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Alumna Sandra Sheller Named Women Against Abuse Woman of the Year

May 29, 2015

Sandra Sheller: Drexel alumna, art and couple and family therapist, philanthropist, advocate against domestic abuse, and most recently, Women Against Abuse’s Woman of the Year Award winner. 

Sandra ShellerSheller has long been involved in the anti-domestic violence movement.  In 2004, she was completing her post master’s certificate program in Drexel’s Couple and Family Therapy program and working in a Salvation Army family homeless shelter as an art and family therapist.  Sheller became increasingly aware of the domestic and community violence, and began facilitating groups for the victims.  She partnered with Sandra Bloom, MD, an associate professor in Drexel’s School of Public Health, one of the founders of the Sanctuary Trauma Model, to bring the model to the shelter.  The Sanctuary Model was created to create community within an organization such as a shelter, by making a commitment to nonviolence, emotional intelligence, social learning, open communications, democracy, social responsibility, growth, and change.  Once integrating this model into her work, Sheller saw a reduction in incidents of violence, which enhanced the work she was doing with families.  As a result, the Salvation Army awarded Sheller and her husband, Stephen Sheller, with “The Others Award,” the highest award in recognition of extraordinary dedication and service to the lives of others. 

Sheller went on to promote the Sanctuary Trauma Model, as well as presented on trauma, the importance of early attachment, the use of art therapy, and family and community violence, at several local and national conferences.  She also served as an expert panel member on trauma for The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the US Department of Health and Human Services Homelessness Resource Center.    

After reaching out to other providers, therapists, and lay people working in various family shelters in Philadelphia, Sheller helped to form the Trauma Informed Network Group (TIN).  The group grew steadily, from eight participants in the beginning of 2009 to over 50 from 28 agencies serving homeless in the city.  By 2010, the group’s positive impact was recognized by Philadelphia’s Office of Supportive Housing (OSH), which partnered with TIN to encourage the growth of the endeavor. 

For years, Sheller trained paraprofessionals in trauma and trauma-informed services at Salvation Army locations all over the greater Philadelphia area.  Her work caught the attention of the OSH, so along with the then clinical director of Women Against Abuse, Bloom, and her team, Sheller brought the Sanctuary Model to the OSH’s Children’s Work Group of Philadelphia.  They secured funding, and over a period of three years, staff and service providers from agencies serving families and young children experiencing homelessness were trained and adopted the Model. 

During this time, Sheller began to notice the inconsistencies in parenting programs within the homeless communities.  She realized she needed to find a parenting model that would reach parents on a deeper level, changing problematic parental attitudes that placed some parents and children at risk for abuse and neglect.  Together with her colleague Karen Hudson, the Program Director of the Homeless Health Initiative of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, they created Family Care Curriculum (FCC), a program that equips parents with a theoretical knowledge of trauma and attachment to help them understand and reflect on theirs and their children’s feelings and developmental needs.  Helping parents learn to identify and override trauma triggers, they would be able to meet their children’s needs in spite of any stress or challenge experienced in their lives. 

Sheller and Hudson launched a pilot program in the shelter where Sheller worked.  The pilot consisted of 12 mothers who volunteered for the program.  At the end of the program, the mothers had shown improvement in child-rearing attitudes, which attributed to becoming more empathetic, sensitive, and involved with their children.  Because of the positive outcome, the Early Intervention Committee of the Children’s Work Group funded Sheller and Hudson to train staff at over 27 homeless and transitional housing sites throughout the city.  From this work, Sheller and Hudson became co-authors for a book chapter on parenting in the context of homelessness published in a book entitled, Supporting Families Experiencing Homelessness: Current Practices & Future Directions. Five years later, FCC is being used successfully at a number of family homeless shelters; has been selected by the National Center on Family Homelessness as one of three promising parenting programs; and is being used in a three-year randomized control research project advancing the work with parents in shelters.

Sheller was honored by Women Against Abuse at their Dish It Up event on March 26, 2015 due to her “outstanding work with mothers and children in transition, efforts to strengthen shelter services in Philadelphia, and impact for the underserved echoed their dedication to trauma-informed care.” 

Of her alma mater, Sheller said “I am very grateful to Drexel University for affording me these amazing opportunities because of the outstanding education I received there. Since 2014 I have served on the Dean’s Advisory Council of the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Drexel. From 2009-2014, I served as a clinical assistant professor in my alma mater, Hahnemann’s Creative Arts in Therapy Department of Drexel University, teaching Family Art Therapy Assessment, Trauma and attachment theory, supervising graduate interns, and serving as a Master thesis advisor.”

Most recently, Sheller was inducted into the Drexel 100, the University’s Hall of Fame.

This fall, Sheller will be the keynote speaker at Delaware Valley Art Therapy Association’s Conference presenting on Art Therapy and Trauma.