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The People Outside the Fence

May 26, 2011

It’s 6:45 in the morning when I set out from my home. I carry a backpack stuffed with two water bottles, a handful of gummi snacks, my medications, and my knitting. In the spring and summer, all I need is a light hoodie and long jeans. The walk will keep me warm, and my audio book will keep me company. I cut through parking lots, round buildings, and eventually come to the main road. This early in the morning, traffic is light, and I am fortunate that the sidewalks here are wide and fairly well maintained. Still, I keep only one earbud in, so that I can hear approaching cars. I enjoy this quiet morning walk, despite how often I have to cross streets and driveways to get to my destination. It is a small peaceful time all to myself, and I know I will need that peace in the hours to come.

As I get closer to my destination, I can see that people have already arrived. They are standing outside the fence, waiting, watching, some murmuring softly to themselves, some simply standing with their heads bowed. Sometimes, I will meet an employee on my way in, someone who has also chosen to make this morning walk. They look at me with wary eyes until I smile and reassure them that I am a volunteer.

Sometimes I am alone as I approach, hoping that the gates will be open, that I will not have to stand outside with the others and wait. Those are the hard mornings. The others will eye me as I stand apart from them. I can feel them wondering why I have come. Am I lost? Misguided? Misinformed? Can I be helped? Can I be guided? Can I be saved? After a time, one will approach me. They will say good morning, hello, how are you, do you need help, do you need someone to talk to? I ignore it all. Only once have I ever responded, and it was to give one young man a flat stare when he tried to reach out and touch my arm. Silence is my best shield. The volunteers tell this to each other over and over. Do not engage.

Most mornings I am lucky, and I don’t have to wait. I am greeted by my fellow volunteers, offered coffee, and allowed to enter. Inside, I nod to the woman behind the desk, and head back sign in and fetch my vest. I understand that in some places, the vests are orange, in others, they are neon green. Here, they are neon yellow, and they declare “Volunteer” in bold black print.

Outside again, I seat myself in a chair, take out my knitting, and settle in with my fellow volunteers to wait. We talk about politics, religion, share stories of previous Saturday mornings, the next potluck, and who is going where on their next vacation. The topics range from the silly to the serious, depending on who has volunteered for that slot. And when a vehicle drives in through the gate, knitting and talking are set aside. There is work to do.

We move to stand by the car. The people outside the fence do the same, as much as they can. The cars are all different. Old, new, shabby, shiny, well used, or well-loved they all have one thing in common. Inside is a woman who has come down a hard road, who we need to be there for. One volunteer stands by the front driver’s side of the car, and one stands by the back passenger side. Sometimes we’ll switch, if we see that the woman is driving herself. The goal is to put ourselves between her and the people outside the fence, so that the first face she sees, and the first voice she hears is someone who is friendly and non-judgmental.

The people outside the fence will sometimes claim that this tactic is proof that we are trying to keep these women from hearing the truth. In part, it is true. We are shielding her. But not because the people outside the fence are declaring some frightening truth that we don’t want her to know. In reality, we are shielding her because the things that the people outside are saying are often hurtful, insulting, or condescending. The people outside the fence claim they are just trying to be helpful, just trying to give her information. We know that if she has come this far, then she already has all the information she wants. Anything else she needs to know will be told to her by the medical professional inside the building.

Sometimes, she (or the person she is with) will ask what the people outside the fence are saying. Every volunteer answers a little differently, but most of us calmly explain that they are hoping to change her mind. Sometimes, she will not talk, and we will simply smile, welcome her, talk about the weather, and tell her what our job is. Anything to help her ignore what is being said on the other side. Sometimes she will listen for a little while before turning to go. We try not to interrupt her if she seems to be genuinely interested in what is being said, but if she becomes upset or angry, we try to guide her away. More often it is the friends and family that have to be guided away when the discussion gets too heated. Sometimes if the friend or family member is in agreement with the people outside the fence, they will be asked to continue their discussion on the other side. This is usually a boyfriend or older family member.

Before they are allowed into the clinic, we check them and their belongings. We are not nearly as thorough as the TSA, but the history of violent behavior by people like those outside the fence makes us overly cautious. I have seen older women who were born and raised here, graduate students from other countries, and in one particularly heartbreaking case, a little girl who couldn’t have been more than 13. Her mother confided to a fellow volunteer that she wished the people outside the fence would go stand outside the house of her daughter’s rapist.

Hours later, they will come out. She will often look tired, sometimes scared, but most often relieved. We walk with her back to the car, shielding her once more from the people outside the fence, who still insist they only want to help her, to talk to her, to give her information. I often wonder why they bother at this point. It’s not as if anything they say can change what has already happened. This is where the claims of the people outside the fence feel most thin to me. If they are truly there to stop what is happening, why continue to try to emotionally manipulate her once it is over? What gain is there to be had from hurting her now?

Just before she gets into her car, I remind her that the people outside the fence aren’t allowed to approach her car unless she indicates she wants them to. If she doesn’t want to talk to them, all she has to do is keep her windows rolled up. As she starts her car, I walk with a fellow volunteer to the gate, where we stand and wait until she has gone. The people outside the fence aren’t supposed to stand in the driveway or approach the cars unless asked to, but that doesn’t stop them from doing it anyways.

In all my time, I have yet to see a woman leave because of anything shouted at her across the fence. I have seen women who left because they changed their minds after talking to the counselor, and I have heard of women being turned away because she admitted to the counselor that she really didn’t want do go through with it. Each time, the people outside the fence will count this as a “win” for their side, as though the people inside did not also support the right of the woman to change her mind.

The people outside the fence claim that people just need to join them and see what it’s really like. If people could just hear what they say, and experience what they do, then they will better understand why they stand outside that fence. I am here to tell you that I have heard what they say, and seen how they treat the women who come through those gates. And I would much rather be one of the people inside the fence, than one of the ones outside.

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