If you ask Bernie Creaven, RN, MN, it’s not just homelessness service providers who can benefit from self-care training. In her view, the people they serve—those experiencing homelessness—need it just as much.
Bernie is an Outreach Nurse and Program Manager for the Homeless Program at Carolyn Downs Family Medical Clinic in Seattle, WA. She says that when she first started in this position ten years ago, she was struck by how difficult it was for women experiencing homelessness to practice self-care.
“There’s so much emphasis on the women getting to appointments, fulfilling criteria of programs, and looking after children and spouses that taking care of themselves seemed to be a low priority,” she says.
Bernie and one of her colleagues, Laurie Dempsey, decided to do something about it. They wanted to give women experiencing homelessness a safe space where they could explore simple ideas for how to improve their own self-care on a daily basis. From there, an annual Wellness Spa event was created.
Bernie explains that part of the goal of the event is to give the women some much-needed relaxation. “We make the event as luxurious as possible,” she says. “Many of us can save up and get our nails done or get a massage, but a lot of women experiencing homelessness don’t have the resources to do that.”
Bernie and her team work hard to create an environment that both honors and pampers the women. The space is decorated with white tablecloths and candles. Volunteers at stations around the room paint the women’s nails, cut their hair, and do their makeup. There is a trauma-informed massage station that offers seated, clothed massages that are sensitive to the women’s space. To give the women a night off, childcare volunteers run a parallel program in a separate space to engage kids while the mothers relax.
The evening is structured to be as educational and empowering as possible. Every year, a motivational keynote speaker talks to the women about the importance of practicing self-care on a daily basis. A local doctor answers questions about issues the women may be too embarrassed to ask about in more formal health care settings. Women break into smaller groups led by a life coach and mental health counselor, who help the women explore concrete ways to reduce stress and incorporate self-care practices into their daily lives.
“We make sure it’s very specific, very practical, and very personal,” says Bernie, “and that the women make themselves accountable for the changes they decide to make by setting deadlines for themselves.”
Bernie and her team start talking to the women they serve about the event months before it happens, asking them why they feel an event like this is important and what they would like to get out of it. They use this feedback to create the program. The women are also encouraged to support each other in finding ways to do self-care.
“I can’t stress enough how important this piece of it is,” Bernie says. “It really is necessary to build those relationships early and to send gentle reminders via phone calls and text messages because there are just so many competing demands on [the women’s] time.” And their efforts have paid off; Bernie says this year’s event served the largest group yet, with 50 women and 46 children in attendance.
Limited funding has forced Bernie and her team to find creative ways to make the event happen. They typically ask friends to donate unused items that they think other women would love and enjoy. They partner with the YWCA and collect materials through drives there, as well as at other local businesses. Volunteers from local high schools assemble gift baskets and make cards with encouraging messages for the women. And this year, Bernie managed to produce a healthy, nutritious meal for everyone at the event for under $200 by buying in bulk and asking volunteers to do the cooking.
But the most important thing, Bernie says, is to ensure that the participants end up in a safe, respectful environment. “We are very careful to place volunteers in positions that fit their personalities and experiences,” she explains. “Some people do very well in the kitchen helping out, while others’ life experiences or professional expertise make it possible for them to be out running sessions with the women.” All volunteers, regardless of assignment, go through a brief training before the event about Trauma-Informed Care and other basic guidelines to help make the evening a success.
Based on evaluations and feedback from participants, “successful” is the right word to describe the event. “The women tell us how incredible it was, how relaxed they feel, and how some of them are actually integrating the steps they learned to overcome the issues they identify there,” she says. “But beyond that, they love getting their nails done, love the food, love the community, and love being together. They really have fun and get into it.”
For Bernie, the Wellness Spa event is about honoring her own need for self-care as a homelessness service provider and then giving that same opportunity to her clients. “When we have the chance to do self-care ourselves, it makes us more authentic when we bring that same concept to our clients,” she says. “And if we can set up systems in our practices where our clients can do self-care, too, it simply makes for a healthier community for all.”
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