Helping survivors on their road to recovery

Sarah left her marriage and moved to Devon a year ago with her four children. She co-founded the Charity Shop Gift Card – an idea inspired by her own lived experience.  It’s a social enterprise which aims to help domestic abuse survivors regain their independence with dignity. She is also a trustee for a charity called Gifted Women which helps empower and support women who have experienced multiple disadvantages to find work skills and employment.

Our head of communications caught up with Sarah to find out more about her journey.

Can you tell us about your life now?

Starting a new life hasn’t been an easy journey – getting a mortgage on my own was hard and the impact the last few years has had on the children has had far reaching implications, but we are getting there.  I didn’t have a support network when I moved to Devon, but I have made some amazing and supportive new friends; my social life is better than it’s ever been.  I absolutely love living on the coast and I regularly swim in the sea (even through the winter) and the improvements in my confidence and mental health have been huge, and it’s something the old me would have never even dreamt of doing.

Three years ago, I was in the depths of despair and thought that taking my own life would be the only way out.  I could never see a future in which I could support myself and my children, or even be happy, but I am getting there.  I’m still a work-in-progress but my life now is unrecognisable from what it was before and, although it’s been incredibly difficult at times, it has been worth every second to get where I am now.

I spent years just surviving and felt like a hollow shell.  When I finally left my relationship, I was so lucky that my family scooped me up and looked after me and after some time I felt strong enough to try and find my independence again.  So many people have helped in countless ways, I definitely couldn’t have done it on my own.  The kindness I’ve been shown by so many people helped me go from just surviving to thriving.

Tell us about the Charity Shop Gift Card?

It’s essentially a consumer gift card for people to use in charity shops.  

My inspiration was borne out of my own need. I found myself in that situation and rather than relying on donations from people for the things my kids and I needed, I wished I could have chosen the things I needed from charity shops. Realising how important dignity and choice are for people I wanted there to be a way for people to ‘shop for free’ in charity shops and a gift card was the solution to this.

The gift card gives recipients the opportunity and freedom to choose essential items, such as coats and jumpers, that they like and are excited to wear rather than receiving specific donations.

Councils, charities and other support agencies can purchase the card to distribute emergency funding for people who are in need of essentials; whether it’s a winter coat or a washing machine.  All these things can be found in charity shops and as well as being good value for money, they are helping the environment and supporting charities in the amazing work that they do.

Can you tell us a bit about why you set this up?

When I first left my ex-partner, I left with nothing and was reliant on donations of clothing from friends and family.  I was incredibly lucky to have people around us who could provide them. 

I was so privileged to have been given support, but I was embarrassed and ashamed that my life had got to such a crisis point and all of the family, friends, colleagues and friends of friends knew about it. 

I realised how important dignity, choice and autonomy are for people and wanted there to be a way for others in similar situations to ‘shop for free’ in charity shops, without charity shops losing out on revenue. A charity shop card was the solution to this, and I had a vision that it would be available to people on every high street and with nothing to identify them as receiving financial support.  This is where it complements the consumer side so nicely – you could have been gifted the card from a relative or be an influencer making some content, nothing identifies how or why you have the card.

You can’t underestimate the importance of what you wear and the impact it can have on you.  This can be especially true to survivors of domestic abuse who may have been told what to wear or have not had money to buy the things they like.  Charity shops enable people to choose the things they need to suit their taste and style and to help rebuild their self-esteem.

What’s the biggest thing that you have learned?

There is no end to the kindness of others, that is something I will never forget and will be eternally grateful for.

In terms of setting up the business, I’ve been really lucky to have been given chances by people that didn’t know me but took the time to hear my ideas and give me the benefit of their experience in industries that were completely new to me. 

My co-founders (who were already working on the consumer idea) took a chance on me and happily brought my concept on board and we haven’t looked back.  If I am ever in a position where I can give someone an opportunity, I will take it– you never know how life changing it could be for someone.

What would you say the most common misconception of domestic abuse is?

That it’s always physical.  I somehow thought that coercive control and emotional abuse were ‘domestic abuse-lite’ and not as valid as being physically assaulted.  Now I know realise how similar the impacts are. Domestic abuse can happen to anyone and can take different forms but I think not realising this and not recognising it as abuse, can make it so much harder to leave.

If you could pass one message to people living with domestic abuse, what would it be?

You will have a future outside of that relationship.  No matter how scary it gets you will be better off out of it and your life will be improved.  It takes an incredible amount of bravery to take that first step but there is help out there.  It moves me to tears even thinking about it, not just how I felt but also the inspiring stories of other women that I’ve met who made the break. It can feel like a really long, hard slog but one day you will look back and be glad that you left.

What would your motto be?  

Take the risk or lose the chance.  I don’t think I’m a natural risk-taker but I’m learning to be because I’ve seen how being brave can pay off.  I spent years not wanting to put myself out there and it’s still not in my comfort zone but it’s definitely worth trying to believe in yourself a bit more.

What makes you laugh/happy?

Family makes me happy and my children are everything.  And they just say the weirdest things that make me laugh.

Swimming in the sea – it’s a sense of freedom like nothing else (but also freezing cold and a bit scary at times!) and it’s good to challenge yourself.

And my friends. They have helped me find a new lease of life – I laugh with them like I haven’t laughed in years’ and it feels good!

Anyone interested in using The Charity Shop Gift Card to help survivors of domestic abuse should contact [email protected] or visit Support Sector – The Charity Shop Gift Card