Women with heart... left to right

Reawakening the heart…

Society helps change the future for women in abusive relationships

“When I wake up in the morning the sky looks a little bit bluer, the air smells a little bit fresher and my heart is finally filled with love and hope.” Those are the heartfelt words of a woman who took shelter at the Annie’s Place, Sooke’s transition house.

“The light returned to her eyes,” said Arlene Rees, executive director for the Sooke Transition House Society (STFS), “and she is not a singular example.”

Rees is proud of this woman who turned her life around. Rees said the woman was absolutely distraught — beyond distraught when she first called for help and after a few phone calls they met at Whiffin Spit and walked and talked.

She was emaciated, absolutely lost,” said Reese. She had moved from the east to be with a fellow in Sooke and things were falling to pieces. She was relocated to the transition house and after a lot of counselling and work the woman is now living in Victoria — she has an apartment, a job and a new life.

“To walk in here in a total state of despair, and in 30 days be transformed into a new person because of what is offered here is truly remarkable,” said the woman in a letter to the women at Annie’s Place.

Building self esteem and self worth is a necessary prerequisite for woman and children who have run from a life of violence and abuse. Where they run to is often a safe house like the one run by the Sooke Transition House Society. Annie’s Place is located on a quiet street, not set apart in any way from the other houses on the block. But it is a different from the neighbours’ houses — it is a refuge, a shelter, a place where change can happen.

For 14 years, the society has been helping women and their children get away from abusive and often violent relationships. It all began in a basement suite with limited staff to a three-bedroom house capable of housing six women and three children. It is funded through BC Housing and is staffed 24 hours a day. Two counselling programs are run through the society, Stopping the Violence and Children Who Witness Abuse. Each program is nurturing, supportive, empowering and nonjudgmental.

“We try to normalize the situation,” said Rees. “There is enough shame, we want them to feel nurtured, the staff is so supportive and respectful for the courage it takes (to leave).”

Teresa Winter is the manager for the Children Who Witness Abuse program.

She said it is an amazing program which has spectacular ripple effects. Winter describes it as wraparound support part of a bigger every essential service.

Tracy Holmes has been the program manager at Annie’s Place for 12 years. She is the initial contact over the phone and her first response is to ask, “Are you safe to talk?” She gets contact information just in case she has to call 911. She does the intake for the transition house and helps with filling out forms and gets them settled in. Women can stay for 30 days at Annie’s Place and as there is no second-stage housing in Sooke, stays can often be extended.

An outreach worker is employed by the society to go out into the community and become a bridge where barriers exist, especially in cases where a client may not want a spouse to know they are coming for counselling.

“It really helps to reduce barriers, they learn about us — some don’t even realize they are being abused,” said Rees.

Rees mentioned elder abuse which is barely being touched upon. It is an unspoken, unrevealed area of domestic abuse.

Denny Hall is one of the counsellors who deals with up to 30 clients, who come from all types of different situations. They are women who are still in, trying to make changes in relationships that are abusive or controlling, or they find it hard to stay away.

“Without question when women leave, everybody changes, their lifestyle changes. Women never do as well as men, they go back to square one and they usually have the children. My approach is to work with women and children,” said Hall.

She said they are very big on education as power.

Hall has been a front line crisis worker and a child and youth care worker for many years. She often uses art as a way to approach issues. She said more and more women are interested in something other than just telling their story, which is painful. She works 30 hours a week, some of it one-on-one and some in group counselling.

On Wednesday night there are ongoing programs for women on building self-esteem and self worth. Hall said everyone’s story is different and there is isolation in a small community. She said part of the abuser’s power is to isolate a woman.

“Any woman is vulnerable,” said Rees. “We have no gender bias but we have no resources or staffing (for men). Domestic violence is a learned behaviour.”

The Children Who Witness Abuse program is aimed at kids who witness abuse and see violence in the home. The counsellors work with kids between three and 19 years of age, and try to help them identify their feeling.

“What they saw is not their fault and it is heart breaking to see that,” said Rees. She said the problem with staying is that it sends a message that it’s okay to treat women abusively and it teaches daughters it is okay to be treated that way.

“As hard as it is to leave, it’s heartbreaking, but it is the best thing she can do, it sets a fine example and says it is not okay,” Rees stated.

These two core programs are partially funded through the Ministry of Public Safety but the society has had its funding frozen for the past seven years. The STHS has a mandate to aid women from Metchosin to Port Renfrew, and with the cost of living ever rising in Victoria, more people migrate to more rural communities like Sooke.

One of the areas where the programs seem to make a huge difference is with teenage girls. A new program entitled, Young Women of Spirit, is aimed at self esteem building, empowerment and self awareness. The teens meet several times during the spring and through a series of activities they talk about dating abuse, healthy relationships to mitigate the effects of having experienced or witnessed domestic violence,or abuse of a any nature.

Last summer, they took the teens to the Horne Lake Caves and Tofino as a way to reconnect with nature. They had 30 young women in the program and they had to turn away as many.

“It is not just targeted for girls who need help, it’s for all young women,” said Rees. “The impact on young women is huge, it’s just amazing.”

The Young Women of Spirit program is generously funded by the United Way of Greater Victoria and Telus Community Board.

The Courage to Be Me program is aimed at the younger set, from nine to 12 years old. It is a week-long day program about healthy relationships and is taught through animals. The kids go to places like Cherry Lane Equestrian Centre and llama farms.

“It gives them the opportunity to know a healthy relationship with an open heart, no judging, no excluding, etc. They are all in this together,” said Rees.

“We just want to open our hearts, our arms, without judgement.”

Those who wish to contribute can become members of the society, donate cash or supplies. A list of useful and much needed items can be found on the society’s website. The Sooke Transition House Society is a registered charity.

For more information call 250-642-2544, for emergencies call 250-480-5461 or go online to: www.sooketransitionhouse society.