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Women’s gala gives needed holiday cheer

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For women who have been the victims of abuse – and who have been shut out of social circles because of it – the Women’s Holiday Gala is a little miracle this time of year.

They go without their children – it’s a night out for themselves. Some of them get dressed up. Some want to celebrate, others are quieter. Any way you look at it, the annual event put on by Caring Unlimited offers a source of seasonal joy and socialization.

“They connect with women they haven’t seen in a while,” said Bonnie Gagnon, the outreach coordinator at Caring Unlimited. “They’ve gotten to know each other through using the same services. It’s their special night to socialize.”

Audrey Beach, coordinator of the Caring Unlimited transient housing program, said that the gala is an exciting time for staffers, as well. They want to see these women smile and relax.

“There’s crisis in their lives,” Beach said. “This is a place where crisis isn’t part of it.”

This year’s party is set for Dec. 11. An area church supplies the venue. Local organizations purchase gifts for upward of 100 women who will attend. They start with appetizers. The staff chooses a decorating theme for the church hall, and cooks the holiday meal.

“These are women who use all of our services, plus the women who use legal services,” Gagnon said. “They’re all invited.”

Beach, 62, and Gagnon, 53, have been working together on the Women’s Holiday Gala for some 17 years. For Beach, this marks a quarter-century of giving domestic violence victims a holiday event to look forward to.

Gagnon, who grew up in Alfred, knows a little bit about where these women are coming from.

“I was a victim of domestic violence,” she said. “I’ve always been somebody who’s cared. I’ve been compassionate.”

Gagnon, who has been with Caring Unlimited since 1997, helps connect women to the community services they need.

“They connect with other women,” Gagnon said, “because domestic violence breeds their isolation.”

The number of domestic violence victims reaching out for services is rising, she said, because there is more public awareness.

“We break the isolation,” Gagnon said.

Beach recalls a different time – a time when the hotline didn’t ring as often.

Domestic violence “was kept behind closed doors,” Beach said. “Women are starting to realize that this isn’t their fault.”

Still, conviction rates don’t nearly match the number of domestic violence charges, Gagnon said.

The Women’s Holiday Gala is a respite from all of this.

“They may be taught that they’ve been stupid or they’re dumb,” Gagnon said. “This party gives them a break, and gives them a chance to network with other women. They rebuild relationships. They share information.”

Caring Unlimited works with the community to end domestic violence in York County. The organization provides support and safe haven to women, their children and men whose lives are affected by domestic abuse.

The Caring Unlimited hotline, 800-239-7298, is staffed 24 hours a day, throughout the year. Trained volunteers cover the hotline, particularly the overnight and weekend day shifts. The emergency shelter provides a safe haven to battered women and their children for up to 30 days. Support is provided in helping women find resources and housing. Volunteers help with child care, primarily during weekdays.

Bonnie Gagnon, left, and Audrey Beach have been working together on the annual Women’s Holiday Gala at Caring Unlimited for 17 years. 

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