been living in violence, and this is supposed to be a safe house, which means as little chaos, and disruption, as possible is needed. Routine is incredibly important in keeping things peaceful and on an even keel.

So why am I telling you all this?

Because your local refuge needs you. I try as hard as I can to connect people up with their local refuges, and sometimes it’s not easy. I’ve been asked not to be so vocal, and “how you do think other refuges get stuff donated?” Well, the thing is this. They don’t. They just don’t. There are kind people in communities all over NZ who keep women’s refuges running, and bring donations to them, but not in quantity and it’s mostly ad hoc. What I do for the refuges that the Aunties service is incredibly rare – I don’t know that anybody else is doing what the Aunties do up here, and to a lesser degree in Chch. If there is, I haven’t heard about it, and I’ve talked to alot of the refuges in NZ, personally.

So please. If you have a bit of time, ring your local refuge – most of them are here,  or  here,

I know that not everybody can do what I do, but everyone can do what the Aunties do – anyone can supply freshly washed linen and clothes, in good condition, to their local women’s refuge. Most people can pick up a phone, ring their local refuge and ask: What do you need? You can do it. Please. Do it. They need your support.

Thank you.



Community shopping #empowershop

Today was one of those special days. I am privileged to have them more than most people, and I live in the joy and beauty of them.

It all started a couple of months ago when I met a woman and her teenaged girls at the refuge. There had been terrible things happen, and they were, at first, relieved to be there. But the mum was lost in her own demons, and after a while, the two girls went to stay with a family friend, we shall call her F, who loves them dearly.

I’ve kept in contact with F and the girls. They’ve been out to the storage units a number of times, I’ve bought bits and pieces for them, and F rings me to let me know how they’re doing.  Whenever we’ve been at the storage unit, the older of the two girls, we will call her T,   always looks downcast. There are always so many clothes for her younger sister, and none for her. So the last time we were there, I told her that I would take her out clothes shopping in the school holidays.

And today was the day. When I woke up this morning, I had no idea where to take her to get what she needed. So I asked on social media, and the Aunties, as you always do, came up trumps. All really great suggestions and a good starting place that made me feel so much more confident than I had at the beginning of the day. So armed with those suggestions, I thought it best to ring her and lay out our plans, so she knew what the day would look like, and consult her on what she really wanted to get. We had a budget of $300, which due to a few kind people, went up to $650. When I told her that, she gasped audibly. And said she had a list for me. In the meantime, one of my closest friends, S, said she and her 24 yr old daughter could come with us. I thought that was a great idea, because I worried that T would be overwhelmed, and I knew that S would be a calming presence, and dilute any attention on T that could make her feel pressured.

When I went to pick T up, she was grinning from ear to ear.  Just beaming. Off we went, and she started talking. About her mum, about the lies, about how hard it is learning how to be a normal teenager. She talked about flashbacks, and seeing what kids her age should never see. She talked about crying – how she thought she cried too much. My heart was breaking and I started crying. “I don’t want you to feel sorry for me” she said. I told her I didn’t, that I was crying because I was so angry at the adults in her life who had let her down, who had fucked up so badly that she was the one who ended carrying so much pain. Fuck adults, we agreed.

We initially went to Dressmart. She’s a really tall person, with a lovely big body, and she’s so self conscious. Ashamed of her stretchmarks. We met S and went into the bra shop  – a really discomfiting place for a kid like that to be. She wanted me to talk for her, she said, and be in the cubicle with her. So I ensconsed her there, and we got the shop assistant to do T’s first bra fitting. I don’t wear bras, so I’m hopeless at all this. S, though, is an expert and she and her daughter scoured the shop for suitable bras. At last, The One was found, and we went on to the next shop.

At this stage, I was really overwhelmed by how much pain this kid is carrying and how such little things were giving her such joy. I hear so much, hold people’s hands through so much, but this kid. She got under my skin, and it felt heavy. But she? She was so excited, so ebullient, and talking! It was just a joy to see, and that carried us all through. We looked at some more shops, but everything was too small, and I could see her getting downcast again. S and C and I gave her a pep talk about body confidence, about the evils of manufacturers, and that staved it off for a while. We went into a shoe shop and found the perfect pair of shoes, in her size. And that did it. She was so happy! So joyful! And we decided it was time for some lunch, to celebrate, and to rest our feet.

Another successful shop for more shoes, and clothes, and then the one thing she really wanted – to get her ears pierced. They had been before, and had grown over, and she just wanted it so badly. Luckily chemists still do this, so I signed a consent form for her and she sat down. She was nervous about the pain  – “just do it” she exhorted the pharmacist’s assistant – but there was none. And her face. Oh my goddess, her face. She kept touching her ears, and I could tell she was feeling herself. Her beautiful self.

Kmart was our next stop, and what a stop it was. She had her list and she knew what she wanted. Socks, undies, pyjamas, tshirts, more trousers…..and shorts. We never did get those shorts, but we ended up getting most everything else on her list. She went into the changing room and came out with a new outfit on – including a denim jacket – and I just about burst into tears. Who was this girl? This happy smiling confident girl? It was her. In love with her image in a way she never had been before.

A couple more stops for a hair straightener and special sunglasses – the mirrored sort, not clear, she was very firm about it – and we were done. When I took her back to F’s home, she showed her everything we had got, and we talked a bit more. About getting her a locked diary, so that she can write some of her secrets down, about getting her some counselling, and most of all getting her glasses. She’s falling behind at school and nobody notices because she’s too nervous to tell the teachers why she can’t do the work. We’ll sort it.

