It’s a cold April day and Vivian Del Valle sits in her office arranging bright little fabric dolls. One doll is carrying a baby on its back. Another one is of Del Valle herself donning a graduation gown with a degree in hand.
These are not just ordinary dolls. They are what Del Valle, a clinical counsellor for COSTI Immigrant Services, calls farafallas — an Italian word for butterflies.
Made with different colours and textures of fabric, these dolls were created by Del Valle’s clients, who are victims of trauma and abuse. Symbolizing the transition of a caterpillar into a butterfly, each doll is a direct reflection of the renewal and change being made in their lives.
When Del Valle moved to Toronto from her native Mexico 15 years ago, she had to start all over again. Today, the North York resident helps abused women do the same. Her efforts helping Spanish-speaking victims of trauma and abuse was recently recognized with the YWCA Women of Distinction Award in community support.
Del Valle says that, as an immigrant, she shares the stories of her clients. She was also once a victim of abuse, she says, and her family history includes violence against women.
“(My mother) was sexually abused all throughout her childhood, and she didn’t understand what was happening,” she said in an interview. “Nobody talked about it.”
When she moved to Canada with her then-husband and young daughter, the weight of a troubled marriage was added to the challenge of being in a new country with only limited English language skills, she says.
Despite holding a degree in art history, her educational credentials were deemed invalid — a problem many immigrants can relate to. She studied human services at George Brown College and then went to Ryerson University to become a personal support worker. She then obtained a master’s degree in social work from York University.
“I started my studies when I was 39,” she said. “I had to start all over again.”
Del Valle said she experienced verbal abuse by her ex-husband. A few years after moving to Toronto they divorced. It had taken some time for her to realize something had to change, she says now.
“One day, my eight year old daughter said to me, ‘Mom, why do you allow daddy to talk to you like that?” she recalls. “That comment made me realize: this is not right.
“I don’t want my daughter when she’s older for a guy to talk to her like this.”
When she started at COSTI six years ago, Del Valle was a gambling counsellor, but seeing the large number of abused Latin American women in northwest Toronto walking through their doors seeking help, she asked to work directly with them.
Women have internalized the role of silent servant, to accept whatever happens to them, Del Valle says.
“It’s like an onion,” she said. “There are tons of layers and I want to unveil the injustices.”
But she feels a connection to the women she counsels.
Supporting a sexually abused girl who is confronting her abuser in court is like going full circle, Del Valle says.
“It is closing the cycle with my mother.”
Del Valle reassures abused women who are still in silence that there are resources out there for them.
“It took me seven years to leave,” she said.
Oppression can survive only in silence, Del Valle said. The most important thing is to break the silence.
Del Valle co-wrote a book chapter about her work and is currently co-writing a workbook for other counsellors and therapists on helping Latin American women.
An artist herself, Del Valle uses her creative talent combined with her educational background to help abuse victims begin the healing process.
A mixed media art exhibit by Del Valle and her clients demonstrating the suffering and pain of abuse victims is in the works.
Receiving the Woman of Distinction award has only given her more fuel to continue doing what she loves — helping women start anew, she said.
“It is wonderful to feel that the community recognizes what I love to do,” she said.
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