Erin Jean Hussey, 21, finished last in every high school cross country race. Now, as a junior at Emerson, she’s running the Boston Marathon. But for Hussey, it’s not about finishing first; it’s simply about finishing. A 26.2 mile run is a daunting journey, but Hussey has been training intensely for this since December: running five to six miles three times a week, strength training two to three times a week, sprinting hills in the Common, and going on lengthy runs every Saturday with a marathon training group led by Emerson cross country coach John Furey. She’s not running to obtain a personal triumph; instead, she is representing the countless number of survivors at Casa Myrna.
Casa Myrna is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing services to those experiencing domestic and/or dating violence, which their website defines as “a pattern of escalating abusive, controlling, and violent behavior toward a partner in an intimate relationship.” Such behavior is difficult to escape, especially when it involves someone who can cause physical harm. Casa Myrna serves as a safe haven for those seeking refuge from toxic and violent situations.
Translated to “the home Myrna,” Casa Myrna was named after Myrna Vasquez, a South End activist who dedicated her life to community empowerment and civil rights in the 70s. Vasquez experienced domestic violence herself and was ultimately murdered by her abuser. Two years after her death in 1975, Casa Myrna was established by fellow South End activists. 41 years later, and the home of Myrna continues to aid those who battle similar situations through not only a wide range of services, but also by simply being a reliable support system. Leela Strong, Director of Development and Communications at Casa Myrna, says, “I think what’s important to recognize is that one of the first things an abuser does is they take away your circle of support, and they take away your capacity to depend on anyone else other than them. So many people who are escaping that kind of relationship don’t have a large network to fall back on. We end up being friends, family, confidants, mentors, advocates, cheerleaders, for these survivors.”
Hussey is running for Casa Myrna at the Boston Marathon in hopes of raising $10,000 for the organization. A fellow Kappa Gamma Chi sister of Hussey, who previously participated in the marathon for Casa Myrna, introduced her to the prospect of running for charity, prompting her to follow in the footsteps of a long line of Kappa sisters. She stressed the importance of organizations like Casa Myrna and explained why she wanted to run for them in the first place, saying, “Casa Myrna helps survivors find their strength and enables them to move forward with their lives.”
Abusive relationships are hard to escape, because abusers disguise their evil as love. Controlling behavior is masked with concern over the partner’s wellbeing, a slap to the face is excused as “I’ll never do it again,” or “I’m sorry, but you made me do it.” According to Casa Myrna’s website, one in three women experience some form of domestic abuse in their lifetime, and it is just as difficult to recognize it as it is to escape it. Casa Myrna educates people in recognizing “red flags” in relationships, such as extreme jealousy and possessiveness, isolation from the partner’s friends and family, control over the partner’s looks, threats of suicide if the partner leaves, and more. Casa Myrna also teaches prevention and awareness through workshops, speakers, informative posters and brochures, and ads displayed on Boston mass transit.
But Casa Myrna also goes beyond domestic abuse prevention. The organization provides services that range from legal advocacy to a teen parenting program. Strong says, “Everybody comes at a different place. We meet people where they are, so this is about self empowerment. This is about hope and moving forward past trauma.”
How does someone move past trauma when they have nowhere to go? Safe spaces are hard to come by, especially when that person’s ability to trust has been damaged by someone they once trusted. Casa Myrna helps survivors find safe housing and has residential programs that provide temporary shelters to live in, such as the Mary Lawson Foreman Emergency Program—named after murdered community activist Mary Foreman—, The Teen Parenting Program (TPP), and a newly added shelter for those escaping prostitution and sex trafficking. Each shelter contains 9-13 bedrooms with space for 2-3 children in each room, along with communal kitchens, dining areas, bathrooms, and living spaces. Survivors can stay at these spaces for as long as they need; some stay for only a few nights, others may stay for up to two years. While survivors stay at the shelters, Casa Myrna staff help plan their next steps in finding permanent homes. Teen parents also receive education in parenting, job training, and high school and GED classes, so they don’t have to handle adult responsibilities on their own.
Of course, it is difficult to reach out for this kind of help in such suffocating environments. Abusive relationships are isolating, and as Strong stated, sometimes survivors don’t have the ability to even consider going to Casa Myrna. SafeLink, Casa Myrna’s statewide hotline, provides necessary support without being physically present. Operators are on the hotline 24/7, 365 days a year. Together, they can speak over 130 languages, and also have a specific number for those with hearing impairments. SafeLink connects survivors to legal services, counseling, housing support, and generally provides a confidential space to safely talk about domestic abuse. Advocates at this hotline receive, at minimum, 40 hours of domestic violence training along with specific training for the hotline so that they know how to answer calls, handle difficult situations, create safety plans, and work with people at all different points in their lives.
Much of Casa Myrna’s funding come from donations, so being represented in the marathon is crucial in raising both funding and awareness. Hussey knows how important donations are to Casa Myrna; in fact, when she got injured two months before the big race, she never even thought about quitting. “When you have the opportunity to do something about [domestic abuse], I think that's very rare,” says Hussey. ”I can walk it. It doesn't matter, as long as I get there. The most important thing to me is raising the money for Casa Myrna. It's not about me, it's about them.”
It takes an indefinite amount of strength to escape a seemingly impossible situation. While Casa Myrna cannot be a universal solution, it is an important foundation, and definitely a step in the right direction.
Illustration by: Eleanor Hilty