young adults wearing plain white t-shirts posing for a group photo.

Members of the student-run Domestic Violence Task Force at the Dress for What’s Next Event.

Students organize day of rest and empowerment for domestic violence survivors

It was her 59th birthday, and only when volunteers were giving her a manicure did the woman let that be known. “She said it was the best birthday she ever had,” reports Shelby Mueller ’23, chair of the student-run Domestic Violence Task Force. “She gushed about how empowering the day was, and how good she felt, and how she was excited to start her self-care journey.”

That’s the life-changing magic of a longstanding UB Law tradition, Dress for What’s Next, which brings together a group of domestic violence survivors each year for a much-needed day of affirmation, some practical help, and a good dose of fun.

Fourteen survivors attended the event, accompanied by about 20 student volunteers and others from the wider community. The guests, who had been invited by word of mouth from DV advocates, experienced a full day’s activities: breakfast, a yoga and meditation session, manicures, shopping through an array of donated clothing, lunch, a self-defense class, even the opportunity to have their picture taken in their new clothes.

Mueller says the goal of the annual flagship event for the Domestic Violence Task Force was to provide a day to relax for survivors who have endured so much pain and difficulty.

“I really wanted them to feel empowered, to feel pampered and just overall to have some fun,” says Mueller, outgoing president of the task force. “They settled in quickly, and we played some music and had YouTube up on the projector. I think we were really able to create a comfortable environment for them.”

One highlight was the opportunity to sit for a photo session. Typically, that involves taking professional headshots, Mueller says, but this year’s attendees hammed it up a little. “They were posing, they were really getting into it,” Mueller says. “The photographer took fun photos. One of the women brought her child and they had photos taken together.”

Responsibility for Dress for What’s Next is handed down from year to year. “This is really something significant that the students do, and it’s a tradition that goes back approximately 30 years,” says Clinical Professor Judith Olin, who directs the law school’s Family Violence and Women’s Rights Clinic. She and Lisa Patterson, program director for externships, public interest and access to justice initiatives, are co-advisers to the initiative. “The baton gets passed from one group of students to the next,” Olin says, “and the fact that they’ve been able to keep this alive year after year is remarkable.”

Students in Olin’s clinic advocate for domestic violence survivors in court, and some of those current and former clients were among those attending the event. But, she says, “this is a way of reaching out to survivors in the community in a very different type of way than we do in the clinic. Most of the survivors who attend are low-income folks who are living paycheck to paycheck; they don’t have the money to go out and pamper themselves with a spa day. This is something that really makes them feel special, and the fact that the university is willing to lend its space and to host it also shows a strong commitment by UB.”

In the past, Patterson says, the event centered around providing professional attire for women looking to re-enter the work force. Now, she says, “it’s more practical. You might just need an extra pair of comfy pants because you left everything at home when you left. Or you may need items for your kids, or a handbag. Whatever they need, they can take, and it really always seems to work out that they find what they need.” The wardrobe is furnished through a clothing drive within UB.

“It’s really taking people who just need that extra hand to keep going and giving them a little bit of respite for a few hours,” Patterson says. “They also get a lot out of being together for the day.  There’s camaraderie there.”

Additional partners in Dress for What’s Next are the Western New York Chapter of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York, Yoga Parkside, Grace Corley of Atomic Barbershop and Salon, and photographer Duy Phan.