Because it is very clear to me that this young woman needs all the love she can get to make up for the horrors she has endured. It won’t fix her, but maybe, just maybe, it will help her face life and whatever it holds in store for her.  Thank you for being part of that, for helping me to make sure that she’s okay, that she doesn’t, as she said to me “turn out like my Mum. I don’t want to be like her. I don’t want to make the choices she’s made.”  If love is what it takes, then I think F, and The Aunties, HER Aunties, are the ones who can make that happen.



Making meaning out of loss.

A lot of my work is fairly pragmatic. Meeting people, meeting needs. Getting stuff for the women, for the people I work for, and with.  But the most important work is the stuff that can’t be quantified. It’s work that relies solely on hearts connecting, making meaning out of pain, loss, grief.

Today I had the privilege of meeting two people in pain, and helping them to transform that pain into love.

K and G, their child had died. K had contacted me, to offer their precious love’s toys, books, and other things that small children have lots of. We agreed to meet and I would bring M, to whom the treasure would be going.

We spoke of A, of who he was. We talked of grief, and pain. What that looked like. I told them about the Aunties – everything. How it started, where it is now, about me, and my journey. We held hands, we touched. M spoke her truth to K,  as K had spoken hers to us. Had opened up to us, and shared her A with us so generously.

After a couple of hours, our meeting ended. The stuff was transferred from one car to another, and we hugged farewell. We’ll stay in touch, because that’s what hearts do when they connect.

M and I took the stuff back to her house, and unloaded it, ready to go to it’s new home. And we talked about what had taken place. I’ll leave the rest up to M, to explain how it all felt for her, and what it meant to her.

M:I think the main thing for today is just that feeling of being lucky. Feeling lucky to be a part of something bigger than what I thought it was. Not just changing lives, not just giving. It’s the other stuff. It’s that being worth it eh? Showing others that they’re worth it.  But watching a lady who’s already gone through a lot of stuff open up to strangers, and possibly walking away from it feeling a lot better than what she felt when she was packing those things away the other day. She talked about that, and that touched a nerve for me. Another little child is going to play with those toys the way he played with them, with absolute joy and….I’m just looking at it, and I’m thinking – holy crap! It reinforces that good people are out there, especially when there’s been so much bad that’s happened to you. You see some good things? You start to revitalise that hope. Such a beautiful feeling.  Taking a bad situation and turning it around. Not a bad situation but a grief. All that pain. And I know that she’s definitely in a different space, from her own giving. Pass it on, I reckon.”

Yeah, M. We just keeping passing it on. Love, beauty, and our hearts. Hope lives.


A trip to Butterfly Creek

And so it dawned – the day of our refuge trip to Butterfly Creek. A trip that everyone was looking forward to, with great excitement, and that many of you made possible with your generous donations.

I arrived at the refuge at about 9am. And everyone was up and ready to go. We weren’t leaving till 10 so there was a lot of anticipation obviously. Women who live in the other refuge arrived, kids and the correct number of carseats were gathered, and off we went. Some of the women in their own cars, some in the refuge van.

When we arrived at Butterfly Creek, I was going to take a photo of all the kids – 16 of them – in front of the dinosaur at the entrance, but they were all moving far too fast! They really were so excited. One of the boys said to me: I’ve never been here before? Are there real dinosaurs?  And baby J wasn’t too sure about that dinosaur, anyway, so I thought better of it. When we got inside, the kids were ready to race off, but a head count had to be done, and the money paid. That all took a little while.

And then. And then. We really WERE off. Through the fish, into the butterfly  room. One landed on Z, and such a sweet gentle boy he is, he said to me: Aunty J, look! Look! It loves me!

There was a peremptory stop to look at the crocodiles, and all of the children wanted to know if they were real. S said to me – If it’s real, can it climb the walls?  I assured her it wasn’t climbing any walls, it was just basking, and waiting for food.

The bugs? Anyone interested in the bugs? The cockroaches were popular, and the women laughed that they had bigger ones in their own homes….and the axolotl held fascination for many of the kids, and adults alike.  “Look, I’m taking a selfie with the spider” said K.

It was the dinosaurs who were the biggest drawcard, really. D (4) had told me at the refuge that he was going to be a dinosaur today but he wasn’t sure which one, he’d see how he felt. Fair enough too. Once again – “Are they real, Jackie?” Well I don’t think so, but I hope not! They were very large, with horrid big teeth…..

Two of the girls and I found ourselves in a mask making workshop. We sat down and the girls got going on butterfly masks. One of them said to me that she wants to be an artist when she grows up, her cousin said “I think I probably do too”. So I told them about all of you, and how some of you were artists, and that if you found out they needed art supplies, that you would send some to them. “ARE YOU LYING?” S said. “No.” said her cousin. “Jackie doesn’t lie”. And with that vote of confidence I took down a list of art supplies the girls said they’d like. “It calms me down when I’m frustrated, or when there’s yelling at home” they told me. Art as therapy? I think we can do that.

We had booked the train especially because there were so many of us, and it was waiting for us all at 11.30.  The younger children’s faces lit up, as the train driver TOOT TOOTed for us to hop on. D held his little sister’s hand and said – you mustn’t go on the train tracks, M.

Everyone was VERY hungry after that – and agreed that we should retire inside and settle down. Piles of chips, fish, hot dogs, steak, burgers….yes, we were all very hungry. And then, as if they knew we were going soon, a dinosaur came wandering, found us, and let the children pat it, and Z said to me – I told you they were real. Indeed.

I wanted you all to be there, but you couldn’t be. I want you all to see the photos I took of the kids faces,  but you can’t. What I can share with you is just this: when you put $20 in our account for this trip, you would have maybe hoped it helped to give some kids some joy. So I want you to know that it gave 16 kids the time of their lives. They didn’t stop talking, they didn’t stop smiling, and they were very happy – all cares forgotten – for 3 hours. That’s something to hold on to. Thank you. From all of our hearts, to all of yours .