|Members of the Women to Women group pose during a fundraising event. From left to right: (sitting) Judith Hogan; Gail Maxon; (front row) Dr. Ishita Thakar; Barbara Pesicka; Toni Banks; Cheryl Dubuc; Michelle Tunender; Betty Beason; Aimee Scott; (back row) Ruth Livingston; Rebecca Davis; Kathy Register; Stephanie Welch; Therapeutic Recreation Specialist and group facilitator; Kristy Doyle, Supervisor, Therapeutic Recreation and group facilitator.|
Twice a week, Toni Banks has a great reason for making the 187 mile journey to and from the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center. That's where she meets with Women for Women, a recreational therapy group at the hospital, created by a handful of women Veteran patients who wanted a forum where they could support each other in a safe environment.
The group addresses everything from traumatic military experiences to the physical challenges of getting older. It means everything to Banks. Sometimes she and the other women stay an hour after the meeting is over because they can't bear to say goodbye to each other.
"You see a bunch of women and if you look at us, you think we're just happy, shiny people, but we have issues and have come together as a group to stand by each other," Banks said. "It's so special and unique that you just want to be part of it. We really do love each other."
Most of the members were originally in a nutrition and exercise program at the hospital called MOVE! When it was time for the women to leave the program to make room for the next MOVE! participants, they decided they weren't finished yet.
"Getting Together is Very Cathartic"
"We hadn't met our goals," said member Cheryl Dubuc. "We decided to seek something else." She and the other women proposed to VA staff the idea that would become the Women for Women group.
"There's a lot of physical pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and major depression," said Dubuc. "Many of us are 100% disabled. I found that getting together with empathetic people is very cathartic."
For the Women for Women members, it's important that the group is for women only. In the MOVE! group and other recreational therapy programs, the women were hesitant to discuss military sexual trauma and gender-specific issues like menopause and hormonal problems with men in the room. With Women for Women, Veteran patients drive the agenda by suggesting topics to explore.
Member Judith Hogan tried attending other Veteran support groups, but found they didn't focus on women's issues. "If you were a female abused in the military, it's hard to be with group members who are men. A lot of women still feel intimidated because they were subjected to mental, physical, and sexual abuse. Those things have been detrimental to our recovery, along with health issues. Yet we still have to put on a brave face and do what we need to do."
Hogan has been able to bond with other women who share her painful experiences. Now, she says, she's not alone. "Before I met some of these ladies, I didn't have any female friends. If I had to work through anything, there wasn't anyone I could call. Now that I've met these people, we have each other. There's a strength and a unity. With this sisterhood, I don't feel abandoned like I did before."
Variety of Activities Planned
The group just started in September, but it's already gaining members fast as VA staff and Veterans work together to bring in doctors and health professionals to discuss exercise tips, stress management, and health medications. Coming soon: a self-defense expert; a yoga instructor who will provide tools to enhance the women's physical health and wellness; a social worker who will discuss advanced directives; and a chef who will teach members how to cook nourishing recipes. In addition to inviting speakers to the group, the women participate in excursions, including the Susan B. Komen Race for the Cure to raise money for breast cancer, and farmers' markets to learn about shopping healthily.
According to Kristy Doyle, a therapeutic recreation supervisor, Women for Women has been a huge success. "We feel the potential is unlimited," she said.
"The highlight of the group is the group, period," said Banks. "We wish America could be this way. We lean on each other. We're there for each others' joys and pains. Beyond friends, we're a family."
By Stephanie Strauss, VA Staff Writer