Over the 20 plus years of my employment at Women’s Community House(WCH), I have witnessed growth and transformation taking place at WCH. What I am saying is I have been a part of growth and transformation taking place at WCH, and WCH was and is transforming me, always. It is a continuous process.
Some 38 years ago, in spite of many challenges and by pure determination of our founding mothers, WCH was born out of a big idea in a small place on Piccadilly Street and, later on in 1984, found refuge in an unassuming old house on Maitland Street. That is where I started my journey with WCH. The Maitland Street location was not public knowledge because back then the majority of shelters for abused women were “hidden” for safety reasons. When working at the Maitland Street shelter, the best security feature of this location, we would say, was the close proximity to the London Police Station on Dundas Street.How different things are now!!! When the newly built Wellington Road shelter opened its doors in 1992, we were no longer in hiding. I am sure most of you - if not all of you – have driven by our buildings many times since 1992. Our locations are now easy to find. It is hard not to notice the large electronic sign at the Wellington Road (and Clarke Road) sites, our Iron Maiden proudly standing on the Wellington shelter front lawn. The decision to go public with our address was to increase awareness of the issue of women abuse, believing that being visible in the community will, in fact, increase our safety. With 40 beds available at the Wellington Road location, who would have thought that we would need to expand so soon, and yet, we did. Our second location at 450 Clarke Road opened with 27 beds in 2005. So, at the present time, with combined space availability of 67 beds, one would think that we must be able to accommodate all the women and children who are in need of space. Think again. Sadly, we are not. Our 2014/2015 statistics show that in this one year we had in our shelters a total of 715 residents - 513 women and 202 children. 715 residents! And we had to refer elsewhere 157 women because of lack of space. Second Stage Housing(SSH) is Women’s Community House’s 25-unit apartment complex where abused women and their children can live up to one year. In this same period of time (2014/2015 fiscal year), SSH housed 42 women and 51 children. Women’s Community House is the largest high-security shelter for abused women and their children in Canada, with about 70 employees (full- and part-time and relief staff) who work very hard to be our best, to do our best, to do better tomorrow than we have done yesterday. Our mandate is to: “provide safe places and services for abused women and their children”. We not only serve the many women and children who stay in our shelter but also offer services and assistance through our Transitional Outreach Program, Family Court Support Program, Community Group Program for Children & Their Moms, WCH social enterprise – our Mine 101 Store and our newest addition, The Counselling and Support Centre. With these additional programs, WCH is able to extend our services and reach many more people in our community, regardless of their gender identity and form of abuse. This also opens many avenues for us to educate our community. Our helpline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days of the year. In the past fiscal year, we have served 4,750 callers. Any time the phone rings, counsellors are available to listen, to offer support and information. As the current Staff Representative to our Board of Directors, I have the privilege to witness the collective wisdom, dedication and hard work of our Board members. Our agency is in good hands and with a committed Board, Kate [Wiggins] as our Executive Director, together with our managers and staff, we are working hard to meet the challenge that is in front of us.For the past 7 months, I have been trusted with an opportunity to work at the Counselling and Support Centre at Women’s Community House. The CSC, as we call it, opened its doors in 2014 as a pilot project, about 18 months ago, at the Wellington Road site to provide support, information and counselling to people living in our community who are dealing with issues of abuse in their life and who may not need to stay in the shelter. At the present time, the CSC is open Monday to Friday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. on an appointment - or simply walk-in - basis. There are two(2) full-time counselling staff who at the CSC. Just the other week, I sat down with a woman who came in for help with applying for subsidized housing. Her plan was to separate from her abusive partner once she had secured an independent place to live. In order for her to qualify for Special Priority Status – the fastest way of getting housed in London – she had to meet certain criteria. I asked this woman if she had a way to verify that she has been abused - a police record or a court order to “back up her story”. There was, she told me. She had been physically hurt many times in the past, but there were no witnesses. Sometimes, she would call the police when she knew things were escalating and when she was afraid for her safety. She knew the pattern of abuse all too well. So, the police would come, and they would listen to what she had to say, and they would listen to what he [the abuser] had to say, and that was that. The abuse continued unnoticed, inside her home. On occasion, she would leave her home for the rest of the night and stay with a friend, call WCH for support, only to return home later. She was scared most of the time. But this one time, she said to me, when things escalated, she was able to run out of the house before her partner grabbed her as she was trying to get into the car. She was “lucky”, she told me, because her neighbor was also outside this time and saw what