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A calm presence at Optimism Place moves on to the next chapter

A transition worker on the front lines of helping abused women, Brenda Boswell, who recently retired, was a history buff at Optimism Place in Stratford, sharing stories of powerful women that had carved the path current feminists are walking down
Brenda Boswell recently retired from Optimism Place.

Brenda Boswell spent her professional life working with women who lived through abuse, helping them to stabilize emotions and to begin to understand what they were experiencing. 

For 13 years, until her recent retirement, Boswell was a transition support worker at Optimism Place in Stratford - part of a team that 'aims to end the cycle of abuse and violence by raising awareness through prevention, intervention, education and advocacy'. 

"A lot of what I did was introductory trauma work with women," Boswell told StratfordToday. "Helping them understand...why their mind is racing and provide them  with tools to hopefully settle the mind so they can move on and make some good choices." 

A valued member of the Optimism Place team, Boswell was a history buff, her former colleagues noted, informing every new student and staff member of the history of Optimism Place, and "sharing the stories of powerful women that had carved the path that us current feminists are walking down," said Selina Jones, funding and community engagement lead for the women's shelter. 

Looking back on her career this week, Boswell recalled starting her first job in Woodstock with one staff member, volunteers, and no computers. Her team were navigating through a society that was stuck in the past when it came to accepting and helping women going through abusive situations. 

"We often didn’t get good responses from people like ministers and doctors, people who women would trust."

In one case in the early '80's, an abused woman was told by a doctor to fast until she went back to her husband. Women were told abuse was 'part of marriage' and given Valium and suggestions to help them cope. 

"There was a thought that if you give women a place to go then the abuse will end, no one really knew the dynamics. They might go to their mom’s or a sister's. But it was really hard to actually leave (the situation)."

Attitudes have shifted and society has changed for the better, she said. 

"There is a lot more understanding in the community."

Boswell said women's organizations have pushed for additional supports, for challenges like navigating the court system, and local organizations are working together to educate and ensure abused women know where to go for help and support. 

At Optimism Place, Boswell was a calm presence needed for women living through traumatic, life-altering experiences. She worked with all ages, from teenagers in dating relationships to women in their 80's starting to deal with past or ongoing abuse. 

Sometimes that meant one or two sessions, others would meet with Boswell over a period of years.

"They would come back if they were ready to do another piece of the work or something else in their life was going on and they needed to talk again."

Over the years, Boswell heard some "challenging stories" from the women who confided in her. Sometimes just listening could be a big help because some abused women were often told their voice didn't matter, and they shouldn't feel the way they do, Boswell said. 

Boswell said there are still pockets of society in some parts of the county that subscribe to old values. 

"I worked with women in North Perth, some from different cultures, where feelings are pretty strong about women’s roles and religion still plays a big role in how you should be and how you should act."

Women are more apt to seek help nowadays and are sometimes referred by doctors or counsellors. The #MeToo movement has also helped, Boswell said. 

"In the last year I had more women reporting sexual assaults to police and were heading towards court than I probably had seen in the six or seven years before that. You talk to other organizations and other women’s shelters are experiencing the same thing."

Gender identity is coming up more as a part of support services at Optimism Place. The organization now works with more people who are struggling with gender identity issues and are being abused or people who are not struggling with their gender identity but are being abused. 

Boswell said she misses the team at Optimism Place because they always had each other's back during what could be difficult work. 

She but does look forward to more free time and not having to "pack everything into a weekend." 

Boswell plans to visit friends in Spain and get back into practicing yoga. She has also got involved with an Indigenous awareness group and signed up for a Tunisian crochet course. In retirement, she has the ability to curate where her time goes. 

"I am finding out what it is I want to do."