By Jessica Lovell
In 1977, if a woman was raped or assaulted, there was a number she could call. At the other end of the line, there was a volunteer holding a pager.
“When the pager went off, then you had to go find a phone,” recalls Linda Reith. “It was cumbersome, but it was better than nothing.”
Though she wasn’t one of the organization’s founders, Reith joined Guelph-Wellington Women In Crisis as a volunteer in 1977, back when it was considered a club at the University of Guelph.
“In those days, we met as a collective in one of the meeting rooms at the University Centre,” says Reith.
The organization, which is marking its 35 anniversary this year, was founded by eight volunteer women, whose goal was to start a rape crisis line at the university.
“As soon as the line went up, there were lots of calls from women in abusive relationships,” says Reith.
It wasn’t long before they saw the need to start a shelter, setting up in 1978 in a basement apartment donated by a Toronto charitable organization, and operating with a grant from the federal government.The apartment was not ideal, providing no outdoor space for children, and the interior being dark and even moldy, but again, it was better than nothing, Reith says.
The government funding was only for one year, she says. “There was a lot of talk of ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do when the one-year grant runs out,’ ” she recalls.
Lobbying for support from the city, and later the county, and the community in general was a significant part of what the women did, she says.
“That was our work – to help the community realize that this was an urgent issue,” says Reith.
Though the work was sometimes sad – Reith recalls being a pallbearer for a young woman who committed suicide – she stuck with it for more than 20 years, because she believed it was worthwhile.
“At Women In Crisis, you’re part of the solution. You get to meet with women who have decided that they want more and deserve better,” says Reith.
Most of the staff were volunteers, and the budget for certain things, such as advertising, did not exist. Reith remembers putting up printed posters with phone number tear-off strips in bathroom stalls; this was how women learned about the crisis line in the early days.
A lot has changed
“It’s exponential how it’s grown and developed,” Reith says of the organization.
The shelter, named Marianne’s Place for its first resident and later staff member Marianne Goulden, went from being in a basement apartment to being in a house owned by the organization. It moved a few times, but improved also, says Reith.
Programs also improved and now include a 24-hour crisis line, the Sexual Assault Centre, the Transitional and Housing Support Program and the Rural Women’s Support Program.
“One thing is for sure: We’ve always been expanding,” says current Women In Crisis executive director Sly Castaldi.
At one time, the organization might have operated with the hope that its members would work it out of existence, eventually putting an end to the violence that they had come together to fight. But over the years, the organization has only grown, says Castaldi.
The organization now sees about 1,500 women a year, with the crisis line handling 3,000 to 4,000 calls a year, she says.
“Our numbers aren’t going down. The more education and awareness we do, the more people come forward,” she says.
This is a stark contrast to Reith’s memories of carrying a pager in the ’70s. Then, she might have the pager for 48 hours and get only three calls. Though Reith still feels that attitudes about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman need to change, both women agree that greater awareness of the organization and of the issue of violence against women is behind the increased demand.
Programs have expanded and evolved to meet the demand.
Most recently, the organization secured 18-month project funding to offer a Family Court Support Program to help women navigate the family court system – work Women In Crisis was already sort of involved in before the funding came through, says Castaldi. “Family court is a huge issue for women who are leaving relationships.”
These days, people expect Women In Crisis to be there, but its existence in the community wasn’t always a given, says Castaldi.
“It went through a lot to get where it is today,” she says. “We were saying some pretty hard things that people didn’t want to hear.”
Reith remembers being a part of the group that developed the organization’s bylaws – something that allowed it to be seen as an organization that could qualify for United Way funding.
“It was really important to get the stability of that funding and to be part of that larger community,” says Reith.
The organization is now well supported by the community and has strong partnerships with organizations like the local police forces, Family and Children’s Services and public health, but funding is always an ongoing issue, says Castaldi.
“We have to raise about 10 per cent of our budget through fundraising,” she says, adding that this fundraising is not for additional projects, but just to pay for the organization’s core services.
It relies heavily on the 50 supportive staff, who usually do some of the giving at the fundraisers, and on some 75 volunteers, friends and supporters.
“I think they make magic happen with what little we have to work with,” says Castaldi.
“We’ve helped a lot of women and kids in this community throughout the 35 years.”
In honour of turning 35, Women In Crisis has launched a fundraiser to raise $35,000.
The organization is hoping to get 1,000 people to donate $35 to make the fundraising goal. Starting the drive with an email campaign, it has already brought in about a third of that, said Castaldi.
The organization’s largest fundraiser of the year is also coming up next month.
The Purple Carpet Gala, featuring a dinner and live and silent auctions, will be held March 24 at 5 p.m. at Guelph Place, 492 Michener Rd. For tickets, or to make a donation, visit www.gwwomenincrisis.org or call 519-836-1110.