was happening - saw how she was grabbed by her arms and pushed away from the car, saw how she hit the brick wall with her head while her partner held onto her. She was screaming, she said, and at some point she heard her neighbor’s voice: “Hey! Stop! What are you doing? That is not the way to treat your wife!” - to which her partner replied: “Stay out of it. It is none of your business,” as he continued to try to force her back into the house. But the neighbor must have thought otherwise because he called 911. The Police came and arrested the man [abusive partner] and charged him with assault. The woman was taken to get medical attention at the hospital. The next day when her partner was released from custody with conditions to not associate with his wife, police escorted him back to the house so he could collect some of his personal possessions. Later on in the evening, after everyone was gone, in the bedroom the woman discovered a note left on the night stand by her side of the bed. She told me the note, written by her husband, said, “Now you have done it. Thank you very much!” Now, YOU have done it. My co-workers and I hear similar stories to this one often enough to potentially start to believe that the world is a dark place, and there is no hope, and what we do is just not enough, or that at the end it does not matter and that the cycle of abuse will continue endlessly. But we do not believe this. We cannot believe this. We believe that change is possible. We believe that what we do does matter. We also know that in order for our families and our communities to get healthy, we need as many people as possible to get involved, in many ways. Abuse is not something that happens somewhere, to someone else. Abuse hurts all of us. It happens in our families, to our co-workers and our friends, in our communities. We are all victims of abuse – directly or indirectly. We are all hurt by it, and pay the price for it. But there is a way out. Only when we all get involved in helping those who suffer, only when we make it “our business”, like that neighbor did, we can stop the hurting. Collectively, we need to keep those who hurt others accountable. After all, they hurt others because they hurt themselves. There are many ways to get involved, to help. There is so much work to be done. Statistics collected by WCH show that the best way to spread information about support and services for victims of abuse is by “word of mouth”. In our confidential surveys, we ask our clients: “How did you hear about WCH services?” The answer most often provided is from a friend, my sister, my co-worker. Please keep that in mind. On behalf of the many women and children, as well as the men that we serve, we at Women’s Community House are so grateful for any type of support received from our community members. We are grateful for our dedicated and tireless volunteers who help us in so many ways. We are thankful to the many women and men who support us by bringing to our facilities gently used clothing and household items so that the women and children can get much-needed practical help. And to you, our generous financial group donors representing our community’s corporations and foundations, representing our churches, faith and club groups, for your wonderful support - THANK YOU! Your help is so much appreciated, and so very much needed. I would like to close by sharing a very special Valentine Card we received this year from one of our past residents. It reads: “To Our Shelter in Our Storm. You forever will have our hearts. We were accepted for who we were, our feelings, thoughts, and choices. Unconditional was the care you provided. I talked and talked and talked and everyone patiently listened. When my hope was low, you lent me yours. When we were hungry you fed us with such a tender love and care. When I cried you let me. We left our home, our familiar, and you created a space where we felt safe and loved. You are champions of the human spirit. When I couldn’t believe, you believed for me. You provided guidance, direction, options, resources and advocacy. You have made a difference. You have redeemed the life of a family. You saw strength when at times I only saw my weakness. You smiled and laughed at my “charming” humor. You loved on my kids. They felt special, cared about. You put many smiles on their faces. You welcomed us every time we returned. You challenged us to respect ourselves and expect it from others. You were the best extended family anyone could ask for. We felt really at home because of you. If they ever ask us what door we want and what is behind it, we say door 3/3 because that is where you are. Just like us you are unique. You all bring something special. I loved that you treasure each other. You respect each other’s strengths and weaknesses and work together beautifully. We were broken and battered, but you put us back together. We needed a home, you helped us with that. We needed stuff, you got us stuff. Sometimes I just needed to be, and you let me just be. Your kindness, compassion, encouragement brought us safely through our storm. Because of you… we didn’t go back to our toxic environment. We caught your vision for a better future for us. We reclaimed our identity as being valuable and worthy of respect. You showed us there are good people in this world. You made us dare to dream. Your investment in our family has given us bright future. It is not only what you said and did but who you are. INVALUABLE. “ ….. and, so are you, I say today – INVALUABLE - You, our donors, who help us to support victims of domestic abuse, who help us to support all victims of emotional, verbal, financial, sexual and physical violence. We could not do this work without you. THANK YOU! * for a full list of Group Hug Award recipients, please visit the Women's Community House website and follow the About Us tab to the Donor Recognition page.