A visual of our strategic plan is available here
The SAOL Project was started in 1995 as a result of findings from a Master’s thesis on ‘Women and Addiction’. Carmel Dunne, a local Health Service manager, noted that women on methadone needed specific services that could attend to their needs. Community leaders accepted the validity of the findings and worked hard to secure funding to start a project for women from the area.
It’s not a surprising start for a project like SAOL. Throughout our story so far we have, time and again, taken ideas from research and from community voices and developed responses that help the women who come to SAOL and the men and women who attend other services throughout the country.
Since the day that the first classes were held in SAOL [16th October, 1995] we have been supported by the community and statutory sector and European colleagues in providing education and support for more than 350 different women; graduating 10 ‘CE groups’; caring for more than 250 children; training more than 2,000 professionals; and facilitating more than 25,000 downloads and publications of addiction manuals, reports and poetry.
In SAOL we are educators, inspired by feminism and Paulo Freire. In ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, Freire says, “Any situation in which some men prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence;… to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects.” Our work as educators in SAOL is to ensure that the women who come to SAOL can engage in their own decision-making processes. When we stop doing this, we will have failed; when there is no more need for us to do this, we will have succeeded.
SAOL was set up initially to work with 16 women every 2 years. SAOL adapts and changes and since 2008 we have also developed aftercare supports so that we now provide more than 28 hours of classes every week; key working to every participant who attends; at least 10 hours of psycho-educational group-work per week; and that is not including a minimum of 20 hours of pre-school early education childcare for up to 10 children per week. Any woman who calls to SAOL’s door will be welcomed and offered support immediately. Access to group-work may take a little longer; but we do not operate a waiting list because we believe that if a woman is brave enough to knock on our door, then we need to meet her without delay.
All of this is done with a dedicated team of 4 therapeutic staff, 3 childcare staff, 1 administrator, 4 CE workers and currently, 3 volunteers and 2 students on placement. We are governed by a voluntary Board of Management who receive no payment for the work they do and the responsibility they take.
Our new strategic plan envisages that all of this work will continue; it is still valid and necessary. While therapy is often needed for our participants in their recovery, advocacy is absolutely essential. The basics are needed first. Is there safety, warmth, food, shelter and belonging? When these exist, other parts of recovery can continue.
SAOL is therefore guided by our mission statement:, “Saol is a community project focused on improving the lives of women affected by addiction and poverty and inspired by our vision statement: “SAOL is working towards transforming the way in which Ireland responds to addiction and poverty”.
The two key elements of addiction and poverty have guided SAOL since the start of the project. The feminist approach that guides us demands that there is equality between the sexes (for the emancipation of both) but at the moment, given the imbalance in society, is particularly focused on the freedom of women. The women who attend SAOL are often second class citizens within their community and this is exacerbated by poverty and resultant addiction.
Women require better care and support when they are addressing their recovery. Not because they are more important than men; but rather because their recovery is more complex, often because of the role they play in their families.
That saying, ‘give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime’ would not read the same for a women. ‘Give a woman a fish and she feeds her family for a day, while also making a stew with the remains to keep them going for the next couple of days; teach a woman to fish and she will have to negotiate with the men in her life so she can give them the credit for her new skill, while cooking the dinner!’. It might be a slight over-statement but then again…
Poverty remains the disturbing reality in the lives of the women who come to SAOL. Our budget on food has risen again this year. That is because many of the women who come to SAOL do not have enough money to get by. The cuts introduced by the government in their response to the financial crisis harmed women and children; specifically, they harmed the women and children who come to SAOL. We hope that those cuts will be reversed. We hope also that we will not have to keep poverty in our mission statement.
We have noted for a long time that domestic violence to women in addiction is an ever-present phenomenon. As Margaret Atwood said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” As the current wave of austerity hit, so more cases of violence in the home were reported in SAOL. We have been responding to these and other traumas since SAOL started but it is only now that we are ready to formulate our response into a plan of action.
That plan of action is called ‘trauma-informed care’ and in SAOL we are making sure that all of our interactions with women are informed by the impact of the trauma that they have experienced. Lisa Najavit’s (2002) ‘Seeking Safety’ manual will guide our implementation of this part of our strategic plan. She suggests that 99% of women attending addiction services have experienced trauma and 50% will be found to have PTSD. Our work over the next three years is to ensure that we have the data to highlight SAOL’s participants’ experiences, while also ensuring that nothing we do in SAOL will re-traumatise women who have already been through enough.
Women who know trauma are often unsure of themselves and have much lower self-esteem than their peers. If they are mothers, they tend not to trust their own parenting skills so much. Fear of authority figures and the questioning of anyone about their children inspires secrecy and hiding. In SAOL we will in the next three years, implement PuP (‘Parenting under Pressure’) in the hope that we can better support the parents who attend SAOL. We will do so with the assistance of Coolmine and Ballyfermot Star Project and the supervision of Griffith College, Brisbane. Women in addiction are parents. Their parenting requires support. We hope to better that support from SAOL through this plan.
Jane Austen, in Persuasion wrote, “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.” Our education programme has a strong peer support element just to ensure that we never get too calm in our waters. We aim in our current strategy to promote ‘peer 2 peer’ work even more than we currently do because we trust the SAOL women to help steer the services and classes and groups through the most vital parts of their lives, so that we can make the most vital of impacts. “I can promise you that women working together – linked, informed and educated – can bring peace and prosperity to this forsaken planet.” (Isabel Allende)
SAOL is a community resource and are proud to be part of this north inner city community and the addiction community. We have an expertise and an insight that we want to share with those who will listen. We are a funded agency, so we are paid for our work. It is not our desire to raise money from the reports or manuals or artwork that we create. We will share them because that is how we do things. This will continue throughout the life of this strategic plan.
Finally, this plan is devised with full commitment to best practice in governance; the Board of Management, particularly through the work on governance, has considered how best to strengthen Board members' performance as stewards of SAOL. The Board develops and advances SAOL's mission and goals. It ensures the Project is well managed, provides excellent services for women and maintains good relations with all stakeholders. It appoints and evaluates the Director, develops (with staff, participants and stakeholders) and monitors the implementation of strategy and policies, provides accountability and preserves the autonomy of the Project.
The Board assures that it has the requisite skills and experience to steward the Project and ensures that each Board member carries out his or her responsibilities as specified.
SAOL Project’s Board of Management is a small, hard-working board that makes substantial demands of its members. However, we are also a proud Board, proud of SAOL’s achievements so far and excited by the directions our new strategic plan is taking us.
As a community project we are funded by the HSE, the NICLDATF, the Probation Service, the Department of Social Protection and the CDETB. All of our work is possible because of the grants you give us and we are very, very grateful.