Volunteer Spotlight: Barbara Bethea Helps Survivors of Domestic Violence Heal Using Their Own Words

From left to right: Barbara Bethea; Brian Bardell, VP, Business Development & Program Services at VOA-GNY; Ana Rolon, Director of Domestic Violence Services at VOA-GNY

Volunteering is a pillar of Barbara Bethea’s life. “Part of being a professional is also giving back to the communities in which you work.” Barbara is a licensed creative arts therapist with a specialization in poetry. She’s employed by New York City Health + Hospitals, and works with adults and adolescents on Rikers Island. On top of that she is developing a Ph.D. dissertation related to her current work. As a volunteer, she conducts therapeutic writing workshops for Volunteers of America-Greater New York (VOA-GNY) clients who have experienced domestic abuse. Additionally, Barbara has spoken at our annual domestic violence conference twice, including in 2018 as the keynote speaker.      

A survivor of domestic violence herself, Barbara met Wanda Best DeVeaux, Community Resource Developer at one of VOA-GNY’s domestic violence shelters, five years ago at a conference and was asked if she would lead poetry writing workshops to help clients work through their trauma. “The idea is to use poems and writing exercises as a way to release overwhelming emotions and give survivors the ability to tell their stories without re-traumatizing them,” says Barbara.       

Multiple studies support the use of writing as a tool for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and there is also evidence that writing helps treat symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression in individuals who have experienced intimate partner violence. In Barbara’s workshops, participants are encouraged to identify ways to move on from an abusive relationship and signs of a healthy relationship, develop personal aspirations, and practice self-reflection. “A journal is a 99 cent therapist,” Barbara states simply. “The page never fights back. You can write and write and it is able to sustain all of your thoughts and feelings.” VOA-GNY staff also attend the workshops, obtaining new ideas to apply to their own work and often sharing personal experiences.     

“It’s always a pleasure to work with Barbara,” says Christelle Padmore, Program Director at one of VOA-GNY’s domestic violence shelters. “She’s a wonderful facilitator who engages her audience with her poetry and realistic views of domestic violence. The exercises double as ice breakers and learning tools. She’s motivating and encouraging. Sometimes, our clients feel as though no one can love them like their abuser could; however, she reminds everyone that it’s important to love yourself first.”  

Barbara reciprocates with kind words about the staff at the shelter. “They are empathetic with their clients and so professional,” she says. “This can be a difficult population to work with, but they work with the women in a beautiful and empowering way to help them understand that there’s another way of looking at life.”     

If you’d like to contribute to the well-being of your neighbors in need, you can find volunteer opportunities at sites across New York City and Westchester here. Or, if you would like to do a project with your corporate or community group, you can get more information here.