For more than 25 years, JP-based Self Esteem Boston has been providing self-esteem courses for women living in transitional living facilities, substance abusers, victims of domestic violence, and the unemployed. These programs are typically delivered in person, but, like many other programs and events, have had to go virtual because of COVID-19.
President Marion Davis and Operations Director Jeri Levitt spoke with the Gazette about how they have adapted these programs to continue to help women during this period of uncertainty.
“These women’s lives were not that different than being in a pandemic—abuse, destroying their bodies, emotional traumas, a big spectrum of things,” Davis said. “The programs are helping them to be more resilient throughout this. This is a true test of their strong resiliency and spirit.”
Davis explained that some of the programs include setting goals, writing affirmations, and learning how to eat healthily. Many women who are living in transitional facilities “will be in this program for a certain amount of time,” she said, and Self Esteem Boston’s in-person programs help them with experiential activities and skill sets that they can use going forward.
“Enter the pandemic,” she said, adding that Self Esteem Boston wanted to “stick with our mission and commitment to help these women continue with their mission and their journey.” They decided to see what they could do virtually using technology by putting resources and videos online.
“There used to be 11 groups,” Levitt said. Now there are 18, as many groups had to be split up because of social distancing. Self Esteem Boston facilitators have been conducting video and audio Zoom meetings “based on the capabilities of each of our program sites.”
Programs in East Boston and at the Dimock Center in Roxbury are using Zoom, programs in Mattapan are taped each week, and other sites are just utilizing audio.
“We are trying our best to be able to attract funds that are earmarked for COVID-19 to support what we’re doing,” Levitt said.
“We have transformed our service delivery completely now because women are on lockdown,” Levitt said. “It was a very important need to adapt and be able to still get these support services to the women.”
Before the pandemic hit, Self Esteem Boston had also been working on an online learning center as a way to serve the graduates of its programs and the surrounding community. The learning center, which launched last week, will offer access to six courses in things like goal setting, priorities, and other skills for building self-esteem.
“Our charitable mission is to make sure that we are making services available for everyone in our region regardless of ability to pay,” Levitt said. She said the online learning center is offered at a “very low cost,” and six more courses will be added by September along with a staff development program.
The program is also available to people who don’t live in shelters and would like to take a self-esteem course and have the proceeds support another woman who cannot afford to do so.
“Who knew this was going to happen?” Levitt said of the pandemic. “Now we find ourselves having to focus on continuing to build the learning center and expand it to help people out in the community that are isolated and without support.”
Levitt also said that Self Esteem Boston has a replication model that is different from the online learning center which trains other agencies to use self esteem skills. “We have transformed this into a virtual format,” she said, and JP’s Ethos is one of the agencies using this group leader training program. The program also trans health center staff and community agency staff that work with at-risk families as well as provides curriculum to use with their clients in several different languages.
“We’ve also opened a curriculum store on our website,” Levitt said, that offers material in many languages. All proceeds go “to the continued work to deliver material to women in shelters and transitional programs who can’t pay,” Levitt said.
Davis said that a challenge for putting the programming online has been getting all of the women connected to the Internet, but with a lot of the women spending time on their phones, content related to stress management and self care has been put online for them to refer back to when they need it.
“Immune systems are already weaker” in women who abuse substances, Davis said, so guides on what to eat and how to exercise are vital. Self Esteem Boston has put together a booklet of “all things that are easily doable” insofar as healthy eating and exercise.
“A lot of our clients can think about only one day at a time,” Davis said, and “if they’re able to accomplish something each day, by the time they graduate from these programs, they think outside of themselves.”
Davis and Levitt said that while these virtual programs are working for now and the women are responding well to them, they cannot replace the in-person group activities.
“There’s nothing like the in-person connecting,” Davis said. While they online learning center will still be offered to clients when they graduate, “most likely we’ll switch what we’re doing to our ordinary curriculum.”
Levitt said that they also want to continue to help other agencies bring these programs to their employees and clients. “That’s an important direction for us,” she said. “The online learning center also gives us the opportunity to support women and clients of all kinds that are leaving.”
Davis said that they have worked with a lot of women who have said that Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings were their support system after leaving the program, but “we thought they need a little more,” she said. “Technology is an awesome place for them to continue what they’ve learned.”
She said that the women “love” the technology that has been provided during the pandemic, as many of them are “not foreign to the mechanism of technology” and the facilitators are skilled in using it as well.
“These groups are so well-attended,” Levitt said. “This has been an interesting transformation for us.”
The programs have helped women stay connected to their goals even as the surrounding world is full of so much uncertainty. “When you care about who you are, you take better care of your body, pay attention to who you’re hanging out with and take care of yourself better,” Davis said.
“Self esteem is not just for people in shelters,” Levitt said. “Building self esteem is for everybody. It’s how we make a difference in the world and how we can make the most of our lives.”
For more information on Self Esteem Boston’s programs and offerings (as well as to purchase its Extreme Esteem Coffee blend!), visit selfesteemboston.com.