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Fraternity volunteer efforts help abuse victims heal

EAU CLAIRE—When Caleb Thielemann agreed for the first time to pull a few of his fraternity brothers together to help a family in crisis move to a safe place, he had no idea how much the experience would change the family's life or his own.

"It was a domestic abuse situation and we got them to a safer place," said Thielemann, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. "It was incredibly eye-opening to realize the difference we made for this mom and her kids. It was just a few guys and we had them moved in an hour and half but it made such a difference for them. When you volunteer, you expect to be helpful but seeing how much we could directly help in that little amount of time was when I really realized what community service is all about."

Thielemann is a member of the UW-Eau Claire chapter of Delta Tau Delta-Iota Phi, a fraternity whose members regularly volunteer with the Bolton Refuge House in Eau Claire. Bolton is a community organization that offers shelter and support services for victims of domestic violence, abuse and sexual assault.

The DTD fraternity, now in its third year at UW-Eau Claire, was established around the idea of using community service to help male students develop their understanding of the core values of truth, courage, faith and power, said Brandon Aguirre, a junior business administration major from Burlington who serves as DTD president.

"When you're around good people, good things happen," Aguirre said of making community service a priority. "We have 25-plus great guys in our fraternity so the idea to work with Bolton started and it just snowballed. Once we got involved, we were all hooked and wanted to do more for them."

The students support the agency's work in a variety of ways, Aguirre said. They donate their time to help families move to new homes, volunteer at the emergency shelter and provide security at agency events, he said.

Members also help raise money for the agency, as well as work to heighten awareness around issues of violence, Aguirre said.

"Having Delta Tau involved in our organization is nothing short of amazing," said Tanya Potter, volunteer coordinator for BRH. "There is no way to properly express the impact that these young men have on our agency. They are kind, respectful, willing to help, and always have such positive attitudes. Their work in getting information out about our services is phenomenal.

"To have a group of men who are on track to be involved in business, politics, law enforcement and other aspects of the professional world also be committed to working toward a safe and equal society is crucial to our mission."

While Bolton provides services to victims of domestic abuse or sexual assault regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, the student volunteers most often interact with women who have been victimized by men.

As a result, they feel an even greater sense of responsibility to show the women that there are men who will treat them with respect and kindness, Thielemann said.

"You can see that some of the women are a little wary of us at first but then get emotional when we treat them in respectful and courteous ways," Thielemann said. "A lot of the women and some of the kids haven't had good experiences with any of the men in their lives so it's good for them to see us being kind. It opens their minds a little bit to the idea that not all men will hurt them."

Potter said the value of having men as champions for the kinds of work being done by Bolton was captured in a question posed by actress Emma Watson in her address to the U.N. this fall: How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?

"Having DTD members as volunteers is extremely helpful because they are male leaders taking a stand against all forms of violence in our community," Potter said. "With an organization of successful, caring young men showing the support of a domestic violence and sexual assault service provider, BRH has been able to incorporate more men as part of the movement to end violence in our community."

While the students are eager participants in and supporters of events organized by Bolton, they also have established their own events to support Bolton.

Under sophomore Tucker Goesch's leadership as chair of philanthropy, DTD created Delt Dogs Nights to raise money for and bring attention to BRH programs. The students sell hot dogs on Water Street two nights each semester, with proceeds going to the agency.

"We aren't psychiatrists who can help families heal but we can raise money that will help them restart their lives," said Goesch, a kinesiology and pre-physical therapy major from La Crescent, Minnesota. "Knowing that we're raising money that will help make life a little bit easier for victims of abuse means a lot to me. These are people who've experienced trauma and have many challenges ahead of them. Our task is easy; all we're doing is selling hot dogs. The victims endure the real hardship as they come to terms with a violent situation and begin a new life. It's satisfying to know that such a simple task as selling hot dogs will, in some aspect, help them find comfort in the midst of adversity."

While the Delt Dogs Nights bring in needed dollars, the event also raises awareness among the student population about the issues of domestic abuse and sexual assault, and it gets information to students about local support services available to them should they be a victim of abuse, Goesch said.

Getting that information into the hands of students is especially important since research shows that college students are at high risk for sexual assault and dating violence, Potter said, noting that the student population often is difficult for Bolton to reach with its messaging.

The DTD's Delt Dogs Nights is effective because it involves students sharing important information with other students in a place where they regularly gather, Potter said.

"We're helping people understand that this isn't just some crazy thing that happens to one person someplace else," said Aguirre. "Violence happens here and it can happen to anyone, even college students. As we talk to people and they find out what we're doing, they're really supportive. We see students who could spend their money in a lot of ways on Water Street, choosing to drop $20 in our bucket and they don't want anything in return."

Goesch said while he's proud of the difference he's making through his volunteer work with Bolton, in reality he and his fraternity brothers gain as much if not more than they give through their partnership with the agency.

Thanks to their volunteer work, they have a better understanding of the issues around violence, an understanding that they will take with them beyond their undergraduate careers, Goesch said.

"We work at events where survivors of domestic and sexual abuse are telling their stories and it's really powerful," Thielemann said. "I heard a woman talking about how her husband tried to kill her as their children watched. You realize that she could be someone you know and it makes you want to take action to stop this from happening. People can tell you that these things happen but it really sinks in when you hear someone tell their own story. It's mind-blowing to hear them talk about the violence they've experienced, and even worse when there are kids involved. The stories I've heard, and what I've learned about these issues, will always be with me.

"But the fact that we're learning about these issues from an organization that specializes in offering support to victims of this kind of violence is incredible. It's making us better people."

For Thielemann, the experience he's gaining from interacting with Bolton and its clients will be even more meaningful if he follows his current plan and enters law enforcement after he graduates.

"If I go into law enforcement, I'm going to deal with domestic abuse and sexual assault situations," said Thielemann, a criminal justice major from Jefferson. "My work with Bolton is giving me experiences and insights that will help me be more prepared and more aware of what can be involved. It'll help me know how to act and react when I get into these kinds of situations. That's going to be incredibly helpful."

All DTD members, regardless of their future career paths, are gaining skills through their volunteer work with Bolton that will benefit them professionally, Aguirre said.

Students are building strong communication and organizational skills, as well as learning how to solve problems and to work more effectively as part of a team, Aguirre said, adding that those are the skills employers in all fields say they highly value in employees.

"As a sophomore, I already was leading DTD," Aguirre said. "I don't think there are a lot of organizations that would have given me a chance to do that so soon. As the leader, I'm figuring out how to get buy-in from members, how to motivate members, how to make people feel like part of the team and how to attract new members. All those skills are things I'm going to use someday in a job. This experience is priceless."

Already, Aguirre said, he was selected for an internship with an area business because of his leadership work with DTD.

Aguirre said the success DTD has had in its partnership with Bolton is an example of how students can make an impact on the Eau Claire community while also enhancing their knowledge and skills.

"Basically, our members all just spend a couple hours here and there doing stuff for Bolton," Aguirre said, noting that their community service does not interfere with their academic work or other activities. "But when you have 25 guys helping out for two hours a week, two times a month, you make a lot of difference."

For more information about DTD's partnership with Bolton Refuge House, contact Brandon Aguirre at aguirrbm@uwec.edu.

For more information about services from Bolton, call 715-834-0628 or 855-526-5866. Students wishing to volunteer at the agency can email Tanya Potter at volunteerbrh@yahoo.com.