A nun working with the Latino community 25 years ago noticed some women with recurring scratches and bruises. She discovered that those marks were the result of abuse at the hands of their partners. She turned to community activist Julia Perilla for a solution.
What started out as small group of a dozen or so women quickly grew and the program grew with them.
“There were a lot of women who were needing the same information. We didn’t know exactly what we were doing, but the women taught us,” said Perilla, a psychologist and professor at Georgia State University.
Today, Caminar Latino receives between 30 and 40 families weekly. Each week a long line of women and children forms outside the building where the support groups meet. The support groups do not just focus on women however, children of victims of domestic violence are also welcomed with open arms.
Elia, whose last name has been omited because the AJC doesn’t generally identify domestic abuse victims, has been attending Caminar Latino’s support groups for the past two years. “I found out about this place through a friend, because I lived 19 years with abuse. One day it just got to be too much, not just for me but for my children, too.”
Originally from Mexico, Elia said she found support and encouragement at Caminar Latino. “My self-esteem improved a lot, because [before the group] I didn’t feel like I was worth anything,” Elia added.
In order to heal the entire family, the organization seeks to help men as well. Early on, the female participants asked for a progam involving their husbands. This led to the creation of the men’s support group.
“I realized how my violence affected not just me and my family, but the community as well, and I learned to take responsibility for my own actions,” said Felipe Pérez, a participant who eventually became a facilitator for the organization.
When the men’s support group began 20 years ago it was controversial “but absolutely important for the community,” assured Perilla. “If we don’t believe that these men can change, why would they change?”
María, another domestic violence victim, has been going to Caminar Latino for four years, along with her children. There, they have received counseling, help with homework and even music classes.
“Any time I don’t go, I feel like something is missing. I feel like I’m missing out on learning something,” said María.
For these survivors, one of the keys to the program’s success is its welcoming environment.
“We have a sense of family and community here. This is a safe place where people can be honest about what they have lived through,” said Jessica Nunan, director of the organization whose been there for more than two decades.
Women like Elia have gained independence and are becoming positive role models for their children.
“I learned to drive, I’m working and the children’s grades are good. We’ve moved forward, thank God,” she said.
Nunan emphasized the importance of changing the perceptions about who domestic violence victims are, as well as the need to educate the community.
“People still view survivors as victims, as ‘poor things,’ and that doesn’t help anybody because it doesn’t give them credit for what they have been through,” she said.