Wellness and Self-Care at Casa Protegida Julia De Burgos
February 26, 2019
The DFAM team had an incredible trip to Puerto Rico, where we were honored to work with several local organizations and the people they serve. With haircuts and massage, we brought a human connection to women survivors of domestic violence, senior citizens, residents of public housing, and staffers at the island’s 24-hour mental health crisis hotline. We want to express our deep gratitude to our individual donors, without whose support our trip could not have occurred. We also thank the companies Hairstory and Hairbrained from New York, and the Lavender Park Salon in Chicago, for their donations of products and financial support. I hope you find the brief accounts of each day of our trip informative, enlightening and inspiring. You helped make this work possible, and I am deeply grateful.
Luis Burgos, Founder and Creative Director
Day 1: Casa Protegida Julia de Burgos, Aguadilla.
Casa Protegida Julia de Burgos (The Julia de Burgos Refuge), a nonprofit organization founded in 1979, is the first shelter that was established in Puerto Rico to assist women survivors of domestic violence. Since its beginning, Casa Julia has played an important role in Puerto Rico’s efforts to protect and assist survivors. With three locations on the island, the organization works with women facing stalking and other forms of intimate partner violence to develop safety plans, escape plans, and other forms of safe space for themselves and their children. Casa Julia is named after my father’s cousin, so I felt a particular connection to the organization when I first reached out to see if they wanted to partner with DFAM. Their wonderful, dedicated staff helped make our trip a success.
On the 2.5 hour drive to Aguadilla from our home base in San Juan, our team talked about how the initial idea for DFAM had passed through a long planning phase, and was now finally becoming a reality. We were all a little nervous, since we didn’t know quite what to expect at Casa Julia. How much trauma would the women we worked with still be carrying, both from their domestic violence experience and Hurricane Maria? But our nervousness evaporated when the staff opened the door with big smiles, inviting us in. We were ready to go to work. Our goal was to make the women feel safe and comfortable in the environment we were providing, and to bring an experience of human connection that could contribute to their wellness. At first, things were relatively quiet. A few bits of conversation here and there. But about an hour into our time there, Casa Julia became a mobile salon spa. The women opened up to us, sharing both happy and sad moments as we worked on their hair and provided massage. By the end of the day, we were all feeling a new sense of comfort and solidarity. As we headed back to San Juan, our team was largely silent, each of us lost in our own thoughts about the day. We made it an early night, looking forward to tomorrow.
Day 2. Residencial Luis Lloréns Torres, Santurce
Today we worked out of the Dream Team Kutt barber shop in San Juan’s largest public housing development, Residencial Luis Lloréns Torres, located in the city’s Santurce neighborhood. I grew up in Santurce, and spent a couple of years living in what locals call “Lloréns,” so I really wanted the DFAM team to spend a day there. Lloréns’ namesake, born in 1876, was a poet, scholar, lawyer, and lifelong advocate of Puerto Rican independence. Board member Nicole Ortiz, connected us with Frankie, the owner of Dream Team Kutt, and he generously donated the use of his space to DFAM for the day. We offered our services to a group of Lloréns residents, including a contingent of senior citizens. One of our clients, Neida, reminded us of how much DFAM is a project about building human connections between DFAM volunteers and the women who use our services. After she got her haircut and massage, Neida told us: “wait, I’ll be right back.” In half an hour she came back with plates of empanadas for all of us! We told her she didn’t need to bring us food – we had come to be here for her. But with a defiant “NO” she gave us her wisdom: “we are here for each other.” Neida wanted us to know how much she and the other senior citizens we served today felt so gratified that we didn’t forget about them. “Thanks for hanging out with us and making us feel great!”
Day 3: Casa Protegida Julia de Burgos, San Juan.
