On the outside Swindon Sisters Alliance’s three shops in Swindon look much like any other charity store dotted along the town’s streets. But the organisation’s founder Emma King describes them as “doorways to support”.

Because, besides the usual clothes, books and bric-a-brac, inside each one are staff and volunteers with lived experience of domestic abuse who are trained to befriend or offer help to anyone whose life is blighted by the threat of violence or coercive control.

Emma founded the community interest company four years ago in the wake of the trauma she suffered after the death her sister Julie in 2005. She was determined to provide the support to women like her who might fall between the cracks of the formal help on offer.

The three shops, at the Parade in the town centre, Moredon Road and Cricklade Road in Gorse Hill, are deliberately placed so that women dropping off or picking up their children from school, or are out shopping, can drop in easily. Once inside there is no pressure, just a warm welcome and a willingness to listen as they browse.

Often women return several times to shop and chat before opening up about their own issues and very few stories are the same. “Often it is just word of mouth that brings people to us,” says Emma. “They just walk into the shop and we make a connection with them, I think that's what makes us unique.

“They might be on a journey to leave or in the middle of that period where they're waiting for courts or police, they might be in the refuge or they are just coming out. No matter what part of their journey they are on, we can help with reassurance and emotional support around that.”

Staff can signpost women to other services or reassure them that, though slow, the process of rebuilding their lives that they are on will be worth it in the end. The group can distribute emergency foodbank vouchers and make referrals but the income from the three shops gives SSA’s staff the independence and flexibility to be able to support to women as they see fit.

That might mean providing money to help women in crisis. “One of our clients referred a lady to us who was escaping and had to leave Swindon within 24 hours,” recalls Emma. “We were able to give her £300 to get taxis from temporary accommodation to her old accommodation so she could pick up her belongings with her two children and get another taxi to the train station in Swindon to get to the coast.

“If we hadn’t been able to offer that she would have put herself more in danger by going from one place to another to get as many of her belongings as she could. We often hear the expression ‘I left with my clothes in a bag’. The reality of that is it's because they've been told to leave – it's not that they wanted to.”

Another aspect of SSA’s work is providing days out at the seaside or to pantomimes and holidays at a caravan park for women and their children. Emma refers to them as ‘happy times’ and says that giving families positive experiences – and mums the dignity of being able to take their children away – is important.

“If you're isolated through a lack of funds, you aren’t going to be able to create positive times and when you're stuck within your four walls and can't finance anything, it can wear you down,” 

“I always say if it wasn't for me going out with my kids, everything would have been doom and gloom. So reinforcing that you can still have happier times, you can still enjoy those moments with the kids, is really important.
“If you can't create these happier times with your children, the children are affected on this journey just as much as the person going through the trauma.”

Swindon Sisters Alliance was first supported by Wiltshire Community Foundation in 2020 with a grant towards a minibus. Since then it has received Community Grants to maintain and grow its work.

“I'd just like to say thank you to Wiltshire Community Foundation because it has been nothing but helpful to us, right from when it helped us with our minibus at the very beginning when we had peanuts,” says Emma.

“Hundreds of people have been helped by that minibus, getting them to us, on the holidays and day trips and we have had lots of other support too so we are very grateful for everything.”

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