New South Wales 2016 Woman of the Year, Jen Armstrong is founder of the Beauty Bank, and a woman always on the go and on a mission.
As a domestic violence survivor, Armstrong now looks at ways to support others transition out of abusive relationships and into situations of support and safety.
Jen says that the recent launch of ANZ’s Money Minded report addresses an important issue in the area of family violence.
“Getting out of an abusive situation is really difficult, and it’s made harder if you don’t have the financial resources and you don’t understand your rights or even have a handle on how to manage your money,” she says.
“Anything that can help women rebuild is great, and education is something that no-one can take away from you.”
Even a small gesture of support after leaving a violent situation can help rebuild self-esteem and confidence, she says: so in 2012, she started The Beauty Bank to donate care packages to domestic violence survivors.
“I was in an abusive marriage with a violent man. I had a ten-month old daughter and was six months pregnant with my son. After being put in hospital for the third time after being kicked in the stomach, I knew I had to get out.”
With the help of a Police Officer and a Social Worker, Jen escaped to a safe house with her daughter. “They told me if I didn’t leave immediately, they’d take my kid away from me. That was the moment that ultimately forced me to leave.” Jen admits her mental health had become so poor that she found it difficult to pluck up the courage to go.
Jen took few personal possessions when she left and struggled to make ends meet. “Everything I had went to looking after my daughter and getting ready for the birth of my baby.”
Managing the limited funds she had in the early days stretched her to the limit.
But when Jen received a donation of some baby goods from charity organisation Dandelion Support Network, with a care package including a bottle of luxury body wash – it was the catalyst that prompted her to devise The Beauty Bank.
“It seemed insignificant at the time but it was a little treat – an indulgence that I would never have purchased.”
On putting her daughter to bed at night, Jen would shower and use the body wash. “It was a tiny life luxury – a little indulgence that made me feel special. It made me feel like I wasn’t worthless and it helped restore my self-confidence,“ she remembers.
“It was then I thought: if this simple thing could do this for me, then it could do it for other survivors too.”
Growing the Beauty Bank
The Beauty Bank has since gone from a simple concept to a service that offers care packages to women and men coping with the transition away from abusive relationships. Each care package contains cosmetics, toiletries and other ‘life’s little luxuries,’ distributed via social workers to people forced to leave domestic violence situations.
The demand for the service has grown hugely and it currently distributes 250 care packages each month worth an average of $235 each, with all items donated by the community and sorted and packaged by volunteers.
The Beauty Bank has been such a success that it has outgrown its original scope and there are now plans to expand into other states.
“Our current challenge is to keep up with demand as the success of the project has grown. We need to find more suitable premises and get some corporate sponsorship on board too,” Jen says.
Jen and her former husband had not been married long before occasional abuse escalated, with the situation worsening when they moved from two incomes to a single income family.
“That’s when the financial abuse, control and manipulation got out of hand – I had to explain where I spent every cent. If I had a coffee, I’d have to explain where I went and with who I went with,” Jen says.
“Domestic violence is about control and domination. Whether it be physical, psychological, emotional or financial, it’s about breaking someone down to make them feel worthless.”
Even now, that period of Jen’s life affects her. “I still see a domestic violence counsellor now and she is helping me deal with a lot of the issues that continue even today. The physical scars may heal quickly but the psychological and emotional damage that we keep inside takes a lot longer to heal.”
With The Beauty Bank now largely being run by Operations Manager Denise Dolan, Jen’s current focuses is on public speaking, particularly talking to young people in schools.
“It’s vital to get across the importance of respect and support and being a decent person,” she explains. “So much acceptance of a culture of abuse and violence comes from what young people see and how they act. Girls and boys need to build each other up, not tear each other apart.”
Education and Financial Literacy is key
To Jen, education and empowerment of women is crucial to safeguard against calamity.
She says women need to be actively involved in financial decisions and management and to have financial literacy.
“Don’t rely on your partner to manage everything – know where the money is, how it is being spent. A person shouldn’t be in a situation that they have to stay in an abusive or violent relationship because of financial necessity.”
Jen knows this first-hand. Though she’d left the relationship, she couldn’t leave the $15,000 credit card debt her husband had accumulated in her name.
Pregnant and unemployed, she had no means of repaying the debt. She was living in temporary accommodation and had no assets – and was very close to being declared bankrupt. If it wasn’t for the help of an astute financial counsellor, she would be in a very different circumstance today.
“I had all this money that I owed and I knew that if I was declared bankrupt I would have absolutely no chance of recovering from that.”
Armstrong wants to see financial counselling made available to all domestic violence survivors.
“When you’re in the middle of the crisis, the bills and expenses still keep rolling in and often there is no way to pay back your debts. That adds hugely to the stress you’re going through and really impacts negatively on your mental health. Survivors need help getting themselves financially back on their feet.”
Learning to achieve her dreams
Since 2012, as well as creating The Beauty Bank, Jen has completed two diplomas and is close to completing her degree. She’s studying a Bachelor of Business (Advanced Business Leadership) at Western Sydney University, majoring in Sports Management.
“WSU has been really supportive of my particular situation, and the flexibility they offer lets me structure my learning around work and family – and that’s allowed me to get really great marks.”
Jen also works four days a week as the Stadium Operations Coordinator for the Cronulla Sharks Rugby League Football Club – and her employer has come on board, making The Beauty Bank the Signature Charity for the Club.
“The Sharks have been fantastic in helping me get public exposure for what we are trying to do at The Beauty Bank and getting the message out to the broader community,” she says.
Jen’s job has also been hugely rewarding, with 2016 a stand-out year for the NRL club. Membership and game-day crowds were on the rise, and success on the field culminated with the ultimate prize, the NRL Premiership Trophy.
“It’s been a very long time coming but seeing the Club win its first Premiership ever after all the highs and lows over the past 49 years shows me that perseverance and determination eventually delivers success,” she says.
On Jen’s left wrist, in small tattooed black text are the words Invictus Maneo. “It’s the Armstrong clan motto and it means ‘I remain unbeaten.’ It was my 21st Birthday present to myself.”
“It says a lot about me and what motivates me – I only wish I paid more attention to it in my marriage.”
Armstrong looks to new challenges in the future. “I think that so much more needs to be done about domestic violence at a policy level and I’m interested in exploring the possibility of ways to change legislation. Entering into politics at some point could be an option. I’m not going to rule anything out.”
Whatever the future may hold for Jen, she is determined to live life on her terms and be guided by a quote from a poem that she cherishes and keeps as her personal mantra: “You will not define me, I will define me.”