We stayed in the San Juan area again today, this time to visit a second location of our partner in Puerto Rico, Casa Protegida Julia de Burgos. Given the highly sensitive nature of their work, and the need to protect their clients’ confidentiality and security, just getting to the site was a challenge: their location is not available on GPS, so we made a few twists and turns through the neighborhood while a staff member guided us to their door via phone. It’s amazing that a safe place like this exists for the women and their children who need it, especially given reports that domestic violence has been on the rise in the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria. And that’s on top of what the American Civil Liberties Union already has documented in Puerto Rico as the highest per capita rate of intimate partner homicide in the world. Nevertheless, we had a ball bringing our services to the women living at La Casa! They were thrilled to have the chance to do some self-care through haircuts and hand massage, especially on the day before Valentine’s Day. I had a little time to chat with a couple of the women over the course of the day, and they shared stories that were truly moving. Listening to them while watching their children play in the playground of La Casa, I definitely got choked up and had to pull myself together in order to be ready for my next client. Thanks to all the staff and clients of La Casa for letting us share this day with them.
Day 4: Casa Protegida Julia de Burgos, Ponce.
Today the team woke up early and headed to the historic city of Ponce, on the island’s southern coast. Ponce is Puerto Rico’s second largest city, about 90 minutes away from San Juan, and is known especially for its well-preserved architecture from the Spanish colonial period. This is where the third location of Casa Protegida Julia de Burgos is, and once again we found our way to their door with some help from one of the organization’s staffers. This particular location has had to downsize recently, due to funding cuts as the island’s budget has been strained since Hurricane Maria. But that didn’t stop the staff from handing out single red roses, in honor of Valentine’s Day, to each of the women who came to take advantage of DFAM’s haircuts and massage services. As we worked, some of the women talked with us about how they came to La Casa, and we had to admire their strength. The will to live, to survive, to take care of their children: these were the things they talked about as they relaxed and tended to their own wellness during our visit.
Day 5: Administracion de Servicios de Salud y Contra-Adiccion (ASSMCA), San Juan
When we were planning our trip to Puerto Rico, we thought we’d take our last full day for a little rest and relaxation for the team. But a couple of weeks before we headed to the island, I was contacted via social media by a representative from the Administracion de Servicios de Salud y Contra-Adiccion (ASSMCA), an organization associated with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Puerto Rico. ASSMCA operates La Linea PAS, a 24-hour mental health crisis hotline, which has been fielding a high volume of calls in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The representative had heard about DFAM, and asked if we would have time to come and give the dedicated mental health professionals who staff the hotline some attention to their own wellness. Of course we were happy to go! The ASSMCA offices felt lighter than the sites of La Casa that we visited, but there was definitely still stress in the air. With the phones continuously ringing, the staff worked diligently to refer callers to mental health and substance abuse treatment services in different parts of the island. We encouraged staffers to take short breaks to enjoy our wellness services, and it was great to contribute to their very important work.
DFAM visited five sites in five days, bringing free haircuts and massages to women still carrying the trauma of Hurricane Maria more than a year after the storm hit Puerto Rico. With our partner La Casa Protegida Julia de Burgos (Julia de Burgos’ Refuge), we met strong survivors of domestic violence in Aguadilla, Ponce, and San Juan. We also worked with the Dream Team Kutt barbershop in the Luis Llorens Torres housing development in Santurce, where I’m from, connecting with senior citizens whose self-care needs have been overlooked. And on our last day, we visited the call center where ASSMCA (Administracion de Servicios de Salud y Contra-Adiccion), an organization associated with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, operates La Linea PAS, a 24-hour mental health crisis hotline. I decided to have our team do one last haircut on the street in front of a gorgeous mural in Santurce, because to me it represents the courage and grace under pressure that all the women we met are showing on a daily basis. We met so many different women, and in each one I saw a mother, a sister, a friend, a daughter. The embrace you see in the mural is the same embrace that the DFAM team experienced during each of our visits. Thanks to everyone we met in Puerto Rico for letting us make these human connections that are needed now more than ever. Gracias a todas!